COLUMBUS — John Kasich is toying with his future.
The two-term Ohio governor is acutely aware his current gig ends at the end of the year. He had a failed presidential campaign two years ago. He remains an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump. He’s a go-to for national media, a Republican governor who doesn’t like the president’s tactics.
“I’m not running for anything, at least not at this point,” he said, with a glint in his eye during a recent discussion in his office with The Lima News’ editorial board.
So does that mean he’s going to run for president again in 2020, perhaps in a Republican primary against Trump or as an independent? He answered, “I just don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”
“Do you think I should run for office and get slaughtered and lose my voice, or should I not and try to keep a voice to do good?” he asked. “If you think my voice is good, should I keep it? Those things can’t be determined at this point.”
What can be determined is Kasich will leave office with the state carrying nearly $3 billion in its rainy day fund, nearly 600,000 jobs created in eight years and a politician who frequently frustrated even members of his own party.
Where it started
Keith Faber got his first insight on Kasich, a former congressman and Fox News personality, during an event in Lima on the deck of Matt Huffman’s law office prior to the gubernatorial primary.
“John Kasich was talking about all the things he wanted to do if he was governor,” said Faber, a Celina Republican who served as president of the Ohio Senate from 2013 to 2017. “He talked about regulatory reform, balancing the budget, cutting taxes, creating jobs, everything.”
Faber, who voters chose as the next state auditor last week, was stunned by the ambition of it all.
“At the time, I said, ‘Congressman, if you do all of that, in two years they’ll burn you in effigy. In the next two years, they’ll try to make you king,’” Faber recalled.
When Kasich took office, the state’s rainy day fund was down to 89 cents. He also addressed a budget that was unbalanced by $7.7 billion, said Timothy Keen, director of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management.
“The governor obviously came into office in a very difficult time financially and made very difficult decisions to try to balance the budget,” Keen said. “They were made in a very thoughtful way. Some of those choices, people continue to talk about years later.”
Yes, Kasich balanced the budget. He also made plenty of enemies along the way. Local entities, from schools to cities to townships, were exasperated by cuts to local government funds in Kasich’s first budget. They were just as frustrated when that money, which accounted for 3 to 5 percent of most entities’ budgets, wasn’t returned to them in full once the financial crunch ended.
“Columbus is just taking and taking,” Putnam County Trustee Association President David Wieging said in 2015, “and we have someone saying, ‘Oh, I’m not raising your taxes. I might even run for president because I’m not raising your taxes.’ No, he’s taking what was originally given to us.”
Kasich said complaining about the local government fund is a “convenient excuse to escape their own lack of ability to manage.”
“Look, I’m for local government, but don’t try to bully me,” Kasich said.
The rainy day fund now nears $3 billion. That amounts to about 8 percent of the state’s budget.
“Everybody wants to take that money and pass it out to folks,” Kasich said. “If you have a recession, which we inevitably will have, that money won’t last too long.”
His own style
State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, was the majority leader of the state House when Kasich delivered the State of the State speech in Lima in February 2013. Just before a formal procession into the room, Huffman was standing right in front of Kasich, ready to walk into the room.
“He leans up and starts busting my chops about some piece of legislation,” Huffman said. “I don’t even recall what it was, but there was something I didn’t do right. It was, ‘You guys need to start moving this along,’ basically this chastising you for not doing your job better kind of thing.
“I looked at him and said, ‘You know, Governor, this is my hometown. You’re giving the State of the State speech here. This is a big moment for me. Please try not to ruin it for me.’”
A stunned Kasich hadn’t realized his overstep.
That anecdote speaks volumes about Kasich’s government style. He offered this advice to the next governor, Mike DeWine.
“Don’t play politics. Do your job, even if The Lima News is hammering you on the front page,” Kasich said. “If you think you’re right, do it anyway. Don’t run around trying to play games.”
Kasich charmed a crowd during a bill-signing one day in October in his office. He had the crowd laughing as he examined a counterfeit $100 bill. He appeared comfortable and easygoing.
An hour later, he peppered questions on his guests from Lima, offering unsolicited advice on making the region grow, clearly in command of the room.
“Can we look at Lima as sort of a gateway to the rest of the country? Can we think of it that way? Multimodal, do we think about trains and trucks? Do we do that?” Kasich said.
That’s how he operated with legislators too.
“The governor was, at times, the most charming person to be around,” Faber said. “At other times, he’d be very direct and abrupt. I always appreciated his directness.”
Huffman added, “In one sense, you’re never going to worry about wondering where you stand with John Kasich. He’ll tell you.”
Pushing for jobs
One major innovation of the Kasich administration was JobsOhio. The public/private partnership overhauled how the state tried to attract jobs.
“They need to be creative. The whole key is to be creative and figure out what the assets are of a particular community,” Kasich said.
He said the program’s been a benefit, making Ohio the No. 1 state in the Midwest in terms of job growth since 2011 and seventh in the nation, 39 percent higher than the national average.
Still, the state isn’t keeping up when it comes to training the workforce, he said.
“If you really want to know where the problem is, it’s K-12 education,” Kasich said. “It’s still an institution that hasn’t even reached the 20th century yet. We need to get kids to understand what their talents are, what their futures are and what the jobs opportunities are and match them.”
His opinions on education are unpopular with many school leaders. He advocates moving more school funding to the local level, especially for “districts that have the wealth to do more for themselves.”
Kasich wasn’t an enemy of education though, said Jim Lynch, Kasich’s communications director.
“We put $1.6 billion into education,” Lynch said. “If you talk to people out there, you’d think we’d ignored them.”
What is a Republican?
Ronald Reagan famously defended his decision to switch from a Democrat to a Republican this way: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
Kasich, a media darling for his straight-forward criticisms of President Trump’s demeanor, says has a “great” relationship with the Republican party.
“Depends which party you’re talking about,” he said. “If you’re talking about my Republican party, it’s great.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“The continual criticism has been a disservice to the rest of us as Republicans and what we were trying to accomplish, not just nationally but here locally,” Huffman said.
Faber was disappointed Kasich decided against attending the Republican national convention, which was held in the state in Cleveland.
“His constant conflict with the president has caused problems within the party,” Faber said.
Kasich doesn’t sound like a man ready to be silenced for the good of his party, though.
“I have a right to stake out what it means to be a conservative and thus, I guess, a Republican,” he said. “But I don’t kind of think about that. I see a problem, I want to go fix it. If people like it, great. If they don’t like it, I’d like them to like it, but it’s not going to stop me from doing it.”
Room for reflection
Kasich said he’s “not a guy who lives in the past.” Still, he acknowledges shortcomings over his eight years in office.
One was the failed Senate Bill 5 referendum, which would’ve limited collective bargaining for state employees. Many saw that as an attack on unions.
“We didn’t handle the union thing in the beginning right. We tried to jam too much through too quickly,” Kasich said. “There were a lot of hands in the middle of it. I took responsibility. I didn’t run and hide. Now those relationships are much better.”
He takes great pride in his decision to expand Medicaid in the state, using 98 percent of federal government money and 2 percent of Ohio’s money.
“We’ve helped a lot of people, a lot of single moms with children who now can keep a job since they have the ability to get health care,” he said, noting most people get off Medicaid within 18 months.
That decision isn’t so popular among his Republican colleagues.
“Now we have to make sure the program is very efficient or we can’t afford it in the future,” Faber said.
Being popular was never Kasich’s goal, though.
“None of these positions are popular, ” Kasich said, “but they’re the right positions.”