COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the Republican presidential campaign, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is the hug-addicted happy warrior, a Mr. Nice Guy swimming in a tank of sharks.
That’s not quite the governor Ohioans know.
After his election in 2010, Kasich butted heads with unions and tea party activists alike. He barreled into Columbus with a tone that was anything but patient, warning Statehouse lobbyists “if you’re not on the bus, we will run over you with the bus.” By his own admission —actually, a boast — he “shook everything from top to bottom.”
Kasich preaches a similar line against the status quo in his White House bid, but his manner sets him apart from the slash-and-burn tone of a race with the hard-charging, bombastic billionaire Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at the top. He sees himself as the adult in the room, projects serenity in the face of tough odds for his prospects and soldiers on with the conviction that “We will never be as strong as we need to be, and our politicians will never be as good, if we spend our time tearing somebody else down.”
As he put it to Georgia lawmakers this week: “We can fight, we can argue, but it should never be personal.”
In Columbus, Kasich quickly found himself in a bruising fight with labor activists as well as at the center of an intraparty struggle that caused the state Republican chairman to resign. Kasich pushed a Medicaid expansion past the Republican-controlled Legislature, in effect signing on to a key part of the federal health care law conservatives love to hate.
“After my first year, I was the most unpopular governor in America,” Kasich recently told a crowd in Worcester, Massachusetts. “Nobody likes that title, but it didn’t bother me at all.”
In protest of a bill limiting the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions, labor activists paraded through Ohio cities and showed up at Statehouse hearings in throngs. Citing security concerns, Kasich’s public safety department locked the Statehouse doors.
Kasich didn’t spearhead the 2011 legislation, but a spokesman for a group that successfully fought back the restrictions at the ballot box said he still must own how it was handled.
“There is nothing wrong with Gov. Kasich having his political beliefs, but he cannot have it both ways,” said Dennis Willard, of the group We Are Ohio, an advocacy group. “He can’t say that he’s a uniter if he’s signing bills that many of us believe hurt workers, minorities, women and voters.”
After voters rejected the law, though, Kasich conceded without caveats. In what many believe was a seminal moment for his change in tone, he said he had listened and learned. Matt Szollosi, executive director of a construction trades union representing 92,000 Ohio workers, said Kasich was “ideologically rigid” when elected but has since taken a more pragmatic approach. Szollosi’s group backed Kasich’s 2014 re-election bid and said the union has successfully partnered with Kasich several times.
Kasich’s campaign points to his decisive re-election victory and strong approval ratings as proof that his leadership style, if brash, has shown results most Ohioans like, even if critics carp.
“If some liberal fringe lobby or special interest groups want to trash us, well, that’s politics,” said campaign spokesman Rob Nichols.”
Still, for Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the Kasich he sees preaching against bullying on TV doesn’t compute with the aggressive manager who, he says, has cowed union members from speaking out on issues even to union leaders.
“I’ve never seen people in such fear of retaliation in my life,” Mabe said.
Kasich’s fellow Republicans have also felt his sting. After the Legislature sidelined his proposal to expand Medicaid, Kasich and Statehouse leaders collaborated to realign a powerful legislative panel that pushed expansion through. Republican lawmakers and others sued; the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in the governor’s favor.
In the campaign, he’s seen along with the higher-flying Marco Rubio as a mainstream pick. “I’m not against the establishment,” Kasich says. “If you’re against them you’re always fighting and don’t get anywhere — but they’re not gonna tell me what to do.”
As he refuses to attack his opponents, reminds kids they’re “made special” and implores supporters to help their neighbors, some wonder whether he’s got presidential mettle.
A woman in his Worcester audience told Kasich he’s such a “lovely man” that she’s concerned he’s too nice to stand up to world leaders and political opponents. Kasich had to reassure her.
“I don’t want you to have the wrong impression,” he said. “You know, it’s possible to be kind and at the same time very tough.”
To emphasize his point, he shared a favorite line about growing up in scrappy, blue-collar McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.
“If your high school came and played us in football, and if you beat us, we just broke every window on your bus.”
Ronayne reported from Worcester, Massachusetts.