Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s home-state paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has long noted his mix-and-match style. He is a proud fiscal conservative who tried to roll back the power of public unions but also bucked his party on Obamacare. He fought to reinstate the death penalty while filling his public appearances with pop-culture references to Pearl Jam or the Rolling Stones. He presents himself as the hugging, compassionate Republican in the presidential race, but was known in Congress for his prickly temper and volatility – and he once got kicked off the stage at a Grateful Dead concert.
When he first went to Congress in 1982, after serving in the Ohio State Senate, Kasich quickly established himself as a cost-cutter. Against the position of some other Republicans, he opposed building more B–2 stealth bombers (an addition the Pentagon said it did not need) and proposed a package in 1993 that he projected would cut expenditures by $400 billion over five years. When he was promoted to budget chairman after the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 election, the congressman promised to “pull things out by the roots.”
His new position put him right in the middle of rough-and-tumble budget negotiations with the White House in 1995—negotiations that got so nasty they broke down entirely, leading the government to shut down. Twice. Two years later, Kasich authored the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which he touts on the campaign trail as one of his greatest achievements.
He irritated some of his House colleagues. The chairmen of the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees claimed he was overstepping his bounds, and some other Ohio lawmakers tried to avoid sitting next to him on flights home. GOP pollster Frank Luntz called him the “Woody Harrelson of Congress.”
Kasich launched his first presidential bid in February 1999 but quickly dropped out in July (he endorsed George W. Bush). He made his way into the private sector, becoming a managing director at Wall Street’s Lehman Brothers and kept up with the political world as a Fox News contributor. While at Lehman in 2002, Kasich helped arrange two meetings between representatives of state pension funds and Lehman officials, but the meetings didn’t result in any money for Lehman. When the firm went down in the 2008 financial crisis, Kasich did not leave with a “golden parachute,” according to records released by his gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
In 2010, Kasich defeated incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland for governor. He put his budget committee skills to use and went about slashing his state’s deficit and working to bring Ohio out of the 2008 economic crisis. His tax cuts and budgeting, however, came at the expense of local governments: 70 cities have lost at least $1 million per year in state funding since Kasich took office in 2011. Specifically, Kasich’s elimination of Ohio’s estate tax, reduction of the Local Government Fund, and phasing out reimbursements to help communities cope with a 2005 rollback of property taxes cost Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati more than $20 million each per year. The overall effect of the cuts has been mixed.
After Kasich became governor, several of his best friends became Ohio’s new go-to lobbyists, drawing criticism that they were cashing in. Kasich was accused of hypocrisy after campaigning against special interests. While Kasich said there was nothing improper going on, he and one of his friends-turned-lobbyists admitted they’d had at least one conversation about an issue that mattered to the friend’s client.
One of Kasich’s signature programs as governor is JobsOhio, a privatized development agency created to bring jobs to the state that replaced a public model. But the agency has been plagued with allegations of extravagant spending—including using public money to pay private employees—and complaints by Democrats about conflicts of interest. A 2013 law largely exempted JobsOhio from public audits.
Kasich and Ohio’s Republican leadership sought to roll back some rights and powers of unionized public workers, but the unions collected nearly a million signatures in support of holding a statewide referendum on the law. Kasich’s measure went down to defeat in 2011 by nearly a 2-to–1 margin.
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But Kasich also defied the national Republican position on Obamacare, deciding to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and accept $2.5 billion from the federal government, framing his argument in terms of Christian compassion. By his account, he lectured one legislator by saying: “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”
The governor won reelection in 2014 and launched his presidential bid in 2015. His message of optimism and his mellow demeanor on the trail surprised those who remembered him as a man who ran hot-and-cold, called out-of-state rivals “wackadoodles,” and derided a cop as an “idiot” for pulling him over (Kasich later apologized to the officer). The GOP establishment was reluctant to embrace him—some because they remember his temper, some because he expanded Medicaid, but primarily because they didn’t see him as a viable candidate. In the Republican primaries, Kasich to date has only won his home state of Ohio. Although he remains far behind Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in the delegate tally, he is hoping to come out on top if there is a contested convention.