(Eds: Updates with interviews of political scientist, strategists, county welfare director. Adds quotes from Kasich. Links photo. With AP Photos.)
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio Gov. John Kasich seemed at first to relish the idea he’d be a one-term governor, having presumably alienated partisans, lobbyists, unions and voters as he made what he deemed painful but necessary changes to government operations.
More recently, the 61-year-old Republican appears to have changed his tune. Kasich has taken on a more conciliatory, moderate approach that observers say could be intended to position him for re-election in his perennially purple state or for a repeat run for president. Critics charge that Kasich’s new rhetoric doesn’t always match reality.
The governor acknowledges he has had to learn to think before he speaks, but he insists he bases his political decisions on sound policy, not on party platforms or polls. Kasich carefully skirts questions about whether a run for higher office is in his future.
There’s little argument Kasich barreled through his first year in office in 2011 with bravado. He scrapped old programs for new, privatized agencies, forced out his predecessor’s political appointees and famously warned Statehouse lobbyists that those who didn’t board the Kasich bus would wind up under it.
In November that year, the energetic Kasich – once elected Ohio’s youngest state senator – was forced to take a self-described “deep breath” after losing a bitter and expensive battle with labor unions that turned back newly enacted restrictions on unions representing police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers.
With a stormy W.A. Coulter painting, Battleship Ohio, aptly positioned on the wall behind him, Ohio’s 69th governor entered a Statehouse news conference and conceded it was time for a political course correction.
“My view is when the people speak in a campaign like this, a referendum, you have to listen when you’re a public servant. There isn’t any question about that,” Kasich said. “I’ve heard their voices. I understand their decision.”
More than a third of registered Ohio voters in Quinnipiac University’s ensuing December 2012 poll expressed an unfavorable view of the governor. His favorability was at a personal 40 percent low mark.
It’s a matter of opinion whether Kasich was personally embarrassed, politically shell-shocked or both by the repeal of Senate Bill 5 at the ballot box, but it changed his approach to the job.
“When you look from that point on, it was a different tone. I really think he took it to heart,” said central Ohio Republican strategist Robert Clegg.
“Senate Bill 5 was a real wake-up call for the governor,” said John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “It’s clear he and his staff concluded from the experience that they needed to do as much as they could to control the agenda, and it needed to be more diverse and more moderate.”
Green refers to a series of positions Kasich has taken on social welfare programs, taxes and spending that have angered tea party activists and rankled even some of his Republican allies inside Ohio’s GOP-dominated state government.
Kasich stirred up opponents of tax increases by pushing hikes on oil and gas drillers whose companies are fueling an economic boom in eastern Ohio’s shale country. He has riled Republicans opposed to President Barack Obama’s federal health care overhaul by first advocating a Medicaid expansion allowed under the law, then forcing the program change through a legislative panel against GOP lawmakers’ wishes.
Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern said he doesn’t believe Kasich has moderated any of political positions, stances his political foes cast as radically conservative. Redfern pointed to the governor’s support for a host of recently passed abortion restrictions and cuts to the state’s local-government fund as examples.
“Just because those closest to John Kasich have put a rhetorical muzzle on the governor doesn’t mean these bad ideas have gone away,” Redfern said. “He’s someone who’s driven by focus groups and polling. Every decision he’s made is driven by politics.”
Curt Steiner, a veteran Republican operative and observer in Ohio, says the notion that Kasich has shifted to the center is misplaced – he’s “always been a centrist.”
“It’s just that, in the first budget cycle, so much attention was taken away from the budget by Senate Bill 5 that not a lot of people had a chance to take in that, on the human services side, from pillar to post he was doing what under the circumstances was a very good job,” Steiner said. “You’ve got to remember when he first took office he had to solve some problems immediately, especially budget problems, and some of that medicine was going to be less than tasty for some.”
Kasich labeled himself a conservative at an Ohio political forum organized by The Associated Press last month. He said he hasn’t abandoned the conservative agenda – as governor of a populous and influential state, he’s helping set it.
“I have a right to shape what conservative philosophy means,” he said when asked whether his positions were harming his support among Republican conservatives and GOP-leaning tea party activists.
Kasich pointed to his support of government social programs as perhaps unpopular among conservatives, but in line with his Christian faith.
“Why would I not talk about the fact that I’m concerned about the drug-addicted, the mentally ill or the poor? Why wouldn’t I do that? Because somebody’s not going to be happy about it?” Kasich asked. “I know who is happy about it, and that’s who I report to.”
Athens County Job & Family Services Director Jack Frech, whose agency serves one of Ohio’s poorest counties, said Kasich has done more damage than good for the poor.
“The truth is we’ve thrown 100,000 people, including 60,000 children, off cash assistance, and those people have nothing and they are hungry and many of them are homeless,” Frech said. “That’s the reality of his policies. I think it’s great that the governor’s talking about poor people, but his compassion that he expresses does not reflect the reality of his policies.”