Ohio GOP may invite backlash with tough stance on unions

After 17 consecutive days of protests, demonstrators have left the Wisconsin State House. A judge ordered it closed for 48 hours for cleaning, and said protesters could only return during business hours. (March 4)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 8:35 PM

COLUMBUS, OHIO - State Republicans took the toughest line yet against public-sector unions this week, delivering an early and significant victory for a slew of lawmakers elected in November.

Perhaps too tough. Democrats and even some Republicans said that the bold action and the uncompromising way it was carried out could boomerang on Republicans in the next election, in much the same way that the stimulus bill and health-care overhaul haunted Democrats in Ohio and elsewhere last year.

"Anybody who thinks that the November elections of Republicans was a mandate misread the tea leaves," said Tim Grendell, a Republican senator from the Cleveland suburbs who was one of six from his party to vote against Senate Bill 5. "It was a mandate against the overreach of Obama and [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi and [Sen. Harry] Reid in Washington. And now there's going to be a backlash in Ohio. People in the public believe that this collective-bargaining bill was a Republican overreach, and now you're going to see a sort of slap-back reaction."

Grendell is not known as a big-union supporter, and he backed "85 percent" of the measure in Ohio. But, he said, several aspects of it went too far: a ban on collective bargaining for police officers and firefighters; a provision giving government the final say in contract negotiations; and another provision, which he believes is unconstitutional, that blocks public workers from talking to elected officials during contract talks.

Ohio Republican leaders have moved quickly on the measure - which also makes going on strike a criminal offense for virtually all government workers - with little effort at compromise. That approach could turn off a broad swath of voters, especially if they come to see it as more of a politically-motivated move against unions than one necessary to balance the state's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

"Taking on the fire and police, from a political perspective - it's illogical," Grendell said. "I can't explain it. I can't justify it. The ad that is going to be fatal to Republicans is going to be the fireman carrying the baby out of the burning building. How do you counteract that?"

How voters react to such messaging will be especially important next year, when the presidential election is likely to draw a bigger, more moderate electorate than in 2010, when five new Republican congressmen, a Republican governor and a new majority in the state House of Representatives were elected.

Potential Republican presidential candidates have been reluctant to choose sides in the debate roiling Ohio and other states, earning the wrath of some on the right. Those who have taken a stand, such as former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, have scored easy points with likely GOP primary voters, but not necessarily with the wider electorate that will come out on Election Day.

"Ohio is a state that I believe shuns extremes, and what we're seeing from the governor and the legislature is perceived by a majority of Ohioans as extreme action," said former governor Ted Strickland (D), who lost narrowly to Republican John Kasich in November. "If they don't recognize this and pull back, they will pay a heavy price when there's the next vote."

The political dynamic in Ohio is, in many ways, a reversal from two years ago, when President Obama won the state and tea party groups began to form in opposition to Democratic policies.

Now Republicans are in charge and union members and their supporters are the ones protesting, using the Senate bill as a rallying cry to turn around what they see as two years of listlessness.

"We're going to take every avenue available to us to be sure Ohioans have a voice in this," said Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters.

As the roll call finished Wednesday, dozens of union supporters in the Senate gallery chanted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" A day earlier, about 8,500 union supporters had gathered on Capitol Square to voice their opposition.

Still, most Republicans have been undeterred. They hailed the bill for giving state and local governments more power to reduce spending and balance their budgets at a time of spiraling deficits, declining tax revenues and persistent economic stagnation.

"Companies are leaving our state," said Sen. Shannon Jones (R), the bill's author, speaking in the Statehouse's Senate chamber Wednesday afternoon. "Financially, our state and local governments are at the breaking point. Revenues are on the decline. Demand for services is on the rise, and the cost of government is growing beyond the ability to sustain it."

Jones's bill is more sweeping than even the one under consideration in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) has rocketed to national stardom by railing against the power of public unions. That proposal exempts police and firefighters.

Kasich said he plans to continue promoting a bold agenda of fiscal reforms in the coming weeks. His resolve is all the more remarkable because of his narrow victory last fall, when he unseated Strickland with a 77,000-vote margin - and less than 50 percent of the total vote.

Republican Bill Seitz said he voted against Senate Bill 5 not because he didn't support many of its goals, but because it goes so far that it is sure to lead to a referendum and could be overturned by voters.

"My only concern is that we not overplay our hand," Seitz said. "By generating a backlash of equal proportions, we run the risk, particularly on this issue of collective bargaining, of having the entire thing thrown out."

Seitz said that history is not on the side of Republicans. In the late 1950s, the last time the Ohio legislature tried to go after unions - by passing a right-to-work law - not only did the unions get the measure on the ballot the following November and defeat it by 2 to 1, but Republicans also subsequently lost the governorship. Ohio lawmakers have been leery of union reforms ever since.

One reason Ohio Republicans are moving so quickly this year is to control the timing of a challenge to the law. Ohioans may challenge any law within 90 days of its passage by collecting enough signatures to trigger a referendum at the next general election.

By planning to fully enact Senate Bill 5 by April, Ohio Republicans are ensuring that such a challenge would appear on the 2011 ballot rather than in 2012, when Obama will be up for reelection - and a more union-friendly electorate is likely to turn out.

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