“Out There” columnist Louis Jacobson spoke by telephone with Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Here are excerpts from that Oct. 5 conversation.
Strickland : I think the biggest accomplishment was the passage of a billion-plus budget with unanimous support in the Senate and with only one dissenter in the House, even though the chambers are controlled by the Republicans. And it was a budget that did very positive things.
It did not involve tax increases or fee increases. It was balanced, by constitutional requirement, and yet we put significant additional resources into early child care and education, we increased per-pupil funding for elementary and secondary school students, and after 10 straight years of 9 percent average annual increases in college tuition in Ohio, we froze college tuition for two years while putting million into additional student grant and scholarship aid. We expanded health care in way that makes it possible for every kid in Ohio to have access to affordable health care, and we granted a significant property-tax cut to every senior citizen and disabled person, which is one of every four Ohioans.
As for the biggest disappointment, the thing that comes to mind is that in the budget, I had wanted to provide health coverage to working parents who had children qualifying for (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) coverage and whose income was up to 100 percent of the poverty line. In Ohio, such parents are covered up to 90 percent of the poverty line. It was something I wanted to do, but for budgetary reasons and political reasons was unable to do so. But I want to continue to have that as a goal.
Strickland : I guess I would not fully concur with that description.
I think what I described to you in the budget wasn’t cautious at all. I think capping tuition for two years after 10 years of increases is not cautious, and I think a property-tax cut while being fiscally responsible was certainly not cautious. I think we have taken very definite positions on a whole range of things.
I think I have taken bold moves that address serious problems facing Ohio. I think I have been moderate, but not cautious or timid. That would not be an accurate description at all. I think we have been fiscally responsible, and I think we’re starting to see results.
I don’t get upset when people say that. It’s been difficult for the opposition to mount a serious challenge to my initiatives.
Out There: What is your agenda for solving your state’s significant economic challenges?
Strickland : Let me answer that conceptually, and then give you specifics.
I said in the campaign, and I continued to say, that there is an unbreakable link between educational achievement and economic growth. Our budget reflected that belief. We are hugely focusing on education.
We’ve got some other things I think that point to that conviction. We have changed rather dramatically our approach to higher education. In past, the chancellor of higher education has been selected by the Board of Regents, who are appointed by the governor for long terms. I felt a huge responsibility for higher education, yet the very first appointment I would have had would have been in November of next year, so I found myself having the responsibility for higher ed but having little actual control.
So I asked the Legislature to give me the opportunity to appoint the chancellor – a dramatic departure from tradition. And the speaker agreed with that. The Board of Regents opposed it, but we were able to get that done. I appointed (former U.S. Rep. Eric Fingerhut, D-Ohio), who is someone with respect in both parties, to that position.
We have relabeled our university system in Ohio to be the University System of Ohio, but it’s more involved than just a change in nomenclature. I have a 10-year higher-education plan that will be presented to the Legislature early next year.
So I believe that education is the key to Ohio overcoming its economic woes. In addition to that, I appointed my lieutenant governor (Lee Fisher) to be Ohio Director of Development, and I am giving him huge support.
We’re starting to see results. Right now in Ohio there is twice as much capital investment that will lead to job creation as there was at this time last year.
Just in the last six weeks we’ve had some major developments, and our direct involvement has been a huge part of making these happen.
Continental Airlines announced a major expansion of its hub in Cleveland, which will create 700 new jobs. A consulting services company from India announced last week a major operation in North America, headquartered in Ohio, with 1,000 new jobs. We were hugely involved with that happening.
Cardinal Health, Ohio’s largest company and the 17 th largest company in America, had a groundbreaking two days ago. They are expanding their work here in Ohio, creating between 700 and 800 new jobs.
We hosted at the governor’s residence the man Forbes magazine designated as the 104 th wealthiest person on earth, the head of a Russian steel company. We took him to visit a site in Ohio, and if things proceed as we hope, they will invest billion in a state-of-the-art steel mill employing 1,000 people.
A pharmaceutical company is investing million in Ohio that will create hundreds of new jobs. A General Electric airplane-engine test site will see a significant expansion. General Motors announced a million investment in Toledo.
These are some of the things literally in the last two months that have been announced, and they are matters that I and Lee Fisher have been directly involved in. I am not sure if they would have happened without our involvement, but I think we were certainly helpful in the process.
Out There: How much attention are you paying the presidential race? Is the pivotal role of your state in 2008 having any impact on how you’re governing?
Strickland : Let me say to start that it’s not taking my attention away from state business. Let me brag about myself a bit. I work usually seven days a week, so no one can ever fault me for a lack of attention.
Having said that, winning the presidential election is essential to the future of our country and the world, and Ohio, in my judgment, and I as governor and the Democratic Party have a responsibility to help make sure a Democrat is elected president. And we’re working diligently toward that goal.
How are we doing that? After the last election, a good friend of mine, David Wilhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who lives near me, said, “Ted, we borrowed a lot of voters in 2006, but we don’t own them.”
I asked David to do something for me. I asked him to take considerable time to do a complete analysis of the Ohio Democratic Party, and he did that. He talked to scores of people, maybe hundreds, about messaging technology, management, fund raising – everything the state party should be doing to be successful. He brought me a number of recommendations which we are in the process of implementing.
We already had a great state chairman (former state House Minority Leader Chris Redfern) who was wonderful at dealing with the public, but David suggested that we also needed a highly skilled executive director to look after the implementation of activities as well as be a public face. So we hired a guy named Doug Kelly, who was formerly in charge of research at the Democratic National Committee. He’s a person who I think gives our efforts almost instant credibility.
This party is being built into an effective organization. We have raised more money thus far than we did in the entire election cycle last time. We’re determined to win control of the Ohio House of Representatives in 2008. We’re four votes short, and I think we have a better than 50-50 shot of doing that.
Out There: Have you endorsed any Democratic candidate yet?
Strickland : No. The nomination is likely to be decided before the Ohio primary occurs, and at this point – and I could change my mind – I have talked to most of the candidates and have said that I think my primary responsibility is to focus on winning in November. I think I can best accomplish that by the kind of work I’m trying to do to get the party ready for what is inevitably going to be a hard-fought campaign.
Out There: There’s been some discussion about you being looked at for the Democratic vice-presidential slot. Do you have a Shermanesque statement about that possibility?
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