Gov. John Kasich has made friends and enemies on both sides of the aisle in Ohio. Early in his term he infuriated Democrats and organized labor by backing Senate Bill 5, which sought to limit the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions. And now, as Kasich seeks reelection, he has fought with conservative Republicans over Medicaid expansion.
At a January press forum in Columbus, Kasich was asked if he had a problem with his conservative base. Here’s how the governor replied.
“You know, I have a right to lead, too. I have a right to shape what conservative philosophy means," Kasich said. "Why would I not do that? Why would I not speak out? Why would I not talk about the fact that I’m concerned about the drug addicted, the mentally ill or the poor? Why wouldn’t I do that? Because somebody’s not going to be happy about it?”
The reporter posing the question to the governor was Henry Gomez from the Northeast Ohio Media Group. The governor’s answer prompted Gomez to look into the way Kasich has defined conservatism throughout his life. The result is a series of reports that are appearing this week on Cleveland.com. Gomez came in to talk with us about the series. He calls it “John Kasich 5.0."
GOMEZ: "You probably can’t fit five John Kasichs neatly into five different boxes, but when we looked back at his career and the different iterations it’s gone through, we found you can sort of pinpoint him in five different ways.
"There was the devoutly Catholic kid who wanted to be a priest, or even pope, when he was growing up outside Pittsburgh. There was the rambunctious guy that went to the state senate in Columbus and then went to Congress who liked to pick fights with sacred cows like the Pentagon, but then crossed over into the mainstream.
"And then when he was the member of the mainstream, tried to present himself as the freshest part of the mainstream, a guy who could run for president…
"And then he disappeared for a while, about 10 years he was gone from politics. And when he returned, he was Mr. Tea Party, riding the Tea Party’s coattails, saying he was a member of the Tea Party before there was one, and he was hammering on unions, he was pursuing an agenda that would be seen as fairly conservative, and wasn’t coming across as that pragmatic dealmaker he was known for being in his later years in Congress.
"And that brings us to the present, where he seems to be moving back to that center, moving back to that middle where he was chairman of the House budget committee."
CASTELE: "Now you notice in part one of this series that Gov. Kasich has been telling a lot of stories lately about growing up in McKee’s Rocks, Pennsylvania, which is outside of Pittsburgh – and growing up the son of Catholic Democrats. What do you think he’s trying to say by telling these stories?"
GOMEZ: "I think he’s trying to say that ‘I am one of you.’ Ohio is a very diverse state in terms of the different segments of population and how they’re grouped geographically…and there are a lot of blue-collar voters, and many of them turned on John Kasich during the Senate Bill 5 collective bargaining debate back in 2011. So what I think John Kasich's trying to tell these voters is, ‘Hey, I’m more like you than you may have recognized. Maybe we got off on the wrong foot, but here are some things you probably didn't know about me that we have in common.’"
CASTELE: "And Democrats are arguing that if Kasich is reelected this year, we will return to a harder line of conservatism. Is that what this race seems to be about?"
GOMEZ: "I think that’s a very accurate description of what the Democrats are going to be looking at and what they’re going to be talking about...What Democrats will say is Kasich has been inconsistent over the years...and you don’t know which one you’re going to get if you pull the lever for him a second time. One reason why I feel the series is helpful is because it shows…there are these many different options, any one of which could emerge in a second term. More likely it’s going to be a mix of everything we’ve already seen, which is one of the takeaways I offered in my introduction of the piece on Monday."
CASTELE: "Now how did the governor and his campaign react to you working on this series? Did they know about it? Were they cooperative?"
GOMEZ: "They knew about it. I got the idea in February after a follow-up chat I had with the governor, which was mainly off the record, but he did wonder why no one was picking up on his "reshaping conservatism theme." And that sort of planted the seed, like, OK, well, fine. I’ll do it. And I’ll do a deep dive on it…The governor did not – and I asked several times for an extended on the record interview, and that never happened. And I always just got the sense that this is part of the Kasich aura."