Ohio’s Anti-Choice Governor Could Be a Shoo-In for Re-Election


Though the race for the Ohio governor’s seat was initially expected to be close, Democratic candidate Ed FitzGerald’s chances of beating incumbent John Kasich are becoming more and more remote.

After news slipped that Westlake, Ohio, police had, one morning in 2012, found FitzGerald in a car with a woman who wasn’t his wife, and follow-up reports showing that he had been driving for nearly six years without a valid license, his poll numbers have continued to trail Kasich’s by double digits.

FitzGerald’s campaign manager and communications director quit. Since then, Chip Shannon, who worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign, has stepped in to pick up the slack.

And these struggles, which the Washington Post called a “remarkable implosion,” are only the most recent. Early on in the campaign, FitzGerald’s pick for lieutenant governor, Ohio Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney, pulled his name from the ticket after reports surfaced that Kearney faces serious financial trouble, including about $1 million owed to the IRS and a lawsuit filed by American Express over unpaid debt.

Still, as FitzGerald plays defense, the run-up to November has turned on abortion access and the economy, two issues which will prove important for all of Ohio’s elections this year.

Abortion and Reproductive Justice

Reproductive justice, and specifically access to abortion, has become central to the campaign being run by FitzGerald, who is the executive of Cuyahoga County and a former FBI special agent in Chicago. Focusing on the anti-abortion position of Republican opponents is a strategy that has paid off in the recent electoral past: Current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli last year is often credited to the McAuliffe ad criticizing his opponent’s anti-abortion stance.

In January this year, FitzGerald announced that Sharen Neurhardt, an Ohio attorney widely known as an abortion rights activist, would be his running mate. Neuhardt, who ran two failed bids for the U.S. House of Representatives, was on the board of the Greater Miami Valley’s Planned Parenthood in southwest Ohio. Last year, she gave the opening remarks as part of a protest at the state capitol against Kasich’s anti-abortion budget legislation.

“Gov. Kasich and the state legislators are trying to turn back the clock, but we are here today to tell them ‘We won’t go back,” Neuhardt said at the time.

After announcing her appointment, FitzGerald’s and Neurhardt’s first public appearance as running mates was for an endorsement by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio.

“I will stop talking about women’s rights when [Kasich] stops trying to restrict women’s rights,” FitzGerald said at the time. “I think Gov. Kasich has been avoiding an open discussion on that, and we have to force that discussion in the election.”

Anti-choice advocates have tried to frame FitzGerald’s position on abortion as largely out of touch with Ohio residents. After an Ohio Democratic organization called the candidate “100 percent pro-choice,” Ohio Right to Life president and one of Kasich’s appointee to the State Medical Board, Mike Gonidakis, decried the statement as proving how wrong FitzGerald is for Ohio.

“FizGerald identified as ‘100 percent pro-choice,’ which would include abortions through the ninth month of pregnancy. But three in four Ohioans reject that extreme position,” he said.

In an interview with the local paper, the Times Gazette, FitzGerald clarified that claim, telling a reporter that not only does he not support abortion up to the ninth month of pregnancy, but he doesn’t know any another Democrats “in favor of extreme late-term abortion.”

Like FitzGerald, Kasich has made his position on abortion abundantly clear: He is staunchly anti-abortion and will fight to shut down every abortion provider in Ohio.

Gov. Kasich has headed a targeted effort to pass anti-abortion legislation and close down clinics in the state; during his term, Ohio has become one of the worst states for abortion access in the country.

In 2011, Kasich, who was a U.S. representative from 1983 to 2001 and a Fox News commentator until 2007, signed into law a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. In a statement released at the time of the signing, Kasich said that “life is a gift from God and one way that we express our ongoing gratitude for it is by respecting it. This bill does that in a very fundamental way and I’m proud to have signed it into law.”

Later that year, Kasich signed into law a bill imposing restrictions on minor women seeking to get an abortion without the consent of their parents, which is required by law in most cases.

He also signed a bill banning health insurance plans available through the Affordable Care Act from covering abortion.

In perhaps the biggest anti-abortion push during his term, Kasich in 2013 signed a budget bill that included at least five anti-abortion provisions. The bill stripped funding from Planned Parenthood, reallocated that money to “crisis pregnancy centers,” and created a new requirement for surgical abortion facilities, mandating that they have written transfer agreements with local public hospitals. That is a requirement not backed up by medical evidence showing that abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures.

Aside from legislation, Kasich has also appointed political allies and anti-choice advocates to state medical positions that hold regulatory power and set the standards of health in Ohio.

Kasich has made several anti-choice appointments to state-level positions designed for medical professionals. In 2012 he appointed Michael Gonidakis as a member of the State Medical Board, a body tasked with protecting and enhancing the “health and welfare of Ohio’s citizens” by issuing and monitoring more than 55,000 licenses to Ohioans interested in practicing medicine.

Gonidakis is currently the president of the Ohio Right to Life organization, and previously served as the campaign manager for two pro-life judges.

In 2013, Kasich appointed Dr. Sushil Sethi to the State Medical Board. According to the local news outlets Plunderbund and Cleveland.com, Sethi has pushed his anti-choice position while on the board. For example, according to the minutes of a board meeting in 2013, during a discussion about the importance of genetic counselors to communicate sensitive information about disease and medical predispositions, Dr. Sethi “asked if there are any ethical behavior controls for genetic counselors to prevent them from swaying their patients’ decisions regarding abortion.”

Gonidakis followed up by asking, “With the rapid increase in autism and the main theories as to its cause, at what point are those in the field of genetics scaring couples into making decisions that probably are not the right decisions?”

Taken together, these laws and appointments resulted in the closure of some four clinics in the state since 2013. Three other clinics are currently in legal limbo and face closure.

Economy

Though abortion access has become a central issue in Ohio elections, including in the gubernatorial race, like every rust belt state, the economy is crucial, and both candidates have taken aim at the other’s economic policies.

Faced with the receding U.S. manufacturing industry, rust belt states like Ohio were dealt a particularly hard blow by the Great Recession. According to the Chronicle-Telegram, Ohio also lost thousands of jobs due to “an auto industry free fall” that left the state economy reeling. When Kasich was elected in 2010, the state had a $8 billion budget deficit.

Rebooting the economy has been central to Kasich’s plan as governor; however, the first half of Kasich’s term was marred by unpopularity and policy missteps.

Toward the end of his first year in office, Kasich was among the least popular governors in the country. A poll that fall by Public Policy Polling put Kasich as the least-liked governor, beating Florida’s Rick Scott for the title. That poll found that only 36 percent of voters in Ohio approved of their governor, and 53 percent disapproved.

Kasich’s favorability among voters wasn’t helped by the fact that what was then his and the Republican Party’s signature piece of legislation was also wildly unpopular. The bill, SB 5, was a one of several “right to work” bills introduced in the Midwest during that time.

SB 5 would have curbed collective bargaining rights for public works and made their unions effectively powerless. Though Kasich signed it into law early in 2011, Ohioans repealed SB 5 later that year at the polls.

In a statement at the time, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that “Ohio’s working people successfully fought back against lies pushed by shadowy multinational corporations and their anonymous front groups that attempted to scapegoat public service employees and everyone they serve by assaulting collective bargaining rights.”

But since then, Kasich’s popularity has been gradually on the rise, a change that can in large part be credited to the Ohio economy. Since 2011, the state economy has improved in several important ways: The unemployment rate has gone down and is now lower than the national average, and the state is now operating with a budget surplus.

But FitzGerald has said that the numbers are misleading because only a small group of Ohioans have benefited, a fact that is backed up by numbers.

According to the Chronicle-Telegram, though overall state income has gone up, median household income has actually decreased, and at a rate higher than the rest of the country. The number of people living in poverty increased from 2007 to 2012, and home ownership rates in the state decreased during that time period.

FitzGerald has said that strengthening the economy is his “number one priority,” and that he will cut taxes for the middle class and focus on middle-class job creation.

Still, Kasich’s approval by Ohio voters has continued to rise, and FitzGerald has had no such luck. Kasich is now considered by many to be a shoe-in for the spot. But whether or not he is re-elected to the governor’s mansion in Ohio, we should expect to see more of Kasich: He is widely expected to make a bid for the presidency in 2016.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Nina Liss-Schultz on twitter: @NinaLisss