Uproar over Ohio governor's past efforts to restrict unions falls silent in re-election bid

Government And Institutions Associated Press

The anger unions aimed toward Republican Gov. John Kasich just three years ago during his attempt to restrict collective bargaining has been largely absent from the campaign trail as he seeks another term in Tuesday's election.

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Organized labor leaders and Democrats thought Kasich would be vulnerable this time around because of his backing of the contentious union law that was overwhelmingly defeated by voters. But instead, he has been able to avoid any visible or outward backlash largely because of the collapse of his opponent's campaign.

Democrat Ed FitzGerald's self-inflicted troubles and lack of fundraising have essentially left him unable to capitalize on the issue by reminding voters that Kasich signed the law that would have restricted collective bargaining.

Teachers, firefighters, union leaders and organizers who led the fight against the law restricting the bargaining rights of public employee unions say they haven't forgotten what happened. It's just that they don't have anyone to lead the charge against the governor.

"The implosion of the Democratic candidate has not left us with a rallying point," said Dave Wright, a firefighter from Dayton.

He thinks union workers still have a bad taste in their mouth and can't imagine many will back Kasich. Yet he's not sure if they'll support FitzGerald either after it was revealed that he was in a car in an empty parking lot in 2012 with a woman who isn't his wife and that he lacked a permanent driver's license for more than a decade.

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"That's what people are hung up on," Wright said.

Kasich, meanwhile, has continued to increase his advantage in both fundraising and in the polls. After stating his intention not to support right-to-work union limits anytime soon, he's even landed a handful of endorsements from private sector labor unions.

"I think management and labor are working very well together, so why would I want to disrupt that?" Kasich told The Associated Press during a recent campaign ride-along. "I see no reason to disrupt it."

Some pro-union voters are likely to stay home, said George Tucker, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Northwest Ohio AFL-CIO.

"I hate to say it, but they don't see the wolf at the door and they're not getting excited," Tucker said. "I guess that's just human nature."

FitzGerald still has the endorsement of most unions and has continued to make the rounds talking to labor organizations. But his fundraising, including from labor, has dried up, leaving him off the TV airwaves during the final two months of the race.

His spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said both FitzGerald and his running mate have met with union members many times to remind them about "Kasich's attack on teachers, firefighters, police and so many others who selflessly serve our state."

"The memory of that attack is far more powerful than a 30 second television commercial," she said.

Youngstown firefighter Chris Weaver said his union continues to talk with its members about the law that would have prohibited many public employees from negotiating health care and pension benefits and banned public employee strikes.

It's just hard, he said, to "push our membership out to vote."

"It is somewhat disappointing," he said. "It shouldn't be just us and the other unions."

Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, said his union's get-out-the-vote effort has more volunteers this year than in previous non-presidential election years — a reflection they haven't forgotten the fight over collective bargaining.

"Those are the ways we think it still has an impact," Mabe said.

Kasich and other Republicans, for the most part, also have steered away from talking about the measure that was beaten back.

"Look, we already got the lessons of Senate Bill 5," Kasich said. "There's no reason to revisit them."

So while FitzGerald has been unable to take advantage of what was Kasich's biggest setback during his first term, the fight over the union law still is influencing what's being talked about in the campaign, said Dennis Willard, spokesman for We Are Ohio, the labor-backed organization that helped defeat the law.

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Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth contributed to this report.