JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS — Unionized teachers and retirees, local government officials, and veterans are among public workers running for office in an effort by Ohio Democrats to take control of the state House after a successful fall campaign to repeal a collective bargaining overhaul championed by Gov. John Kasich and fellow Republicans.
Without the option of a gubernatorial recall like Wisconsin’s, a 2012 takeover of the Ohio House, where Republicans hold a 19-seat advantage, is Democrats’ best next step for capitalizing on voter anger over the union-limiting law. A total of 21 House districts will be without an incumbent next year due to term limits and other departures.
Taking control of the Ohio Senate, which is about two-thirds Republican and has been GOP hands since 1985, is a long shot for Democrats. But House control would give them the ability to block bills supported by Senate Republicans and Kasich.
The union-limiting bill that’s fueling the effort was lauded by its backers as a tool for local governments to control costs, but it prompted weeks of Statehouse protests, rallies and parades drawing thousands of opponents. The measure would have affected more than 350,000 teachers, police, firefighters and other government employees. After a $30 million campaign, 60 percent of voters rejected it in November.
Now, Democrats are fielding candidates in almost all 99 Ohio House districts — even the reliably Republican ones — a rarity not seen for decades. The public workers newly running as Democrats number at least 20.
“It’s unheard of to run 99 House candidates, so far as we know it’s the first time since mid-1980s that we’ve made it so no Republican is running unopposed in this state,” said Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern, who will make an attempt himself to return to the House. “It’s a monumental task to do that, but it really speaks to the anger that voters have with the Republican majority and the angst and concern that continues to resonate now after our successful defeat of (the union law).”
Recalling Kasich, who is less than a year into a four-year-term, is not an option. The state’s constitution doesn’t provide for unseating a governor.
Last week, Democrats tried in a legislative maneuver to insert language into a bill moving through the Ohio House that would have allowed a gubernatorial recall, but Republicans blocked it.
A recall drive is under way in Wisconsin, another state where voters were riled by proposed union limits. A proposal by Republican Gov. Scott Walker effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers. The law passed in March despite massive protests and the state’s 14 Democratic state senators fleeing to Illinois for three weeks.
Ohio Republicans are trying to counter the takeover attempt by Democrats with their own slate of House candidates, including the president of a local manufacturing company, a restaurant owner, school board members, a former teacher, and a member of the NAACP and National Urban League boards.
“The House Republican Caucus has demonstrated that we can and will do what is necessary to put Ohio back on the right track, and our candidates want to be a part of our effort to continue rebuilding Ohio,” said state Rep. Matt Huffman, who chairs the Ohio House Republican Organizational Committee.
Democrats’ slate includes 10 teachers and five former state lawmakers, including state Redfern — a former state representative who has been among Kasich’s most outspoken critics.
Michele Prater, spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said any teachers who are running as part of that slate came forward on their own, rather than being recruited by the union.
Retired high school government teacher Jeff Bunck said the Republican attempt to thwart collective bargaining sparked his decision to run for a seat in the Ohio House against a GOP incumbent in suburban Toledo. The debate will still be fresh in the minds of voters next year, he said.
“It will level the playing field a whole lot even in gerrymandered districts like the one I’m running in,” said Bunck, who’s 59 and never run for office before.
Donna O’Connor, a special-needs teacher in Dublin, is seeking a House seat in suburban Columbus for the first time.
Seeing pro-union bumper stickers that say “we’ll remember in November” makes her think that the momentum will carry over to next year and that she’ll have a shot in the Republican-leaning district with a GOP incumbent.
“I hope in my heart that happens,” she said.
Mike Dittoe, a spokesman for Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, said Democrats’ failed leadership is what prompted voters to sweep Republicans back into power in 2010. The GOP ticket led by Kasich took back control of every state office and both chambers of the Legislature.
He said if sentiment against the bill was so strong, Senate and congressional races would also be attracting teachers, firefighters and police officers as candidates.
“We believe the quality of our candidates and the issue positions that they take next fall will allow us to maintain control of the House,” Dittoe said.