Ohio governor, a McKees Rocks native, rebounds with voters
CLEVELAND — As a first-term Republican governor, John Kasich takes an unconventional approach to managing Ohio.
Kasich, who grew up in McKees Rocks, believes “we will be judged by our moment in history, by what did we do to advance the cause of the public.”
And if “someone thinks differently than me, that's OK,” he told the Tribune-Review. “We can still get good things done.”
His outlook and record so far are making him a potential presidential contender in some Republican minds.
His willingness to engage with the other side was on display last week when he announced funding of a highway project in an impoverished Cleveland neighborhood to a supportive crowd of business leaders, community activists and elected officials — most of them Democrats.
At that event, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson praised Kasich's commitment to secure fast-tracked funding for Opportunity Corridor, a decades-delayed boulevard designed to link Interstate 490 with University Circle.
“We have a solid working relationship,” said Jackson, a Democrat.
He expects the road to spur growth in poor neighborhoods.
Kasich said he approaches life as he does his job. Less than a year ago, public polling showed voters had not forgiven his support of a failed 2011 ballot referendum that would have curtailed collective bargaining rights for public employees, including police officers.
Today the former state senator and eight-term congressman from suburban Columbus is surging in popularity.
A Quinnipiac University survey of 941 registered voters in June put his job approval rating at 54 percent, the highest since he won office in 2010.
Some establishment and grass-roots Republicans — looking for someone to win the White House in 2016 — are not shy about asking Kasich whether he'd consider a run. He briefly ran for president in 1999, dropping out before the Iowa Straw Poll that July.
“When you get older, you don't worry about tomorrow; you take care of today,” Kasich said. “My only interest is this job I have as governor.
“... What I like about it best, I am in a position to be able to — sounds like a great line, but I mean it — a great position to help people.”
Ohio's steadied job market boosted Kasich's credibility with voters. Fifty-two percent of those Quinnipiac surveyed approve of his handling of the economy.
The survey provided the first independent snapshot of the 2014 Ohio gubernatorial race since Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, a Democrat, declared his candidacy in April. The poll showed voters favor Kasich over FitzGerald, 47 percent to 33 percent.
It likely was no accident that Kasich chose to give his transportation speech in FitzGerald's backyard to a room full of Democrats.
Toledo Mayor Michael Bell said he respects Kasich's resolve because he “worked through some of the same tough decisions that I had to make” regarding budget cuts and holding the line on taxes.
Bell, a Democrat and firefighter who ran as an independent for mayor in 2009, said he can appreciate Kasich's decisions even when he doesn't agree.
“Sometimes, in a position of responsibility, we have to make decisions that are not great politics but (are) good for our city or our state,” he said.
Kasich's re-election race is one of the 38 gubernatorial races in 2013 and 2014. Republicans hold 30 governorships; Democrats, 20.
He has rebounded from problems displayed at the start of his term by staying on message about jobs and progress, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
“His style was initially grating, I think, and there was a hugely divisive battle over effectively making Ohio a right-to-work state for public-sector unions,” Kondik said. Today he said, “We rate the race as ‘leans Republican.' ”
Washington-based Republican strategist Bruce Haynes said Kasich's bumpy ride in the polls often occurs with straight-talking politicians or those who take bold action.
“At first, the blunt talk and tough choices seem jarring, and results are not always immediate,” said Haynes. “Change takes time, and Kasich's early numbers reflected that.”
Kasich and fellow Republican Gov. Tom Corbett took over governors' mansions at the same time, and both almost immediately fell in polls. Corbett remains vulnerable; the June Quinnipiac survey found 42 percent of Pennsylvania voters rated him unfavorably.
“Kasich just seems like he does a better job of selling himself and the state than Corbett, and thus has been able to avoid some of the bad feelings that Corbett has engendered,” Kondik said.
The Ohio governor presents himself as a more bipartisan leader, he said, citing their stances on Medicaid expansion: “Kasich has been a passionate advocate of Medicaid expansion, speaking eloquently in defense of helping the underprivileged” — unlike Corbett and most other Republican governors, who have resisted President Obama's plan to expand the program.
Kasich said his personal faith has strengthened since becoming governor.
He struggled with faith when his parents died in a 1987 automobile accident; a drunken driver slammed into their car as they pulled out of a Burger King restaurant in Pittsburgh. The couple, in their mid-60s, had stopped for coffee; both looked forward to retirement from the Postal Service.
The loss changed Kasich, who detailed it in a 2010 book, “Every Other Monday,” a name culled from a study group he started with friends to talk about God in their daily lives.
“I have become stronger through this job,” he said, citing the need for “a compass that is real, one that is not driven by who likes you today, because who likes you today isn't going to like you tomorrow.”
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com.