JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS — He’s fresh off a bruising fight and ultimate defeat over the rights of unionized public workers. His approval ratings among voters are low.
And some fellow Republicans in the Legislature have grumbled openly over Gov. John Kasich’s decision to move his State of the State speech outside the capital to eastern Ohio.
Against this backdrop, Kasich lays out his second-year agenda Tuesday — one focused on education and the economic promise of oil and natural gas drilling.
Political experts say moving the speech to an elementary school in Steubenville allows Kasich to reconnect with the public after last fall’s bitter collective bargaining battle. He has said he wants to uplift the once-proud steel valley by turning public attention on its assets.
But the decision also miffed some lawmakers — including a handful in his own party, whose support is necessary to push his policies through the state Legislature.
Besides requiring drives of more than four hours in some cases, the relocation was criticized by some as disrespecting an honored state tradition. Kasich is believed to be the first governor in Ohio history to give his address outside the Statehouse.
The move is also an inconvenience to other Columbus-based dignitaries who traditionally attend.
Attorney General Mike DeWine has said he can’t make the speech. Secretary of State Jon Husted has a schedule conflict he’s trying to work out. Both are fellow Republicans.
The GOP-controlled Ohio Supreme Court also won’t be there because court is in session that day.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor is dedicated to the unconventional venue.
He said this year’s speech will reach a larger audience than ever. The school’s auditorium holds more people than the House chamber, so 50 members of the public received tickets to attend through a lottery. Government and public television networks are teaming up to broadcast the speech and stream it online, he said.
“How this could be viewed as anything but a good thing, I don’t know. We’re shining light on a part of the state that’s been a doormat for a long time,” said Nichols. “We think not all news happens at the corner of Broad and High (where the Capitol is). Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone.”
But such calls by Kasich may be tougher sells after voters resoundingly repealed his collective bargaining overhaul last year, said Nancy Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.
He’s lost some political capital, she said.
“He’s going to have a hard time keeping the agenda as bold as it is, even though he has Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Some of those individuals are now wary,” she said.
Legislative Republicans face potentially tough elections this year, she said, “so they may be more reluctant to push for some of his more controversial prerogatives.”
Kasich’s poll numbers don’t help. As of last month, Quinnipiac University found 48 percent of Ohioans disapprove of the job Kasich is doing, compared with 39 percent who approve.
Kasich has made a habit of traveling outside Columbus, and that that plays to his political strength as a folksy, everyman politician, said Jason Pierce, who chairs the University of Dayton’s political science department.
“The politics of getting out of Columbus and connecting with the voters seems to be motivating this decision, and dispensing with the formality of the State of the State address,” Pierce said.
Winning over a few Democrats in blue-collar Steubenville wouldn’t hurt Kasich, either. Steubenville state Sen. Lou Gentile, a Democrat, is holding a legislative reception Monday night, and House Minority Leader Armond Budish was among Democrats whose votes helped clear relocation of the speech.
That support is matched by opposition that will take the form Tuesday of protests by union workers, veterans and environmentalists opposed to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial shale drilling technique that’s sweeping the region.
“Given the political climate, I’m not sure he’s going to win over too many Democrats with what he’s doing,” Miller said. “Even though I think his motives for going to Steubenville are pure and good.”
John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron, agreed.
He said Kasich moving the speech outside the Statehouse shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
“Gov. Kasich, in the campaign, made a point of wanting to do things differently, and he really wants to reform state government in a wide variety of ways,” Green said. “If nothing else, this is a symbol of the fact that he wants to do things differently in state government.”