COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, a two-term Ohio governor who preached frugality in his personal and public life and occasionally bucked the Republican 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. The Republican 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.
In June 2003, doctors implanted a cardiac pacemaker because his heart rate had slowed down over several years due to a condition called progressive sinus bradycardia and Voinovich had experienced various health challenges in recent years.
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.
Twice elected to the Senate, Voinovich announced in early 2009 that he would not run again in 2010. He said he wanted to retire to spend more time with his family and at his condo on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He also planned to write a book and agreed to be a consultant and adviser on major research projects at Ohio University and Cleveland State University.
He was succeeded by fellow Republican and former congressman Rob Portman of Cincinnati.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich remembered Voinovich for bringing people together for the common good.
“He was 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,” Kasich said in a statement Sunday. “Thanks to that leadership he saved Cleveland, governed Ohio compassionately and responsibly and was a candid voice for reason in the U.S. Senate.”
As he left office, he 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 it was weighed down by too much spending that wasn’t stimulative.
He also prided himself on his own frugality. He shined his own shoes, bought his clothes on sale and as governor banned bags of peanuts and other snacks on state airplanes to save public money. He also sold one of the state’s airplanes in 1993 to a South American tourist company for $350,000.
In 2003, Voinovich stood firm against the size of President Bush’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.
In his December 2010 farewell speech in the Senate, he tasked his colleagues with tackling a fiscal situation “on life support, saying he didn’t agree with legislation to prevent an income tax increase, but complimenting President Barack Obama and legislative leaders for working out a compromise.
In 2011, Voinovich lent his support to a bill that would outlaw abortions at the first detectable fetal heartbeat and in 2009 was among those who unsuccessfully campaigned against an Ohio ballot issue that paved the way for the building of casinos in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo.
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 leaders of both parties in the Legislature pushed a tax increase to shore up the state’s finances. The move angered some conservatives who began questioning the governor’s 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.
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 four children born to Voinovich and his wife, Janet.
“When one loses a child, things come into focus, what is important, what is unimportant. You see more. You feel more. You experience more. We all take so much for granted,” he said.
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.
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 that later served him well in politics.
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, who later became a congressman, and went on to serve a decade as mayor, winning credit from Republicans and Democrats for turning the city around.
In 1990, he easily defeated Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr. — yet another Clevelander — 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.