COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In 1997, when Republicans controlled the U.S. House of Representatives and John Kasich chaired the Budget Committee, he set his sights on the GOP's 2000 presidential nomination because "there just aren't enough hours left in my life that I can get everything done that I want to get done." He was 44.
The presidency eluded him, as it has every sitting congressman other than James Garfield (another Ohioan), so Kasich went to work for Lehman Brothers (deceased), Fox News (flourishing) and now Ohio (ailing). His ebullience -- 12 years from now, at 70, he will still seem like a boy who rode his balloon-tire bike out of a Booth Tarkington novel -- is not dampened by a Midwestern winter's slate gray sky hanging close to the 30th-floor governor's office. Having occupied that office for four weeks, he has plans as big as Ohio's problems.
Its population is aging, and shrinking relative to the nation's: From 2000 to 2010, only Rhode Island and Louisiana had slower population growth (Michigan had negative growth); and Ohio is losing two congressional seats. It will have 16 starting in 2013, down from 24 in 1960. Cincinnati has lost 40 percent of its population since 1950. Most net new job creation in the nation is done by companies no more than five years old, but Kasich says Ohio's taxation and regulation environment discourages entrepreneurship. Which is one reason why a third of the state's college students leave Ohio within three years of graduation. Per-pupil spending in Cleveland and Youngstown public schools is $14,573 and $13,823, respectively (the national average is about $10,800); their graduation rates are 54.3 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Nineteen percent of Ohioans are on Medicaid, which is about 30 percent of the state's budget.
Asked what the headline will be when he submits his first budget, he replies, "Probably, 'Oh my God!'" When he was chairing the House Budget Committee, Washington cut domestic appropriations 9 percent in 1996 and achieved a surplus in 1998, but that was with the economy humming. Ohio's projected fiscal 2012 deficit of 11 percent of the state's 2011 budget is serious, but far from the calamities facing California (29.3 percent), Texas (31.5), New Jersey (37.4), Illinois (44.9) and Nevada (45.2).
Kasich is in the process of privatizing the economic development agency and enticed a Silicon Valley venture capitalist to run it for a $1-a-year salary. Kasich's traveling for Lehman Brothers was an experience that affected him the way the years with General Electric deepened Ronald Reagan's enthusiasm for the private sector.
Kasich is considering privatizing some prisons and selling or leasing the Ohio Turnpike (Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels leased Indiana's). Today, Kasich says, there are people getting paid $66,000 a year to collect tolls that machines might collect. He says the turnpike revenues do not come to the state and he is puzzled about where they do go.
With Republicans controlling all statewide elected offices (except one Supreme Court seat) and both houses of the General Assembly, Kasich is spoiling for some fights. One will be with the nursing home industry, which will resist state attempts to save money by helping the elderly stay at home. And there will be a brawl with the teachers union over school voucher programs, charter schools and narrowing the topics -- e.g., class sizes -- that can be subjects of collective bargaining. He is prepared to threaten a state takeover of failing school systems and is proud that Michelle Rhee, who was constructively confrontational when running the District of Columbia's schools, is from Toledo.
The son of a mailman -- and a goulash of Central European ethnicities (Hungarian, Czech, Croatian) -- Kasich appeals to the blue-collar workers that Democrats have been losing since the 1960s, and among whom Democrats lost roughly 2 to 1 in 2010. There are many in Ohio, where five Democratic members of Congress lost in 2010.
Michael Barone's Almanac of American Politics calls Ohio "the first entirely American state": The original 13 began as British colonies and the next three (Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee) were carved from colonies. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio, which has not voted for a losing presidential candidate since 1960. So there will be national repercussions from whatever Kasich accomplishes working here in this middle-sized city in the middle of the state where the Middle West begins, the region where the next presidential election may be decided.
George Will's e-mail address is georgewill(at)washpost.com.
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