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COLUMBUS — If you look among the more than 7,000 campaign contributions recently reported by Gov. John Kasich for the last half-year, you might find a crack in Democrats’ strategy to unseat him in November.
The single contribution from Affiliated Construction Trades Ohio represents more than the $12,156 figure on the check, the maximum allowed. It may represent a flaw in the assumption that everyone who was ticked off at Mr. Kasich three years ago when he and fellow Republicans tried to clip the wings of public-employee unions is still mad.
The executive director of the new coalition of construction trade unions is none other than former state Rep. Matt Szollosi, the former labor law attorney and state representative from Oregon. In 2011, he was at the forefront of the battle against Senate Bill 5, which voters rejected at the polls to hand Mr. Kasich an embarrassing defeat.
Mr. Kasich’s goal, Mr. Szollosi warned at the time, was to “weaken traditional political adversaries of Governor Kasich and the Republican majority, particularly in the House.”
Mr. Szollosi told The Blade his concern then was jobs. And he said ACT Ohio’s decision to financially support the Republican governor’s re-election bid is still about jobs.
“We’ve seen and appreciate the governor’s intense emphasis on infrastructure investment…,” Mr. Szollosi said. “That emphasis on capital-works projects creates opportunity for our contractors to bid and opportunity for our members to go to work.
“More specifically, the governor has taken initiative to better understand our business model with respect to labor-management cooperation and certainly our focus on apprenticeship training and building careers,” he said. “Those two issues in and of themselves have certainly helped our organization to establish a very strong working rapport.”
Mr. Szollosi stressed that ACT Ohio’s board has not voted to endorse anyone. But there was no similar contribution from the group for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who is expected to be Mr. Kasich’s Democratic opponent on Nov. 4.
Mr. Kasich’s campaign has banked $7.9 million, a record for this early in the game, to Mr. FitzGerald’s $1.4 million.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said he was disappointed in ACT Ohio’s decision.
“I thought I knew [Mr. Szollosi],” he said. “I attended Matt’s first event when he ran for [Oregon] city council. … A million and a half Ohioans signed petitions to stand together to defeat Senate Bill 5. It was the largest turnout of an election referendum. We won’t forget Senate Bill 5. Neither will a majority of Ohioans.”
Borrowing against the Ohio Turnpike to generate a $3 billion building program, planned renewal and expansion of a bond issue approaching $9 billion for local public-works projects, and an upcoming capital budget for bricks and mortar projects across the state helped to woo the construction trades. But Mr. Kasich has also softened some social service organizations who feared the worst from his administration.
Many were surprised when those they represent were spared from the most severe cuts when Mr. Kasich set out to correct what multiple sources predicted would be a nearly $8 billion revenue shortfall for his first two-year budget.
“We didn’t know Governor Kasich well, and with that kind of deficit, we knew there would be cuts,” said child services advocate Gayle Channing Tenenbaum, who stressed her organization does not endorse in elections.
“There just weren’t any in the areas of health and human services that our folks were looking at,” she said. “There were cuts to local governments that did create problems for a lot of organizations at the local level, but they were not the cuts where someone went in with a knife to take programs.”
Walk the halls of the Statehouse at budget time and you can’t help but run into Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.
“Governor Kasich’s support of hunger relief has been unprecedented, and we started our partnership with the state under the [George] Voinovich administration,” she said, also stressing that her association is nonpartisan.
Many people who previously rallied against Senate Bill 5 later rallied to support Mr. Kasich’s decision to partner with President Obama’s signature health-care law to expand Medicaid.
At a recent event, Mr. Kasich dismissed suggestions that his actions are politically designed.
‘Do it strong’
“Haven’t you figured out now after three years that I don’t sit around doing political calculations about what I think I need to do…?” he asked. “When you’re in these jobs, do it to your best and do it strong, and let the chips fall where they may…
“The worst thing in politics is to leave with, ‘Why didn’t I do something?’,” he said. “If I’m spending my time with my finger in the air, looking at polls — those are as fleeting as the snow will be. ... It’s not what I think about.”
Mr. FitzGerald, meanwhile, is trying to make the campaign about more than Senate Bill 5. He has charged that Mr. Kasich’s tax and other policies favor the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and that laws he’s signed affecting access to abortion services and family planning funding amount to a war on women.
Mr. Szollosi wouldn’t reveal how much ACT Ohio intends to invest in this year’s election, but he said the group will be “fairly active.”
“We are going to work with decision-makers and contribute to members on both sides of the aisle who are willing to learn more about our approach as an industry,” he said.
Dennis Duffey, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council and a Lucas County resident, denied claims that the organization is sitting on an election fund of $2.5 million.
“Do we intend to spend that much money? I doubt it very much,” said Mr. Duffey, adding that there are other programs the statewide construction-trade union umbrella organization would like to fund. ACT Ohio is a subsidiary of the state council.
He said his organization has had conversations with the governor and his representatives over the last year and a half.
“I think they have an understanding of our business model in the construction industry. I think Senate Bill 5 was enlightening for a lot of people, there was a lot of misunderstanding of what union labor is about,” Mr. Duffey said.
“I’ve sat with the governor twice. He’s looked me right in the eye and said he’s done with prevailing wage and he doesn’t think right-to-work is the right way to go in Ohio,” Mr. Duffey said, though he noted that both the House and Senate have veto-proof Republican majorities and can pass whatever they want.
He said his organization has not made a commitment to the governor and is going to conduct independent polling to decide who to back for governor this year.
The construction trades are walking a political tightrope. Mr. FitzGerald has gotten heavy support from other construction-related labor groups like the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, the Ohio State Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, and the East Central Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council.
This is in addition to numerous other unions representing teachers, firefighters, police, public employees, and other unions for whom Senate Bill 5 was more personal.
“[ACT Ohio] is going to work with the governor’s office to show some of the positives of union labor,” said Joe Cousino, president of the Northwestern Ohio Building & Construction Trades Council. “I don't think Matt’s group has endorsed Kasich, but they did give a donation to Kasich to get to him and talk to him,” Mr. Cousino said.
Mr. Cousino doesn’t believe Mr. Kasich will support right-to-work if re-elected.
“All indications are that he’s not going to do that, that he’s not in favor of it, that it’s not going to work,” he said. “I really don’t think he’s going to implement right to work because of the ass-kicking he took over S.B. 5.”
David Wondolowski, executive secretary of the Cleveland Building Trades Council, said he anticipates local unions will support Mr. FitzGerald, but at the same time he, as a member of ACT Ohio’s executive board, supports that organization’s outreach to Mr. Kasich.
Asked how he could hold seemingly contradictory stances, he laughed and said, "I wear a lot of hats.”
A number of the construction trades making up ACT Ohio are members of the broader AFL-CIO, whose president, Tim Burga, said he doesn’t see a splintering of the anti-Senate Bill 5 coalition.
“Our organization has endorsed Ed FitzGerald, and all indications are we will have a united labor political campaign,” he said.
Mr. Kasich addressed the question of right-to-work recently.
“We have enough things that we’re doing that we think are important for growing the state, and [right to work is] not an agenda item. Period,” Mr. Kasich said at the AP event.
But Mr. Redfern said those words sound familiar.
“On Sept. 10, 2010, Rick Snyder was running for [Michigan] governor and said repealing collective bargaining and right-to-work were not on his agenda,” Mr. Redfern said. “He used almost the same words John Kasich used. … We either stick together or he will destroy us.”
Staff writer Tom Troy contributed to this report.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.