COLUMBUS, Ohio — Unionized teachers, 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.
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 re jected 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 almost 20 years. About 20 of their candidates belong to unions.
“The GOP’s partisan agenda is out of touch, which is why their top legislative priority … was soundly rejected in Republican districts across the state,” said state Rep. Jay Goyal, co-chair of the House Democratic Caucus Campaign.
Lawmakers need to focus on creating jobs to strengthen the middle class, Goyal said, and returning the House to Democratic control is the only way to stop what he calls the GOP’s “anti-middle-class agenda.”
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 Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern — a former state representative who has been among Kasich’s most outspoken critics.
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.