By Joe Hallett
The Columbus Dispatch
and Jack Torry
Greeting old friends at the Oasis Shriners Lodge during the Ohio Democratic Party breakfast Monday, Ted Strickland hardly looked like an 800-pound gorilla.
At 71, the former governor appears in tip-top shape, still handsome, his gentle and friendly manner earning him beloved status among the 205 Ohio delegates and alternates to the Democratic National Convention here.
In the partisan jungle, Strickland still reigns as King Kong among Ohio Democrats — evident by the path delegates beat to shake his hand at every function here, by his status as co-chairman of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, and by the prized speaking spot he’ll have at tonight’s opening convention session.
Still stung by his bitter 2-point defeat to Republican John Kasich two years ago, Strickland is mulling a 2014 rematch, freezing in place three other promising candidates until he decides.
While deferential to Strickland, Ohio delegates said they like their alternatives if he opts not to challenge Kasich. Waiting in the wings are Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles and former state Attorney General Richard Cordray, Obama’s appointee as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“It’s Ted’s for the asking,” Michael L. Friedman, a delegate from Toledo, said of the party’s 2014 nomination. “He’s still the peoples’ choice.”
Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz, also a delegate, said “all four of them would be excellent,” but the process starts with Strickland.
“I think the first domino to fall will be Ted’s decision whether or not to run,” Kapszukiewicz said. “I think if he runs he actually could clear the field.”
In an interview, Strickland said that Kasich is “hugely beatable,’’ but that he does “not know what I am going to do. That’s an honest answer. My total focus is on the presidential race and after November I’ll make a decision about my future.’’
But if Strickland has yet to declare he is a candidate, he showed no such reticence assailing Kasich.
“I think he has unnecessarily alienated large numbers of Ohioans, treated them disrespectfully, and I think that will have a lasting effect. I think what he has done cutting funding for local governments and decimating funding for education will be seen by the people of Ohio as a dramatic failure.”
FitzGerald and Ryan are in Charlotte mingling with delegates. Reached late yesterday at Port Columbus awaiting a flight to Washington, Cordray said he won’t be attending the convention.
“I’m not supposed to be doing any sort of partisan politics so it’s best for me not to be involved and to stay focused on my job,” Cordray said.
Ryan already has said he won’t run for governor if Strickland does, but FitzGerald said he is “looking seriously” at a bid and won’t base his decision on Strickland’s.
“I have a very close and very good relationship with Governor Strickland, but I just think if you’re going to run for governor and you’re aspiring to a leadership position, you should be saying that’s your choice and not waiting for another to decide.”
FitzGerald said there is a consensus that the party cannot afford an expensive primary battle and that support should coalesce around a candidate by January so that they can begin fundraising and laying the groundwork for a campaign.
“I don’t believe there will be a primary and I think there will be a way of working itself out,” he said.
A 44-year-old former FBI agent and federal attorney, FitzGerald already is viewed as a star in the party for reforming a government racked by corruption in Ohio’s largest county.
Some in the party argue that a fresh face would give the party a better chance against Kasich than Strickland, whose misfortune of having governed during the Great Recession rendered a record that Kasich could attack.
Beverly Spetz, a first-time delegate from Fulton County, said she would like to support Strickland “because I think he supports the working class.’’ But she also acknowledged that Cordray “is awesome and he certainly understands the struggles of people. I don’t know if he’s in that race, but he certainly would be a good option.’’
Ohio delegates, while focused on the presidential race, appear eager for the race two years hence against Kasich, saying he is vulnerable due to his deep budget cuts to local governments and education, and his effort through Senate Bill 5 to weaken public employee collective bargaining rights.
“We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game to beat him, but he has a lot of weaknesses,” said Dennis Lieberman, former chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party.