Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination this week, may appear moderate. But according to reporters who cover him regularly, the former Fox News host's tenure in the statehouse has included efforts to reduce collective bargaining, limit abortion rights, and fight marriage equality.
Ohio reporters who have covered Kasich closely raise several areas of interest for national media that have less experience covering him.
His efforts to cut state spending and balance the budget did reduce taxes, but put more of a burden on local governments, Ohio journalists point out. They also note his off-the-cuff style can lead to wandering speeches and incidents like the revelation that he called a police officer an “idiot” during a 2008 traffic stop.
“He can be quite a character sometimes, the national press doesn't know how to take him,” said Shane Stegmiller of Hannah News Service and president of the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association. “You never know what he's going to say.”
Stegmiller cited the “idiot” incident, which occurred before Kasich's 2010 election, but became public in 2011: “It blew up on him pretty big.”
Then there are his often-forgotten fights against abortion and gay rights, according to Chrissie Thompson, a Cincinnati Enquirer state government reporter since 2013.
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide stemmed from the Ohio-based Obergefell vs. Hodges case, in which plaintiff Jim Obergefell sued to be listed on his spouse's death certificate as the surviving spouse. Defendant Richard Hodges, the Ohio director of public health, is a Kasich appointee.
“The department of health was the lead defendant in Obergefell vs. Hodges in the gay marriage debate,” Thompson said. “Kasich opposed same-sex marriage and he authorized the fight to protect our gay marriage ban.”
“He had signed some abortion restrictions and those have resulted in the closure of some of our abortion clinics in Ohio,” Thompson said. “He does not like to talk about it a lot.”
Another issue that occurred during his first year in office was the proposal known as Senate Bill 5, Kasich's effort to clamp down on collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. Similar to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's more publicized union fight, the Kasich measure was passed and signed into law, but drew harsh criticism. It was eventually voted down overwhelmingly via a ballot referendum later that year.
“Senate Bill 5 was hugely controversial,” recalls Laura Bischoff, a 14-year statehouse reporter with the Dayton Daily News. “They wanted to really gut collective bargaining rights for public employees and it sparked huge protests at the statehouse, bigger than I've ever seen.”
Marc Kovac, statehouse bureau chief for Dix Newspapers and The Vindicator of Youngstown, agreed.
“Kasich was a staunch supporter of public employee collective bargaining reform, signing the former Senate Bill 5 into law and setting off a massive referendum effort that blocked that law from taking effect,” he said.
Bischoff also pointed to Kasich's privatizing of some prisons, a move that drew corrections officer complaints about conditions and resulted in an audit that found 47 violations in one private institution.
“There is a question as to whether it saved money more than projected, the union that represents corrections officers said it was bad,” Bischoff said. “There was one audit report that was really bad about conditions the inmates were living in.”
Kasich's economic stimulus program, JobsOhio, is another point of contention, according to reporters. The private, non-profit agency was created to help spark job growth, but in a secretive fashion that exempts it from state open public record laws and limits state audit oversight.
“People didn't like the fact that it's now somewhat shrouded in secrecy with public money,” said Jim Siegel, a Columbus Dispatch statehouse reporter since 1998. “There are concerns it could be used for cronyism. He believes in the private sector and letting the private sector do as much as possible on things. He's made efforts to privatize as much as he can.”
And the job growth has been less than successful, Stegmiller says, noting the state's job growth rate for the past 32 months is at 1.73%, below the national average of 2.09%.
“While Ohio had gained back a lot of jobs, it lags a lot of states in job recovery,” he said.
The state budget, meanwhile, is something Kasich touts as a success, journalists say. But the impact may be less positive than he lets on.
Reporters cite the claim that Kasich eliminated an $8 billion deficit and shored up the state's “rainy day” surplus fund. But in reality, he cut funding to local governments and school districts, forcing many to increase their own taxes and fees.
“By reducing their funding, now they are having to go to voters and ask for local levies to help make that up,” said Jackie Borchardt of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. “The local government or school district is having to raise more revenue that way. In his first budget, he did slash spending for education. He cut it and local governments have said they continue to chip away at their funding.”
And the $8 billion deficit Kasich touts wasn't really a deficit, according to the Enquirer's Thompson: “We never actually had a deficit, he used the word deficit and it was a projected shortfall.”
Kasich supporters also brag about his big re-election victory in 2014, in which he beat Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald nearly 2 to 1. But what is often lost is that FitzGerald, then the Cuyahoga County Executive, was hit with a very public scandal after it was revealed the married candidate was found by police in a parking lot at 4:30 a.m. with another woman.
The circumstances of that incident remain unclear. But things got worse when it was found he had been driving without a license for about 10 years.
“He won 86 out of 88 counties in 2014, but he was running against a very weak opponent,” Thompson said about Kasich's last election.