As Ohio voters consider whether to give John Kasich another four years as governor this November, they might want to revisit his first year in office, when he promoted a series of extremist policies. Chief among these was the union-busting Senate Bill 5.
To write my recent book, Collective Bargaining and the Battle of Ohio: The Defeat of Senate Bill 5 and the Struggle to Defend the Middle Class, I needed to study how the governor came to push so much bad legislation in 2011. He was not about to waste a budget crisis: Having swept the General Assembly and all statewide offices in the 2010 election, Mr. Kasich and his fellow Republicans in Columbus had a unique opportunity.
The centerpiece of their extreme agenda was SB5, which was designed to make public unions ineffective and, most important, unable to fund movements or politicians opposed to the governor’s ideology. S.B. 5 was about building political power, not addressing Ohio’s economic problems.
Mr. Kasich’s entry into national prominence was made possible by Newt Gingrich, the right-wing pseudo-scholar of the Republican Party. When Republicans took over the U.S. House after the 1994 election, Mr. Gingrich became speaker and named Mr. Kasich chairman of the budget committee. After that, the two lawmakers worked hand in glove.
In the House, Mr. Kasich’s fervor for privatization became clear. The Wall Street Journal said that Mr. Gingrich gave a one-word answer to questions about government cuts: “Kasich.” The Journal described “the New Deal and the Great Society in reverse,” as Mr. Kasich rhapsodized about killing or privatizing sectors of the government. Together, the budget chairman and the speaker championed the government shutdown in 1995.
Mr. Kasich is a true believer in supply-side economics — or “voodoo economics,” as George H.W. Bush called the school of thought. Among its ideas are that greed is good and that government needs to be hammered and bent to serve wealthy “job creators.” The right has used such notions to give cover to breaking the economy and providing justification for crushing one of the only defenses the middle class has left: the labor movement.
Senate Bill 5 reflected these ideas. Its legislative sponsors used ruthless tactics to pass it. They rushed hearings, ignored objections, and refused to consult the unions they had placed on the chopping block. The process was full of abuse of power by politicians who were full of themselves.
Senate leaders ousted Sen. Bill Seitz, a conservative Republican, from his chairmanship of the committee to which the bill was assigned because he opposed its basic unfairness. The bill’s ostensible sponsor, Sen. Shannon Jones, was continually unable to answer questions about it. In fact, the 500-page bill was a product of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nationwide network of right-wing state lawmakers subsidized by the Koch brothers.
Thousands of S.B. 5 opponents rallied in Columbus and across Ohio to protest the bill’s attack on workplace democracy. But the GOP-controlled legislature passed it, and Governor Kasich signed it.
Emerging from the struggle was We Are Ohio, a coalition of public- and private-sector labor unions, faith groups, and progressive organizations. The coalition remains ready to defend collective bargaining if and when another attack comes.
Then there was the vote: In the fall of 2011, Ohioans repealed Senate Bill 5 by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent. More people voted against the bill than voted for Mr. Kasich in 2010.
In my book, I try to draw lessons for the future. One lesson is the danger that arises when our democracy is left in the hands of ideological extremists such as the governor.
Historian Kevin Phillips came into politics working with the Reagan administration, but was disillusioned when he saw the damage done by supply-side economics. “Market theology and unelected leadership,” he writes, “have been displacing politics and elections. Either democracy must be renewed with politics brought back to life, or wealth is likely to cement a new and less democratic regime — plutocracy by some other name.”
The people’s victory over Senate Bill 5 was a huge step toward a political renewal that defends Ohio’s middle class. This November, we will see whether that renewal will continue.
John McNay is a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.