Opinion: For Democrats, governor’s office a slippery ride

Ohio Statehouse

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Ohio Statehouse

Democrats seem to think they have a good shot at winning Ohio’s governorship next year. There’s no shortage of candidates: Former state Rep. Connie Pillich, of Cincinnati; state Sen. Joseph Schiavoni, of suburban Youngstown; former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, of suburban Akron; and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

And in the will-he-or-won’t-he category of potential Democratic candidates (he likely will be) is former Attorney General Richard Cordray, who’s director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (till the Trump administration finds a way to remove him because of his pro-consumer stances).

In theory, short of nominating Daffy Duck, a Democrat is more likely than not to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. John R. Kasich. Reason: Ohioans don’t usually elect consecutive governors from the same party. It’s only happened twice in 100 years – Democrats George White and Martin Davey in 1934, Republicans George Voinovich and Bob Taft in 1998.

But once a Democrat gets elected governor, keeping the job becomes a challenge. Since 1954, when Cleveland Democrat Frank Lausche won his fifth (two-year) gubernatorial term, Ohio’s only two-term Democratic governor has been Lakewood Democrat Richard F. Celeste (1983-91). Other Democrats: Michael V. DiSalle, one term (1959-63), defeated for reelection; John J. Gilligan, one term, (1971-75), defeated for re-election; most recently, Ted Strickland, one term, (2007-11), defeated for re-election.

Each of those one-termers won a first term because of a GOP fiasco (1958’s Right to Work for Less ballot issue; 1970’s Crofters loan scandal) or because of a politically weak GOP nominee (then-Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, in 2006).

There are a couple reasons Democrats have had a tough time holding the governorship since Lausche. First, Ohio leans Republican. (Coincidentally, Lausche was, for all practical purposes, a Republican.) Then, too, Ohio tends to elect a Democrat governor when Statehouse Republicans get complacent or sloppy, which is an occupational hazard of being a state’s dominant party – thus DiSalle in 1958 and Gilligan in 1970. But they too faced an occupational hazard: Circumstances required them to be boat-rockers in a Statehouse that prefers smooth sailing. As for Strickland’s administration, it appeared risk-averse in dealing with the legislature – a mistake.

Gilligan (with help from some Republican legislators) created Ohio’s income tax, one reason voters unseated him in 1974. They re-installed Columbus Republican James A. Rhodes as governor. Did Rhodes repeal the income tax? To ask the question answers it. That’s the Ohio Way: Democratic governors renovate a beat-up banquet hall, Republicans get to host all its wingdings.

So whoever 2017’s Democratic nominee for governor, she or he better have a concrete program and, if elected, go for it, with no ifs, ands or buts. Three prospective 2017 Republican nominees for governor – Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor – have held statewide offices and they, like a fourth GOP contender for governor, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, of Wadsworth, have been in GOP legislative majorities. They know the game.

Someone who seeks power has to know how she or he will use it. Call it vision, call it a checklist. But history suggests that Democratic governors only have a limited time to foster change at the Statehouse. The GOP’s likely continued dominance of the General Assembly gives Republican governors a cushion (even allowing for periodic jousting with GOP Gov. John R. Kasich). Not so for a Democrat. Constitutionally and politically, Ohio’s governorship is powerful. Slogans and generalities are for campaigns. But as a way to manage a state falling short in some economic and social benchmarks, that’s the sure-fire recipe for a one-term governorship.

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