Along the Tracks

Friday, July 18, 2003

Democrats lost in the Great Black Swamp

(NOTE: Sorry I didn’t get this posted sooner. I hope it was worth the wait.)

Ohio is a one-party state. Even Ohio's top Democrat admits this. Republicans control every statewide office, as well as dominating (almost to supermajority status) the Ohio House and Senate. Last fall’s election added another Republican to the state Supreme Court, making the “balance” 6-3 in favor of the GOP. In the last gubernatorial race, the Democrats put up a former county commissioner to run against a vulnerable incumbent. That vulnerable incumbent won by something like 16 points. The “establishment” candidate for next year’s Democratic senate bid, Eric Fingerhut, is a complete enigma outside his own State Senate district, and has no chance of capturing his party’s nomination unless it is by default. It now appears shock TV maestro Jerry Springer will waltz back to Ohio and claim the nomination. Set aside his money, and his terrible reputation: Springer will win on name recognition alone.

This sad state of affairs can be traced back to the last time Democrats were in control of Ohio government. During the late ‘80s, Ohio House Strongman (Speaker) Vern Riffe and Gov. Richard Celeste combined efforts to drain Ohio’s financial reserves and raised every tax they could find. The backlash was severe, and George Voinovich roared to the governor’s mansion on promises of fiscal restraint and tax cuts, carrying many Republicans on his coattails. His success at setting Columbus in order created a reserve of goodwill, which was capitalized upon by rising stars in the GOP.

The Democrats were unable to put together a coherent critique of the Voinovich agenda, and found themselves getting trounced across the board. Individual candidates cut the state party loose to avoid getting sucked by the undertow. That worked in most traditionally Democratic House and Senate districts, but competitive districts began falling Republican, and with no statewide message, there was no reason for voters to elect any Democrats to statewide office. Lee Fisher was the last truly statewide Ohio Democrat. His loss to Taft was emblematic of the complete collapse of the state party. Taft, after all, was already well known as a “country club” Republican - no conservative. The failure of the state Democratic Party to gather working-class voters under its umbrella while Taft struggled to secure skeptical conservatives not only cost the party the governorship, but signed the death warrant for all statewide candidates.

Today, there really is no organized Ohio Democratic Party. There are Ohio Democrats, of course, and they meet and talk issues and even endorse candidates - but their endorsement is meaningless. The one virtue of Springer’s run is that it lays bare this fact. The “Ohio Democrats” are nothing more than a loose collection under a banner devoid of meaning. Think about it. In what way do today’s “Ohio Democrats” carry on the legacy of Vern Riffe and Dick Celeste, John Glenn and Tony Celebrezze (who died at 61 earlier this month)? What do politicians like Toledo’s Jack Ford, East Toledo’s Teresa Fedor, Cleveland’s Tim Hagan and Columbus’s Michael Coleman have in common? Practically nothing; certainly no “agenda for Ohio.” And without some set of ideas or goals tailored specifically for the Buckeye State, how can they be called members of an “Ohio” party?

As a conservative, I deplore the present state of affairs. Surprising, you might say, considering the GOP’s dominance. In fact, the strength by default the Ohio Republicans enjoy is precisely the problem. Ohio’s Republicans find themselves diluted to the point they’ve lost their flavor; they have no “kick.” In fact, the situation is so bad, there is now a de facto split inside the GOP, with traditional, country-club pragmatists in control, and the conservatives forming an “opposition.” This became starkly apparent during the debate and eventual passage of the biennium budget. Many House and Senate conservatives refused to go along with a double-digit spending increase coupled with a tax hike, and battled against it to no avail. Meanwhile, Gov. Bob Taft and his “moderates,” rather than compromising inside their own party, reached over to the directionless Democrats to achieve their majority.

This was a key moment in Ohio politics, and demonstrates how Ohio’s political situation is very different from the budget battles occurring elsewhere around the country. The Ohio GOP’s hegemony meant it could completely dictate the terms of the budget process. Democratic input could be dismissed. But instead of maintaining party loyalty, the “moderates,” led by Taft, chose instead to betray basic principles of fiscal conservatism and dictate terms to the conservatives inside their own party. The “moderate” wing of the Ohio GOP is larger than the conservative caucus, so Taft knew he’d only have to pick off a few Dems to get his way.

The Democrats, for their part, are so completely disorganized that it only took a line item here or a pledge of continued support for a program there, and Presto!, Taft had his majority and his budget.

The internal retributions against conservative Republicans have already begun. Local Rep. Steve Buehrer has been kicked off his committee assignments (for the second time in a year), along with several other dissenting Republicans. The Senate’s more congenial atmosphere will most likely not see conservatives punished, just ignored. However, this split makes the controlling majority not the Ohio GOP, but a looser, fiscally liberal group of politicians that includes a few opportunistic Democrats - “bipartisanship” at its worst. This new majority likes to spend money, likes to raise taxes (or other forms of “revenue enhancement”), does not believe in the decentralization initiatives begun by then-governor Voinovich, believes in more regulation, seeks a greater debt-load for state government projects, and leans heavily toward government subsidies and controls when it comes to heavy industry, agriculture, energy and pharmaceuticals. It would not be a stretch to say the controlling majority in Columbus today is a little left of the late-’80s Celeste-Riffe juggernaut.

The next issue will be a bill to put video gambling on the ballot (despite overwhelming opposition by the public). This “either-or,” gun-to-the-head “choice” of gambling or a permanent tax increase illustrates the “moderates’” modus operandi: Duck behind ballot issues to avoid taking the blame for their failures. After all, whichever way Ohioans vote, the “people will have spoken,” and Columbus will have its permanent revenue source. This isn’t really a debate over more money out of the people’s pockets; that’s a given. It’s a debate over just how regressive the money grab will be. This “choice” is just a more aggressive entry in the long line of bond issues and tax questions Ohioans have faced over the past four years.

It’s tough to see any way out of this mess until after 2006 - the next election for governor and other state executive office holders. A conservative revolt within the Ohio GOP could force some primary run-offs and bring a few new faces to the State Legislature, but probably not enough to change the Taft strategy.

A faster fix would be a reinvigorated Ohio Democratic Party. Traditionally, Ohio’s Democrats have been labor-centered, but largely pragmatic in their ideology. Right now, they seem to be directed from the national party to portray Ohio’s GOP majority as ultraconservative and controlled by special interests - a message that will never fly with Ohio voters. The traditional, generalized makeup of the Ohio Democratic Party, however, is probably gone forever. Education is not really a question of funding, but of fairness. Taft would hand out checks to seniors if they would just ask. Labor is no longer a dominant force, and many of its issues have been co-opted by Taft’s “moderates.” Indeed, the Democrats’ aimlessness is largely the result of Taft’s liberal ideology - it’s hard to pick fights with someone you basically agree with.

Earlier, I mentioned Teresa Fedor in a wide-spectrum list of Democrats. I believe Fedor could be the template for a renewed Ohio Democratic Party. A former schoolteacher, State Sen. Fedor understands and identifies with labor issues, but is not beholden to the unions. She is a reformer, and opposed Taft’s tax hikes, not so much because she believed they were not necessary, but because she wanted a comprehensive reform of the tax code to be a part of any revenue increase. She opposes video gambling as a “gimmick,” not a solution. She has called for a restructuring of state government to eliminate redundancy (which abounds in Columbus). She has called for a “Legislative Audit Commission” which would look at how state agencies are spending their money, and root out abuses, waste, and missed opportunities (also sponsored by local conservative Republican Lynn Wachtmann). In a nutshell, she is far more fiscally conservative than Taft and his cohorts, while remaining true to traditional Democratic stands supporting working people.

Whether or not Fedor becomes a focus for Democratic renewal, the positions she espouses could provide a core, Ohio-based critique of the current Columbus regime which, with a lot of grassroots effort, could form the foundation for a renewed Ohio Democratic Party, a party centered on issues, rather than donor groups (which, at present, are all that’s left of the Ohio party).

This would, of course, be a critique from the right, but I won’t tell the Dems if you don’t. An alignment of state Democrats would force Taft to compromise, especially on economic and budgetary issues. But whether he tried to woo Democrats or sought the return of conservative Republicans into the fold, he would be compromising to the right. That would be good for the State of Ohio. And a conservative argument against Taft’s policies, whether from reformist Democrats or traditional conservative Republicans, would be good for the Ohio GOP as well.

Anyone who reads my musings regularly knows I am a big fan of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. He is a true conservative. For that reason, he will be opposed by Taft’s machine when the gubernatorial primary comes along in 2006. If Taft is able to maintain his centrist coalition through his entire second term, Blackwell will be in big trouble. The money and endorsement of an establishment already leery of Blackwell’s fiscal conservatism and faith-centered ideology will almost certainly be directed to a candidate which fits more comfortably in the Taft mold. If the Democrats remain lost in the swamp and put up another nobody for governor, Taft’s protégé, whoever he or she may be, will win by default, and Ohio will face another four years at least of fiscal recklessness, ever higher taxes and a lethargic economy exporting jobs, capital and talent.

Ohio cannot afford such an outcome.

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