Author’s note: to be completely upfront and honest, these year-in-review essays typically are my way of finally writing about the topics that had lost their timeliness by the time I finally got around to attempt tackling them but were important enough – I felt – to warrant revisiting under some format down the road. These are stories that hold ramifications for what we can expect to see play-out in the coming year, retain a degree of poignancy as time has worn-on, had key points missed by the media during coverage of them, or were dropped from the news cycle much too quickly for my taste.
Governor-elect John Kasich’s choice to appoint State Representative James Zehringer as his director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) – a selection he made two weeks after winning the election – appears to be a mixed bag to me.
Due to my reflexively distrustful nature of any action by members of either major party, the Zehringer appointment wreaks of appeasement. As will be spelled out below, this state’s GOP establishment has a great deal of bridge building and repairing to be done with large expanses of Western Ohio’s electorate: a crucial effort for the party’s future success that has gone completely unreported.
Some of the tiles in Kasich’s path to nominating Zehringer were set in place because of other developments earlier in the year relating to another race for an Ohio statewide office: Attorney General. Or, rather, I mean the interesting shortage of candidates for that race.
Just in case my effort in sardonic wit isn’t working, my suspicions about Kasich’s selection are tied to the would-be candidacy of Hardin County attorney Steve Christopher for the office about to be occupied by Mike DeWine.
Unlike all the statewide election winners fielded by the Ohio Republican Party (ORP), Christopher was a bona fide Tea Party candidate. His ORP colleagues were merely riding the wave of voter dissatisfaction or – in the case of Secretary of State-elect Jon Husted – engaged in outright co-opting of the Tea Party symbolism and message (as prescribed in Trent Lott’s advice to RNC senators).
The connection between Kasich and Christopher is Mercer County – where Zerhinger calls home.
Christopher’s campaign efforts received a great deal of support from Mercer County residents active in the Tea Party movement. They extensively circulated his Declaration of Candidacy petitions in the months leading up to the February 18 filing deadline and collected hundreds of signatures for his campaign.
Now, to qualify for the Republican Party primary on May 4 he needed approximately 1,000 valid signatures. The preliminary count of total signatures turned-in at the Secretary of State’s office in Columbus was roughly 1,700 according to Christopher. A “preliminary count” was the result of just a cursory run-through of his petitions by the SoS staffer at the desk to get an estimate of how many signatures were being submitted for verification by the state.
Bearing in mind Christopher’s claim of approximately 1,700 signatures in all, imagine his surprise when he was informed that he had little more than 600 valid signatures from registered Ohio voters out of the roughly 700 signatures submitted, according to outgoing-Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
Also much to the surprise of the people of Mercer County was the tally Brunner’s office listed as having originated from their area: zero.
Murmurs rippling through the Tea Party and Patriot groups in this region of Ohio suggest other counties where Christopher supporters circulated petitions also are on record as offering goose eggs in that statistic.
To most readers, I’m certain, the response being spoken or noted silently is, “So, why is this ORP’s controversy as opposed to all arrows pointing at Brunner?”
Well, when one considers we’re talking about a major political party that raised and spent over $100 million in one state on midterm elections and ordinarily looks for any reason to pillory any ranking member of the opposition as a means to scoop-up more votes, the ORP’s inexplicable, complete silence on this matter was deafening across the western counties. There was no demand for an investigation by a single state party leader and the ORP didn’t even so much as pay Christopher lip service out of support.
And, out of pure coincidence, over the course of his own signature-gathering efforts in 2009, State Auditor-elect Dave Yost switched gears completely at the request of party leadership so that DeWine could enjoy smoother sailing in the Attorney General primary. Oops, I almost forgot to include the fact that Yost initially began pursuing the Republican candidacy for Attorney General, not Auditor.
In addition, I’m sure Mike DeWine’s extensive connections after serving four years in the General Assembly Senate, eight years as a U.S. representative, two years as Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor, and 12 years as a U.S. senator played absolutely no role in Christopher coming-up short or in any way influenced anyone’s actions behind closed doors in Columbus.
Furthermore, I highly doubt that ORP Chair Kevin DeWine – who by pure happenstance is Mike’s second cousin – even for one second pondered pulling any strings at his disposal to help a family member enjoy an uncontested primary.
Those sorts of activities simply never happen in Ohio politics. It’s just all on the up-and-up.
Since term limits were implemented in 1992, Ohio has served as the single-worst source of evidence for anyone trying to argue for their passage elsewhere: the game of Musical Chairs being played by both major parties each time a beloved insider of theirs hits their respective term limit has grown into an increasingly acknowledged joke in recent years.
But, the ORP’s antics over the last year should serve as an unmitigated embarrassment to anyone who still votes Republican.
So, after all that background development, let’s take inventory of the trail of destruction left behind by the state GOP in terms of the electorate’s confidence in them. With at least one county – and likely more – here in Western Ohio we have dozens of community leaders still on the verge of foaming at the mouth as a result of the aforementioned storyline. As linked earlier, Tea Party leaders at the state level have been actively trying to wash their hands of any perception of affiliation with Republicans throughout 2010. And as I have witnessed in recent months, a growing number of local Tea Party groups’ leadership are beginning to share that sentiment. And, the town- and county-level Tea Party organizations are rapidly networking all the more with one another.
Between the Ohio Liberty Council, the Abigail Adams Project, and the local assemblies, more and more Tea Partiers (principally along the I-75 corridor) are priming themselves for a RINO witch hunt in the next several election cycles and possibly even a rebellion against the party altogether.
If the ORP fails to consider all that, there are going to be quite a few unpleasantly surprised Kevin DeWine cronies down the road – in Novembers falling on even-number years.
And that is where, in my opinion, Zehringer enters the equation. My instincts tell me someone on Kasich’s team – to some extent – is quietly aware their party runs the risk of losing significant numbers of voters in coming years in Western Ohio’s predominantly Ag counties.
Seeking out a local person for a high-profile administration seat such as ODA – I’m confident someone has postulated – may appear to be an ideal way to salve just enough wounds to avoid torpedoing state and local Republicans in 2012 and ‘14.
On the other side of the coin
None of this is meant to be an indictment of Rep. Zehringer himself. To play devil’s advocate, his nomination in fact is an intriguing one from a libertarian standpoint.
Based on what I’ve had the opportunity to read about him thus far, Zehringer seems to fit the bill of a small-government conservative: the kind for whom the Tea Party movement in general has been clamoring to see in such senior elected and appointed offices. The Associated Press article covering Kasich’s announcement specified that in 2009 Zehringer co-sponsored a bill designed to put the ODA on a track toward elimination.
Certainly on the surface, nominating someone to direct the Department of Agriculture who is known for wanting it dismantled would appear to be an effective scheme for winning-over a lot of Ohio Farm Bureau members.
Perhaps the Kasich Administration’s strategy is to make as many farmers happy as they can in addition to placating a few locals as a way to mitigate enough losses in voters to counter-balance any Tea Party backlash against the ORP – even if it should turnout to be a large-scale defection of previously reliable voters.