COLUMBUS, Ohio – Former Republican U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, a two-term Ohio governor who preached frugality in his personal and public life and occasionally bucked the GOP establishment, died Sunday. He was 79.
Voinovich, considered a moderate who opposed the size of former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and later questioned Bush’s war strategy in Iraq, died peacefully in his sleep, his wife Janet confirmed. His death came as a surprise to friends, who said he seemed strong despite some recent health struggles.
He had delivered public remarks Friday at a 25th Slovenian Independence Day event at Cleveland City Hall. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention coming to Cleveland next month.
Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, said Sunday that Voinovich was one of his closest political allies and a “quintessential public servant,” who “brought people together, focused on results, and left his state and our country a better place.”
During his 12 years in the Senate, Voinovich occasionally found himself at odds with Republican conservatives. He was an early supporter of a proposed federal bailout for the auto industry, which employs thousands of people in Ohio, and he was the rare Republican during the Bush administration to suggest raising taxes to pay for the war in Iraq and hurricane relief.
Voinovich announced in early 2009 that he would not run for a third Senate term. He said he wanted to retire to spend more time with his family.
Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish said Voinovich had continued in recent years to advocate projects that made life better for people in northeast Ohio.
His integrity and toughness were common themes in condolences that poured in from Republicans and Democrats at the local, state and federal levels. Cincinnati Republican Rob Portman, who succeeded Voinovich in the Senate, said he “exemplified everything good about public service.” Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, praised him for being “willing to listen to the other side of an argument.”
Republican Gov. John Kasich called Voinovich “a unifier who thought outside the box, never gave up and worked hard for the ideas he believed in up until the very end of his life.” State Democratic Chairman David Pepper called him simply “an Ohio giant.”
As he left the Senate, Voinovich counted among his accomplishments the passage of a global anti-Semitism bill, an effort to expand NATO and a bill to protect intellectual property. He also touted what he called a “nuclear renaissance,” pushing to make it easier for nuclear power plants to get new licenses and financing, and to improve the oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Voinovich cultivated an image as a debt hawk and opposed President Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, saying too much of the spending wasn’t stimulative.
He prided himself on personal frugality. He shined his own shoes, bought his clothes on sale and as governor banned peanuts and other snacks on state airplanes to save public money. He sold a state airplane in 1993 to a South American tourist company for $350,000.
In 2003, Voinovich stood firm against the size of the president’s $726 billion tax cut proposal, saying a country with a multi-trillion-dollar debt couldn’t afford them.
“We’ve spent money like drunken sailors,” he said.
As governor in the 1990s, Voinovich preached a mantra of “working harder and smarter, doing more with less,” and vowed to streamline state government. He began programs to roll back environmental regulations and struck deals on long-term contracts with state employee unions, promising security but little money.
Voinovich also cut $720 million from the state budget in two years. But, in 1993, Voinovich and legislative leaders of both parties pushed a tax increase to bolster state finances. The move angered some conservatives, who questioned his commitment to their cause.
Also that year, about 400 inmates rioted at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. A guard and nine inmates were killed.
Voinovich was a prized commodity in the Ohio GOP: a Republican who could deliver his hometown of Cleveland, a Democratic stronghold.
Born George Victor Voinovich in 1936, he was the oldest of six children. His parents, George and Josephine, were Serbian and Slovenian. Their parents had immigrated to the United States from what is now Croatia, and Voinovich grew up with a strong ethnic identity.
He served in the Ohio House from 1967-71, and in each election he won the support of Cuyahoga County’s mostly Democratic voters because of his connection to the ethnic communities and his easygoing style.
By the late 1970s, Cleveland was in default and most people blamed the Democratic mayor, Dennis Kucinich, who constantly fought electric utilities, the city’s banking community and other big-business interests. Voinovich defeated Kucinich, a future congressman, and went on to serve a decade as mayor, winning credit for turning the city around.
But his political path also included heartbreak. In 1979, while running for Cleveland mayor, his 9-year-old daughter, Molly, was killed when she was hit by a van that went through a red light. Molly was returning to school after lunch. She was the youngest of the Voinoviches’ four children.
Though he was one of Ohio’s most popular Republican politicians, Voinovich stumbled in 1988 during his first bid for the U.S. Senate. Trailing badly in the polls, he attacked the grandfatherly incumbent Democrat Howard Metzenbaum for not being tough on child pornography. The move backfired and Metzenbaum soundly carried the election.
In 1990, he easily defeated Democrat Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr. and began the first of two four-year terms as governor.
Voinovich was vulnerable to his emotions. He once broke into tears when protesters gathered outside the governor’s office to demand that he restore cuts the Legislature made to welfare.
He later angrily defied the Federal Aviation Administration by violating a no-fly order during a 1995 visit to Columbus by then-President Bill Clinton. Sitting in a state plane at one of the city’s airports, Voinovich told his pilot to take off. The FAA fined him $1,500.