Joe's Road Trip 2012

2012 Road Trip Day 15: Force of Nature

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Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Ohio Gov. John Kasich at the Governor's residence during Joe Klein's annual road trip in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, June 15, 2012.

Columbus, Ohio

“I used to go to major league baseball games wearing my little league uniform,” Ohio’s Governor John Kasich said, settling down after berating me for the “bone-headed”  piece I’d written about him two years ago. “There was always the possibility that everyone would get injured and they might need me.” Kasich had a strategy in mind if he ever got to bat. “I was going for it. If I struck out swinging, so be it. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do here.”

Kasich struck out swinging last fall, when his attempt to limit the power of the public employees union crashed in a statewide referendum. “We lost. The public didn’t like it,” he said. “So we move on. I don’t like to go backwards.” I’ve always had a soft spot for Kasich, in part because he’s way candid and even willing to admit his own Republican party’s mistakes. When he was the chair of the House Budget Committee, he took on waste across the board, including the Pentagon. When he talks, which is, well, all the time, the words, often wildly impolitic, pour out in a torrent. He has more energy than a barrel of monkeys with ADHD.

He’s building an impressive economic record in Ohio. He closed an $8 billion budget deficit while lowering taxes.The unemployment rate is dropping, a point lower than the national average. I told him that Ohio’s Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown attributed that to President Obama’s auto bailout. Kasich was skeptical. The auto companies were consolidating jobs, closing out-of-date plants, retaining workers rather than hiring new ones. I’m a bit skeptical of his skepticism: if it weren’t for the bailout, the bottom would have dropped out of the local auto industry and, more important, the local parts manufacturers. The impact on shops and service businesses would have been catastrophic. The unemployment rate would be in double digits.

But Kasich was right that the strength of Ohio’s economy was its growing diversity–JPMorganChase had more than 20,000 back office jobs in Columbus, Ohio was becoming a national center for the insurance industry, the presence of brilliant medical facilities like the Cleveland Clinic made the state a center for medical innovation, with companies producing new medical devices; the development of shale oil and gas was going to be another boon. He was particularly passionate about reforming the state’s job training and vocational education systems to provide workers for the new companies. “We’ve got 77 job training programs running out of 13 different state agencies. We’re trying to weed through that,” he said. “77 plus 13 equals zero.”

He was also engaged in a fight with “nihilists” who opposed a new semi-private agency, JobsOhio, which used businesspeople to lure new businesses to the state. I asked him who these nihilists were. He wouldn’t say. I asked again. He stared at me. There was, for an endless nanosecond, silence in the room–finally, one of his aides said they were left-leaning members of the state legislature. “They’re people who would root against Ohio being successful,” the governor added.

The “nihilists” were two Democratic state representatives and liberal policy group called ProgressOhio, who tried to challenge the constitutionality of Kasich’s program. The appeals court judge who dismissed the case this week did not determine whether JobsOhio was constitutional but rather that the “nihilists” didn’t have legal standing to sue. The left-leaners objected to the planned funding scheme: leasing profits from state liquor sales that would require JobsOhio to get into the bond market. — Katy Steinmetz

A basic fact about governors: even the most diffident among them tend to be half-crazed cheerleaders for their states. Kasich, of course, takes this to another level: “You’d have to be crazy to locate a plant in Illinois,” he said after recounting several stories about how he lured companies to Ohio that were thinking of locating elsewhere. “You don’t know what’s gonna happen. We have stability here. We’re not gonna raise your taxes or stick unnecessary regulations on you. In Illinois and New York, you just don’t know. They’ll beat you up, kick you around.”

Another basic fact about governors: they can’t stand the federal government. “It’s all politics all the time in Washington,” Kasich said. “It’s gotten impossible. They can’t get anything done. They’re killing us.”

As for the presidential campaign, he wasn’t making any predictions. “One thing I know, I’m never going to vote for anyone again who doesn’t have experience as an executive,” he said. He was supporting Romney, of course, but he warned: “The big question is whether he can connect with the economic anxiety that average families feel.”

We talked for more than an hour. Then we talked some more. Then his aides tried to drag him off for a speech. Then we talked some more. Finally, his aides succeeded in collapsing him into an SUV, and he was gone.