Ohio Dispatch: Anti-Union Law Divides John Boehner's
Tuesday's election will make or break Gov. John Kasich's
crackdown on collective bargaining.
By Andy Kroll
November 6, 2011
Driving west on Interstate 70 away from Columbus, Ohio,
the state capital, the landscape quickly settles into
flat farmland, a calming tableau punctuated by the
occasional billboard pitching fast food or budget hotels
or the pious life. ("Meet Nice People: Go to Church.")
The time passes easily, like the endless rows of corn,
and before long you've arrived in the 8th congressional
district, home to the most powerful Republican in
Congress, House Speaker John Boehner. On a map, the
district looks like a pocketknife bottle opener-flush
against the Indiana border to the west, surrounding the
city of Dayton on three sides without swallowing it
whole. Read more MoJo coverage on the fight over Gov.
John Kasich's anti-union law. And don't miss Mac
McClelland's great narrative piece on how it's affecting
Ohio's middle class.
This is solid GOP country. Mostly white, firmly middle
class, the 8th's citizens haven't elected a Democrat to
the House since 1933-Republicans haven't had a better
winning streak in any of Ohio's 18 other districts. But
the current fight over SB 5, Gov. John Kasich's new
anti-union law, is defying political logic. Traveling
around Boehner's backyard and interviewing more than two
dozen local pols and average citizens, I've encountered
a deep divide over Issue 2-a thumbs-up/thumbs-down
referendum that will either uphold or SB 5 or kill it.
"People certainly value the public unions and, in
particular public-safety unions, but also are not in
favor of seeing taxes go much higher," says Larry
Mulligan Jr., the mayor of Middletown, the second
largest city in the 8th. He estimates local support for
repealing SB 5 at "50-50."
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Mulligan knows firsthand how divisive the idea of
curbing collective-bargaining rights-as SB 5 will do for
350,000 public workers-can be. Last December, a member
of the Middletown City Council offered a resolution
urging the state legislature to overhaul Ohio's nearly
30-year-old collective-bargaining law. (Kasich, then
governor elect, hinted he would do the same.) City
leaders were barraged with hundreds of angry e-mails,
and about 200 union members packed their chambers to
In the end, the council killed the resolution on a
seven-to-one vote. Middletown, smack dab in Boehner's
district, was an opening salvo in the state's battle
over collective bargaining, says Councilman AJ Smith,
who organized a protest against the failed resolution
and is an outspoken opponent of SB 5. "If I didn't have
a dog in the fight, I'd go down the right-wing line,"
says a former cop. But "this one is personal."
Smith figures that plenty of local folks, like him, will
vote no on Issue 2 on Tuesday, and that what happened
with Middletown's resolution bodes well. "If you could
kill a resolution of this kind in the heart of the
speaker's district, you could kill it in the state of
Ohio," he says. Smith also cites the governor's dismal
approval ratings-in late September, Kasich supplanted
Florida's Rick Scott as Americas' least popular
governor-and the failure of pro-SB 5 forces to fully
sell the bill to locals.
Driving around the district yields circumstantial
evidence for Smith's theory. In large swaths of Miami,
Darke, Preble, and Butler counties, the No on Issue 2
signs appear to vastly outnumber the Yes ones. Many of
the No signs mention firefighters or other public-safety
workers who will feel the brunt of SB 5 if it takes
effect, and many of the people I meet cite concerns over
how the law would affect police and firefighters.
"I'm a conservative Republican, fiscally responsible,
but I'm gonna vote no anyway," says a 50-year-old bus
driver and former cop with a silver goatee, who agrees
to an interview only if I call him by his initials. Clad
in a white Ohio State hoodie, JR says he was disgusted
by Kasich's attempt to crush bargaining rights for the
men and women he used to work with. "If I didn't have a
dog in the fight, I'd go down the right-wing line," he
says. "This one is personal."
Todd Morgan, a 42-year-old Huber Heights resident, told
me his own union membership will make his no vote an
easy one. But he stresses that'd he vote to repeal SB 5
regardless. A few doors down, Chastity Barger, 32,
stands in a garage finishing off a cigarette. She cites
her dad's union membership and her friends' opposition
to Issue 2 on Facebook to justify her decision to vote
no. Susanne Vulgamore, 61, a retired teacher in Tipp
City, doesn't think partisan politics is a factor. "I
have not seen it broken down by party issues," she says.
"It's that everyone knows a teacher, or knows a spouse
who's a teacher or firefighter." "Most people are caving
to the fear that cops and firefighters are going to
disappear," says Kevin Keller, 46
People also seem irked about how SB 5 was passed in the
first place. Introduced by GOP state Sen. Shannon Jones,
whose district overlaps with Boehner's, it was rammed
through the legislature despite sizeable public
protests. In the process, it grew to more than 300
pages, an off-putting length to nearly every Ohioan I
interview. "I'm just not in agreement with the way the
politicians went about pushing the changes on us versus
negotiating with unions," says Joey Johnson, 51.
The 8th District residents who told me they would vote
yes on Issue 2 mostly complained about what they saw as
scare tactics by Kasich's opponents-chiefly We Are Ohio,
a labor-funded group that has raked in more than $20
million to repeal SB 5. "Most people are caving to the
fear that cops and firefighters are going to disappear,"
says Kevin Keller, 46, as he crossed the main drag in
the town of Piqua. "But that's so overblown."
Other supporters claims Kasich's bill was aimed at
helping Main Street. "I think the governor's trying to
save money," says Eric Baker, 29, who was shopping in
the town of Troy. "It's gonna make cash-strapped towns
like this one be able to survive and get by."
But nearly everyone, regardless of their stance,
predicted Issue 2's defeat-and recent poll numbers
suggest that it could well be toast. AJ Smith believes
the widespread opposition underscores how little the
usual political lines matter in this particular fight.
"This is not about Democrats; this is not about
Republicans," he says. "This is about right and wrong."
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