By Reginald Fields, The Plain Dealer
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio voters dealt a sharp rebuke to first-year Gov. John Kasich and his conservative agenda Tuesday by overwhelmingly rejecting the restrictive new collective bargaining law he championed.
“It’s clear the people have spoken,” the humbled Republican leader said from the Statehouse. “I heard their voices. I understand their decision. And frankly, I respect what the people have to say in an effort like this. And as a result of that, it requires me to take a deep breath and to spend some time to reflect on what happened here.”
The state’s labor union leaders, meanwhile, praised voters for standing up to Kasich, who they felt bullied them in his rush to create the law, known as Senate Bill 5.
“We want to thank the voters of Ohio who used their citizen’s veto to send a message that this extreme legislation was simply out of touch with the majority of Ohioans,” said Ohio Civil Service Employees Association President Christopher Mabe. “Most Ohioans believe that government runs best when front-line workers have a seat at the table. Tonight, they gave us our seat back.”
The referendum on the law, which was Issue 2 on the ballot, was defeated 61 percent to 39 percent in a major victory for unions representing the 360,000 public employees whose power the law would have significantly curtailed. And it has given Democrats, who were crushed at the polls in Ohio just one year ago, a surge of momentum heading into next year’s elections.
“Tonight we sent a message,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern told a crowd of Issue 2 opponents gathered at a downtown Columbus hotel. “A year ago, things didn’t work out for us. I want you to think about how you felt that night, and I want you to think about how you feel tonight.”
The divisive campaign has raised questions about whether Kasich — who has pushed through a number of controversial initiatives with the help of compliant GOP lawmakers — will have as much success next year in accomplishing his policy goals.
“I’m sure it’s going to temper us a little bit, but by and large our members are fully supportive of less government, lower taxes and giving more authority to the people,” veteran Republican state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, of Napoleon, said Tuesday night.
Most of the GOP-controlled legislature, including the entire Ohio House, is up for election next year and might not be eager to be tied to a governor whose job approval rating has sunk to 36 percent, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll.
“I think there is no question this is a major black eye for the governor,” said Ohio State University election law professor Dan Tokaji. “He made the scaling back of collective bargaining rights really the signature issue of the first part of his administration, so this is a huge blow.
“The implications are quite significant and they really go beyond this issue,” Tokaji said. “It will be a sign of a re-emergence of the Democratic party which has used the referendum to fight back despite Republicans controlling state government.”
Kasich conceded defeat shortly before 10 p.m.
While the governor said he respects the voters’ decision, he offered a stern warning to local government leaders. Kasich said that Senate Bill 5 was about helping local governments contain their costs.
“Let me be clear, there is no bailout coming. There’s no bailout because frankly, there is no money,” Kasich said.
“For whatever reason here the voters thought these tools were too much, a lot of local governments didn’t want them,” Kasich said. “That’s OK.”
The decisive defeat was not unexpected as nearly every Issue 2 poll predicted voters would reject the law by a double-digit margin, a result that even Kasich and his Republican supporters had glumly come to expect.
Republicans, in fact, shifted much of their campaign strategy over the past 10 days from winning to limiting the margin of loss — pleading with their supporters to still vote despite the poll numbers — in hopes of trivializing a Democratic political boomerang into 2012.
But with a sizeable double-digit defeat, it didn’t work.
If campaign money is any indication — and in politics it usually is — Kasich and his supporters never had a chance.
We Are Ohio, the coalition of Democrats and major labor unions, outspent Building a Better Ohio — the yes side — by a more than 3-to-1 margin. They ran far more commercials, and they weren’t shy about soliciting outside help to raise funds.
We Are Ohio raised more than $30 million for its campaign while Building a Better Ohio raised about $7.6 million, according to recent campaign finance reports.
Republicans knew they could be headed for trouble when this summer SB5 opponents turned in a million valid signatures to qualify Issue 2 for the ballot — a record number for a referendum.
SB5 was introduced by state Sen. Shannon Jones, a Springboro Republican. But it was Kasich — who took office declaring he would change Ohio’s collective bargaining law — who championed it. He took the unusual step of visiting Statehouse hearings on the bill.
And when it appeared it did not have enough votes to clear the Senate, Kasich began lobbying senators individually in private meetings in his office. He eventually helped get the measure the one-vote margin it needed to clear the Senate. The more conservative House was an easier sell.
It all ended in about the worst case scenario for Republicans: a sizeable defeat that has left key party figures pointing fingers at each other.
The GOP has tripped into a valley after achieving a remarkable high just one year ago when Kasich became the first person to upset an incumbent Ohio governor since 1974. His victory triggered a Republican sweep of statewide elected offices and helped the GOP reclaim the Ohio House.
The pressure from an anticipated Issue 2 loss has been mounting and rose to the surface last week when Republicans began shifting the blame for Senate Bill 5 to one another.
Kasich supporters quietly blamed Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, saying the state’s top elections officer allowed Issue 2 to be worded on the ballot to benefit the no side. Others blamed the governor, saying he stubbornly employed the classic political over-reach, ramrodding major policy through while ignoring the wishes of the public.
“Republicans got too greedy and it backfired,” Tokaji said. “They went too far and there was a huge backlash against them.”
More proof the Republicans knew they would lose: they have already started working on a back-up plan. House Speaker William G. Batchelder told reporters last week to expect pieces of the 300-page law to re-emerge early next year as standalone bills.
The Oct. 25 Quinnipiac University poll showed support for requirements that public workers pay at least 15 percent of their health care costs and contribute at least 10 percent of their salary toward their pension. The poll also showed support for a provision in SB 5 that would establish a merit-based pay system.
Sen. Keith Faber, the number-two ranking Senate Republican, said the defeat of Issue 2 does not mean voters are happy with the current collective bargaining law that passed in 1983. He said the Issue 2 campaign made it clear to him the law needs to be revised.
“We need to do some of this reform,” Faber said on Monday. “What we define that to be will be the question.”
Faber, who argued in favor of Issue 2 at a half dozen debates before the election, said lawmakers should not hesitate to pursue collective bargaining reform again, despite the intense opposition from labor groups and Democrats.
“If it’s the right thing to do and we need to work on it again, that’s kind of what we get elected to do,” Faber said, adding that in the final weeks of the campaign he noticed that “people are opening up to the need for change.”
Democratic Sen. Joe Schiavoni, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate committee that heard SB5, said he expects Republicans to reintroduce the parts of the bill that polled well.
“I think there will be legislation that is brought back up to deal with public employees regarding health care, regarding pension, regarding merit pay,” Schiavoni said on Tuesday evening. “I don’t know how far they’re going to reach.”
Plain Dealer reporter Joe Guillen contributed to this story