The Lessons of Issue 2’s Defeat in Ohio

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Mark Duncan / AP

A firefighter campaigns against Issue 2 outside a polling location in Strongsville, Ohio Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011.

The ad is short and scary: 29 seconds of wailing sirens, homes engulfed by flames and an authority figure warning of trouble. If you want to understand how Democrats and their labor-union allies won the heavyweight tussle over Ohio’s collective-bargaining law, the menacing spot is a good place to start.

Aired in September and titled “Emergency,” the TV ad was the first produced by We Are Ohio, a union-backed political-action committee that amassed more than $30 million to roll back GOP Governor John Kasich’s signal legislative achievement. The narrator is Doug Stern, a 15-year veteran of the Cincinnati Fire Department, who explains that the bill endangers the public by stripping institutions like his of the right to haggle over staffing. “Fewer firefighters means slower response times,” he explains, “and that can mean the difference between life and death.”

Stern, a registered Republican, may seem an unlikely face for the largely Democratic coalition that won the decisive defeat of Issue 2, the rancorous referendum on Ohio’s Senate Bill 5. In the wake of its passage last spring, the legislation became a national flashpoint in the ongoing fight over collective bargaining rights – a battle that will continue Tuesday, when Wisconsin Democrats begin their effort to recall Governor Scott Walker.

But Stern’s selection as a de facto spokesman—he used spare vacation days to join a We are Ohio bus tour that barnstormed the state, inveighing against the law—was a shrewd choice. It gave the anti-Issue 2 coalition a nonpartisan veneer, the imprimatur of a popular group of public workers, and a blue-collar face to contrast with that of the unpopular Kasich, whom Democrats tied to the much-maligned 1% on Wall Steet, where he did a stint as a managing director of Lehman Brothers.

Like many opponents of the law, Stern casts the coalition formed to repeal it as an organic, citizen-driven movement that mushroomed as Ohioans from both parties recoiled from Republican overreach. Kasich’s bill, he says, “was not, as a conservative, what I sign up for.”

Melissa Fazekas, a spokeswoman for We are Ohio, says the group’s success was foreshadowed back in February, when citizens locked out of the statehouse in Columbus during a rally opposing the bill resorted to shimmying through open windows in order to confront legislators. “It really rose above partisan politics,” she says. “I’ve never seen people come together like this.”

It’s true that Ohians of all stripes were part of the 61% who backed the repeal of SB5. According to a survey conducted by a Democratic polling firm for the AFL-CIO, 57% of independents and 30% of Republicans voted against the law, including 23% of self-professed conservative Republicans. The reason why has been the subject of much debate. Conservatives chalk up the bill’s rejection to the pricey campaign bankrolled by Big Labor, and it’s true, according to financial disclosure statements, that the leading contributors to the repeal effort were a litany of public-sector unions whose bargaining rights stood to be curtailed, including the Ohio Education Association, the National Education Association and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But polls suggest money had little to do with it; the public was against the bill from start. Democrats and their labor allies won because they managed to convince Ohioans that Kasich had turned the state’s 350,000 public sector-union employees into scapegoats, snatching away their bargaining rights and punishing cash-strapped local communities even as he sought to slash taxes for the wealthy and privatize services. It was a tailor-made wedge issue for a party in desperate need of one.

It was also an argument with special resonance in this battleground state, where voters acted to protect the livelihoods of their friends or family. “It’s hard to go very far anywhere in Ohio without knowing a firefighter, a police officer, a teacher, a nurse. These are public employees we think of as everyday heroes,” Fazekas says. “Voters were confused: When did these people become the enemies?” Nearly 75% of voters with a public employee in their household rejected Issue 2.

Political analysts in the state say Kasich made a damaging tactical blunder by not exempting cops and firefighters, as Walker did in Wisconsin. Those groups, which traditionally skew conservative, are widely considered to be pillars of the community, which is one reason why figures like Stern were such effective voices against the legislation. “They are the people who were treated most generously” over the years, says Paul Alan Beck, a political-science professor at Ohio State University, “but they are also the employee groups the public is most supportive of.”

Beck argues Ohioans were sensitive to the problems posed by the state’s $8 billion budget shortfall and supportive of some austerity measures designed to close it, as voters’ rejection of the majority of new levies on the ballot shows. But that Kasich rankled voters by delivering strident denunciation of public workers that convinced many that the real purpose of the legislation was not economic reform but union busting. “Had they adopted a more measured response to the budget situation, voters would have probably approved them,” Beck says. “The feeling, if you were to scratch the average voter, was that sure, times were tough and we needed to cut back, but that this was an extremist measure.” It didn’t help that cops and firefighters had already soured on Kasich, who in the early weeks of his tenure was captured on camera berating a state trooper who pulled him over for a minor traffic infraction.

But if voters deemed the attacks on public-sector unions to be political opportunism, opponents of the bill may have been guilty of the same crime. Ads repeatedly zeroed in on the threats the bill purportedly posed to the safety of police and firefighters and the communities they are charged with protecting. “They made an emotional argument, and a lot of it preyed on people’s fears,” says Chris Littleton, a Tea Party activist in Ohio who spearheaded the successful effort to pass a ballot measure that exempts the state from a health-care mandate and is already planning to start a signature-gathering campaign aimed at making Ohio a right-to-work state. Says Beck: “It was very convenient demagoguery.”

In this sense, Democrats borrowed from the blueprint the Tea Party movement deployed to great effect during the battle over President Obama’s health-care reform law, which was marred by fear-mongering over death panels. The similarities don’t end there. Like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, SB5 was a bill designed to address a widely recognized problem, one whose individual components were often more popular than the bill as a whole. The opposition to both legislative efforts featured authentic grassroots opposition that capitalized on generous funding provided by deep-pocketed partisans. Both opposition movements claimed bipartisan mandates while drawing credibility from the objections of a respected class of citizens (doctors, cops, firefighters, teachers) whose wallets the legislation was likely to affect.

And both movements were heralded as a harbinger of something larger. In the Tea Party’s case, the claims were true: “Obamacare” became a touchstone for conservative activists and helped fuel the GOP rout in the midterm elections. It’s unclear whether the Ohio referendum, though certainly a sharp rebuke to Kasich and the Ohio Republicans who crafted it, augurs similar problems in 2012 for the GOP. A Democratic strategist in the state calls the pitched battle over the bill a “test run” for the organizational challenges posed by the presidential election 2012, one that awakened passions that had fallen dormant amid the economic upheaval and political setbacks of the Obama presidency. Over the next year it’s likely to continue to galvanize Big Labor, a force whose money and political machinery Democrats must tap into if President Obama is to win this perennial battleground state and others in the recession-racked industrial Midwest.

Democrats are also trying to hang SB5 around the necks of the Republican presidential candidates who supported it. There are signs the gambit could work: approximately half of voters surveyed in the AFL-CIO poll said they’d be less likely to vote for Mitt Romney because of his support for the bill. The legislation will be woven into one of the Democratic Party’s thematic arguments for 2012: that the GOP has collectively embraced extreme policy that protects the rich while punishing the middle class. The defeat of Issue 2, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee declared in the wake of the vote, “delivered a clear message to corporate-backed politicians across the country that we will no longer stay silent as Wall Street tries to steal the American Dream. This was a brazen attempt to silence the voice of the 99%.”

But if you ask Doug Stern, the firefighter who became one of the public faces of the anti-Issue 2 movement, Democrats who think the victory suggests a tectonic shift may have a surprise in store. “I think if there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want moderate politics,” he says. “They don’t want idealists or extremists. They want people who are going to make good policy.”