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Published: Sunday, 12/26/2010

Strickland says legacy as governor is managing state despite recession

COLUMBUS -- Gov. Ted Strickland believes he may have declared his political career over too soon.

On the night of Nov. 2, after voters denied him a second term, the Democrat announced he'd just finished his last campaign. The line had been in what had been intended to be a victory speech, and he chose not to remove it as he hastily converted it into a concession speech.

"If I had it to do again, I would have scratched that phrase, not because I plan to run again, but because I don't want to take anything off the table," Ohio's 68th governor told The Blade during a recent interview.

"I've got a future out in front of me," he said. "Life unfolds, and so I want to keep all my options open."

On Jan. 10, Republican John Kasich will take the oath of office after emerging the victor in a hard-fought, sometimes bitter contest.

Sitting in the Statehouse office that he will vacate in a little more than two weeks, Mr. Strickland said he worries that Mr. Kasich will undo some of the things that he believes were his greatest accomplishments, education reforms and renewable energy mandates among them. His plan to use $400 million of federal stimulus dollars to restore passenger rail between Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, and Cleveland is already at an end.

In October, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and his Republican challenger John Kasich acknowledged supporters after their debate at the University of Toledo. Mr. Kasich won the election as part of a GOP sweep. In October, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and his Republican challenger John Kasich acknowledged supporters after their debate at the University of Toledo. Mr. Kasich won the election as part of a GOP sweep.
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But he said nothing can fully erase what he believes will be his legacy.

"I managed the affairs of the state during the most severe economic recession in maybe 80 years in a way that has maintained essential services for its people, invested in education and health care for our kids, while laying what I believe is a foundation for future growth," he said.

He pointed to figures that suggest Ohio's recovery from the recession has been stronger than most other states and the nation as a whole, including the fact that Ohio's unemployment rate has declined eight months in a row and now matches the national average for the first time in eight years.

But he said good economic news seemed to fall on deaf ears during the election campaign in which he lost by 2 percentage points to Mr. Kasich -- a former congressman, Fox News political pundit, and regional manager for failed Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers.

Mr. Strickland faced criticism during the campaign for focusing most of his advertising on criticizing Mr. Kasich rather than promoting his own accomplishments. Meanwhile, Mr. Kasich constantly reminded voters of the roughly 400,000 jobs lost on the governor's watch.

"I was accused of raising taxes," Mr. Strickland said. "We gave every senior citizen a property tax cut that averaged $400 a year. I continued that until the final phase of the reduction of the state income tax. But I think what that shows is the devastating effects of this recession.

"When people are going through that kind of trauma really, they tend not to want to hear about positive things, because it doesn't fit," he said. "A lot of people said, 'During the campaign, why didn't you talk about college tuition being frozen for two years and some of the positive things?' Well, we measured all those things in focus groups, and people just simply did not believe it.

"The national zeitgeist, the mood of the people, I think largely resulting from the recession, was such that it was hard for them to accept positive information," he said.

Mr. Strickland will not have to deal with the next two-year budget, which could face a revenue shortfall of as much as $10 billion. That's at least in part because of the budget's heavy reliance on billions in federal stimulus dollars, tobacco settlement funds, and other one-time funds that may not be available in the next budget.

The governor said he worries where and how deeply his successor will cut, given his promise not to raise taxes. But even with the election behind him, Mr. Strickland did not directly answer the question of whether Mr. Kasich was right when he said he had no doubt that Mr. Strickland would have raised taxes if handed a second term.

"Mr. Kasich said a lot of things that were just hugely and grossly inaccurate and in some cases just very untrue," Mr. Strickland said. "Mr. Kasich had no idea what I would or would not do if I were a second-term governor.

"I would have been looking at ways to get the resources," he said. "If I had been re-elected, I would be fighting like holy hell to get more federal resources. I know that people say that, well, that's not going to happen, but there are a lot of new Republican governors who are going to be face to face with huge deficits. … Rather than giving money away and taking job-creating [rail] money and channeling it to other states, I'd be fighting for additional federal resources until this recession ends. It has not yet ended."

He said he also would have looked at selling off state assets to do "what's necessary to care for people of this state."

"Nothing was off the table," he said.

The former southern Ohio congressman, Methodist minister, and prison psychologist said he worries about who will be affected when the budget ax inevitably falls.

"There's been some indication in the press that there will be significant cutbacks in Medicaid. I would find that tragic," Mr. Strickland said. "Medicaid provides services to the poorest and most vulnerable and sickest people in our state, and I would hate to see that portion of our state's population pay the price for an economic recession that was not of their own making.

"I thought it was ironic that we continue to read about huge multi-million-dollar bonuses on Wall Street and the federal government just recently reached a compromise that provides multi-millionaires and billionaires with significant tax cuts at the same time that we're talking about reducing Medicaid services for poor sick kids and frail, older, disabled citizens," he said.

He noted that he and the General Assembly made cuts to the state budget and that he backed away from his opposition to expanded gambling in the state to push slots-like machines at Ohio's racetracks as a way of avoiding deeper cuts. When the Ohio Supreme Court interrupted that plan, he successfully pushed to postpone for two years a promised 4.2 percent income tax cut, the last increment of a gradual five-year cut totaling 21 percent that began in 2005 under his Republican predecessor, Bob Taft.

"When it came down to it, when we had an $850 million gap, I said, 'No more.' We had cut as much as we could cut," Mr. Strickland said. "I did some things that were distasteful to me by proposing the [video lottery terminals] at racetracks. I finally was able to convince five [Republican] senators to join me in postponing the final reduction of the state income tax."

Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) disagreed with Mr. Strickland's portrayal of how the 2010 budget vote came out, as well as the Republican stance on boards and commissions.

"If the governor continues to want to point fingers at the Senate and say we're too political and so forth, that's his prerogative. I just know we did our very best to make sure that in this General Assembly we did everything to try to keep our state moving forward and retain jobs," Mr. Harris said.

He faulted Mr. Strickland's insistence on enacting video lottery terminals as part of the budget, against his warning, which came true, that it would generate a lawsuit if not put up on a statewide ballot.

And he said the governor attempted to "redefine" the rules on prevailing wages which hampered Ohio's ability to attract employers.

"I was very concerned that if we didn't pass the budget we'd end up closing down state government and that would be the worst of all options," Senator Harris said.

"We missed some opportunities in this last General Assembly to increase the work force and attract business to Ohio and we're suffering from that," Mr. Harris said. "I am confident the next administration is going to go forward and is going to capitalize on the great work force and the great work ethic that Ohioans have and our state is going to turn around."

At age 69, Mr. Strickland said he has no intention of retiring, but he's unsure whether another elected office or even federal appointed office awaits him.

In the meantime, as he and wife Frances move from the Governor's Residence into a Columbus-area condominium, he intends to focus on the creation of a think tank on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the conservative Buckeye Institute.

The organization would closely watch the actions of the incoming Republican administration.

"It would have really good research, excellent communication, and quite frankly respond with credible information and data to what's being proposed," Mr. Strickland said.

Chris Redfern, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said voters had become so jaded about politicians that they didn't believe the good news that Mr. Strickland tried to tell about his administration.

"To this day most Ohioans don't understand that 160,000 Ohio manufacturing jobs were saved because President Obama and the Democrats in Congress ensured that there is an American automobile industry, and the governor was there every step of the way," Mr. Redfern said.

"It didn't penetrate because of the deep cynicism and distrust Ohioans and Americans have for political leaders of every stripe."

He said the campaign's goal was to first define Mr. Kasich as a former managing director of the financial firm Lehman Brothers, the collapse of which in 2008 helped trigger an international financial crisis, and then to "reintroduce" the governor based on his record.

Mr. Redfern said another week and a few more million dollars in the campaign war chest would have won the election for Mr. Strickland.

Joe Rugola, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said he's had extensive conversations with Mr. Strickland about the need for a liberal or progressive voice to stand up to what he believes will be a concerted effort to demonize the wages and benefits of public employees.

"There's no question that Ted wants to stay involved in the debate about what Ohio is going to look like. There are several avenues that are being looked at. We're very encouraged that he and other great folks who have been strong advocates for the middle class are going to continue to stay in the fight in Ohio. We're going to need strong advocates for working families if we're going to survive the years ahead, not just because of the Kasich administration but because of the continuing challenges of the economy overall," Mr. Rugola said.

Mr. Strickland was defeated in a political sweep that put Republicans back in charge of every office of state government and the General Assembly. Republicans also won the U.S. Senate race, 13 of the 18 congressional races, and both of the contested Ohio Supreme Court races, as well as the one uncontested Ohio Supreme Court race.

Kevin DeWine, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said the governor has himself to blame for painful budget choices ahead because he didn't make the cuts during his term.

"The governor has spent the past two months on a bitter, angry tirade on Ohio voters. The truth of the matter is his lack of leadership on the No. 1 issue, that being the economy, is the reason for his loss. No plan, no vision, no thought of how to deal with the economic crisis that hit the state put him in an incredibly vulnerable position," Mr. DeWine said.

And he said Mr. Strickland's plan to create another liberal think tank is laughable.

The Buckeye Institute is a lone voice on the conservative side, he said.

"There's a laundry list of left-wing liberal organizations that try to advance liberal causes," Mr. DeWine said, naming Progress Ohio and Policy Matters as two examples of liberal state policy advocacy nonprofits.

Rob Nichols, spokesman for Mr. Kasich, declined to respond to Mr. Strickland's remarks.

"We're done with him. We had an election that decided these issues," Mr. Nichols said.

"If he wants to ankle-bite on his way out of the office and take with him whatever dignity he managed to maintain through campaign, that's his prerogative. We're not engaging him."

Ohioans will never really know what the script would have held for what Mr. Strickland said would have been a "stirring second act" if he'd been re-elected.

But he said he believes it would have stood in sharp contrast to what he thinks is coming under a Governor Kasich.

And he said he kind of likes the idea that Mr. Kasich does not intend to regularly use the governor's office at the Statehouse, preferring instead to return operations to the 30th floor of the Riffe Tower across the street.

"It's kind of nice to know that it will sort of remain the way it is when I leave it, I guess," he said. "I love being over here. I just cannot imagine being governor and not being here."

Even if it means standing in line at the Statehouse cafeteria like everyone else?

"Especially if it meant standing in line in the cafeteria," he said. "One of the things that I've always worked toward as a congressman and as a governor is to not separate myself from other people. I don't consider myself better. I don't consider myself privileged."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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