After Labor Law Defeat, Ohio's Kasich Pushes Forward

In just one year in office, Ohio Gov. John Kasich made some big changes in his state, based on his conservative, business-backed ideas. But he also suffered a massive defeat when the collective bargaining reform law he supported was overwhelmingly rejected by voters. But that's not stopping him from pushing forward with new ideas in his second year.

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It's been a turbulent year in Ohio politics. Republican John Kasich was sworn-in as governor last January and wasted no time making big changes based on his conservative, business-backed ideas. But he also suffered a massive defeat when voters overwhelmingly rejected a key piece of his ambitious agenda.

Karen Kasler, of Ohio Public Radio, reports that after a year of ups and downs, many in the state are now wondering what to expect next from their outspoken governor.

KAREN KASLER, BYLINE: John Kasich rode a Republican tsunami into office in 2010, as Ohio turned from mostly blue to solidly red in the mid-term elections. Kasich defeated incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland by just two points. But the conservative former congressman and GOP candidate for president didn't let a tiny margin of victory stop him from showing some swagger on election night.

GOVERNOR JOHN KASICH: Guess what. I'm going to be governor of Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KASLER: The state legislature was also suddenly and firmly in the Republicans' control, allowing Governor Kasich's business-friendly ideas to sail through. They included the elimination of the estate tax and his plan to privatize Ohio's job creation agency using the state's liquor profits, along with huge budget cuts to schools and local governments to deal with a big budget deficit.

But Governor Kasich also verbally took on lobbyists, special interests and Democrats. And, in a speech to state workers last February, even a police officer who pulled him over a few years ago.

KASICH: He's an idiot. We just can't act that way. And what people resent are people who are in the government who don't treat the client with respect.

KASLER: And Kasich's anger at the public employee unions who supported his Democratic opponent didn't stop there. He said this, just hours after he was elected governor.

KASICH: I am waiting for the teachers unions, however, to take out full-page ads in all the major newspapers apologizing for what they said about me during this campaign.

KASLER: And John Kasich made it clear a few weeks later that he wanted changes in the state's law on collective bargaining.

KASICH: My personal philosophy is I don't like public employees striking. OK? I mean, they got good jobs, they got high pay, they got good benefits, and great retirement. What are they striking for?

KASLER: Ohio's huge collective bargaining reform law, known as Senate Bill 5, went further than the controversial one in Wisconsin because it included police and firefighters and allowed public employees to refuse to pay union dues. Furious unions and Democratic activists put the law on the November ballot, with the governor as its face. Polls showed the law was unpopular, and not surprisingly, Kasich's approval rating plummeted.

And Senate Bill 5, the biggest piece of legislation signed in Ohio in 2011, was trounced by an almost two-to-one margin. Afterward, Kasich sounded conciliatory.

KASICH: My view is when people speak in a campaign like this, in a referendum, you have to listen when you're a public servant.

KASLER: But few here expect that tone to last long. With the unemployment rate falling and state revenues rising, the governor is already talking about new business-related bills. The eastern part of the state is seeing a boom in oil and natural gas exploration. And while a recent poll shows nearly three quarters of Ohioans want to stop the drilling process called fracking until its environmental impact is studied, Kasich has been supportive of the industry.

But this year could bring fewer controversial proposals from the governor, in part because many lawmakers who have supported him are up for re-election, says Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.

PROFESSOR PAUL BECK: Well, I think it's going to be a year where Republicans and the governor are less willing to take the kind of political risks that they took in their legislative activity in 2011. The rebuke that Senate Bill 5 or its defeat constituted in the November 2011 election is something that many legislators have very fully in mind.

KASLER: But John Kasich already has plans to shake up the status quo again here. He recently announced he'll deliver his State of the State speech not in the traditional setting of the statehouse, but in Appalachia, in a small town along the West Virginia border 150 miles away.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Kasler, in Columbus.

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