Kasich: The maverick as CEO


Speaking of John Kasich, a while back, someone said to me: “He’s a good governor, but I wouldn’t want him for a neighbor.”

That’s interesting. And I have been wondering ever since whether the two things are interrelated. Do you have to be a bit of a bully to succeed as a mayor, or governor, or really, any kind of executive?

Have you ever seen that picture of Lyndon Johnson buttonholing Sen. John Pastore in some Washington hallway? Is that what leadership looks like? More like James Gandolfini than Mahatma Gandhi?

I finally got a chance to ask the governor himself. In the 16 months that I have been back in Toledo, I’ve made a study of Mr. Kasich but never actually seen him in action. He was in town Thursday to kick off a new program to try to recycle sludge from the river and turn it into some sort of marketable commodity. I had a chance to sit down with him afterward. He admitted that this new dredging process will take some refining and may not ultimately work, but it is one of the initiatives he is taking to try to clean up the Maumee River and Lake Erie, which he called “the jewel of Ohio.” The big thing, he said, is to wean farmers from sulfates.

Mr. Kasich is either the personification of what will save the Grand Old Party from cannibalizing itself or the last gasp of adulthood in that party. For he is everything his party is mostly not these days: pragmatic, interested in how government can actually work better for ordinary people, compassionate, and green.

Not a lot of Tea Partyers worry about cleaning up rivers and lakes. But for Mr. Kasich, as with many other issues, this is a matter of common sense. The Great Lakes are 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply, and without a clean Lake Erie, northwest Ohio’s economy dies. He says some of these clean-up steps should have been taken 25 years ago.

Mr. Kasich grew up in McKees Rocks, Pa., near Pittsburgh. His parents were working-class Democrats. He tells me his formula for governance is really simple: Get the economy in order so that government can help people and communities that really need it. He has done the former by cutting taxes drastically, especially for small business, and by attracting new industry, which he says has created 160,000-plus new jobs for the state. He says the state went from 48th in business creation to sixth. How did we do that? Not with bidding wars, which he calls “corporate welfare,” but by eliminating duplicative rules and an attitude in state government hostile to business. Mostly, he believes, with salesmanship. “I am on the phone all the time to CEOs,” he says.

Mr. Kasich’s election as governor four years ago was preceded by 10 years in the private sector. He says he learned a lot in those years about how business people think. He learned their culture and their language.

Back to the question: What is Mr. Kasich’s model of leadership?

It’s not the “my way or the highway” guy. “I think that’s wrong,” he says. The leader must have vision, focus, and discipline, but he should also listen. A governor, he thinks, should be a CEO. But he should also like and want to serve people. Mr. Kasich picked Bill Gates as his ideal CEO.

That’s interesting too. I’d want Bill Gates as my neighbor, wouldn’t you? If Donald Trump moved in I’d put up a “for sale” sign. Bill Gates is not only brilliant, but he’s a great humanitarian.

Maybe the most significant thing John Kasich has done, as a Republican governor, has been humanitarian — to push for Medicare expansion. This has earned the governor the everlasting enmity of the Republican far right. I know an Ohio political operative who asked Mr. Kasich straight out: Why? His answer was simple: “We are our brother’s keeper.”

I don’t know whether Mr. Kasich would like to be president or not. You’d have to be crazy to want the job. It’s the toughest job in the world, and we destroy the person in that office, good or bad. (We canonize our ex-presidents if they live long enough.) I asked him, and he said he’s not allowing himself to even think about it right now, which presumably means he might think about it later. Like after the gubernatorial election. He seems too sane to do it. He makes clear to me that he values balance greatly, both in political calculations and in living. Of course, that is exactly what could make him a potent general election candidate. But there is no balance in running for, or being, president.

What makes Mr. Kasich much man, in my estimation, is a willingness to jeopardize that presidential possibility by going to bat for medical care for the poor and their children.

I also respect him for this: After 18 years in Congress and 10 years as a TV host and commentator and making big money in the corporate world, Mr. Kasich decided to run for a job that, if you do it right, requires you to make decisions every day, and many of those decisions make you enemies. He could have spent the rest of his days second guessing, pontificating, and counting his fortune. But he thought he could contribute, build something. His tremendous impatience with political pieties, cul de sacs, and promises makes him a rare bird. A former Washington colleague says: “He’s not a beltway thinker.”

In the end, Mr. Kasich is a political maverick trying to get things done. That means checking ideology at the door. He’s not only green, and compassionate, but he supported an assault weapons ban when in Congress. He also wants to keep taxes low and reinvent welfare.

What makes Kasich highly electable nationally probably makes him unnominatable. He doesn’t seem to much care.

Mr. Kasich had a conversion, or reconversion, experience before he re-entered politics. He doesn’t talk about it. It’s private. But he is serious about his Christian faith. “Nothing much bothers me,” he says.

Mr. Kasich is also a “gym rat.” He works out every day. I ask if he attends to his inner life daily as well. He gives me an extended caveat: He is not saintly, has many flaws, and on most days feels closer to Gandolfini than Gandhi. “But,” he says, “only a fool doesn’t.”

When most politicians say they got into politics, or came back to politics, “to give back,” I reach for my Rolaids and check for my wallet. When this guy says it, I believe him. He’d be a fine neighbor.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

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