Ed FitzGerald believes that the ideological differences that have historically defined northern and southern Ohio are not as stark as they once were, and that when it comes to many issues – particularly the economy and crime – he is more conservative than Gov. John Kasich, his opponent in the 2014 election.
FitzGerald, the Democratic candidate for Ohio governor, sat down for an interview Saturday at the offices of The Times-Gazette while traveling to an event in Clermont County.
“That’s not as true as it once was,” said FitzGerald, referring to northern Ohio being more liberal and southern Ohio more conservative. FitzGerald cited Columbus and Franklin County as examples, noting that they were once Republican strongholds but now feature a number of high-ranking Democratic officials.
And, “Cuyahoga County is not as liberal as you think it is,” he said. “Even Cincinnati is more mixed.”
FitzGerald said that when he started his quest for governor more than a year ago, friends told him to prepare for a “culture shock” in the southern part of the state. But as a native of Indiana, and with a son at Xavier University and two sisters living in Cincinnati, FitzGerald said he has long been familiar with the ideological traits that exist in various parts of Ohio.
FitzGerald is largely regarded as the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, although he is being challenged in the primary election. His opponent, Larry Ealy, is described in media reports as “an unemployed, former tow-truck operator from Dayton” who “has had numerous run-ins with the law in Dayton and spent about 85 days in jail in 2013…” according to the Dayton Daily News.
FitzGerald, 45, is the seventh of eight children. A graduate of The Ohio State University, he worked as a Special Agent with the FBI, assigned to the Organized Crime Task Force in Chicago before returning to Ohio as an assistant county prosecutor and then mayor of Lakewood, Ohio.
As mayor, FitzGerald “made government smaller and more efficient, while still making major investments in public safety and job creation. Under Ed’s leadership, Lakewood was recognized as being one of the best places in Ohio to raise a family,” according to his campaign.
After a corruption scandal rocked Cuyahoga County’s commission system, FitzGerald became the first County Executive under a new form of government there, a position he still holds.
In his campaign for governor, FitzGerald is relying on a grassroots operation, his personal experience in law enforcement, and his record as mayor to sway voters – along with what he believes will be a major blowback from Kasich’s support of SB 5, a law that limited collective bargaining in Ohio by public employees, and which was repealed by voters in November 2011.
While FitzGerald’s campaign might be underfunded, he knows the playing field can be leveled with big expenditures from union interests attacking Kasich on the SB 5 controversy.
“SB 5 is a huge issue,” said FitzGerald, adding that in 2010, 40 percent of teachers backed Kasich for governor over the incumbent, Ted Strickland, in a race that was decided by just 77,000 votes out of 3.8 million cast. Peeling off substantially more votes from the ranks of teachers, firefighters, police officers and others who would have been affected by the bill could swing the election for the Democrats, said Fitzgerald.
He said that teachers in particular are rallying to his side, in part because of SB 5, but also because of state initiatives which they believe favor private or charter schools, and other efforts that they say take education decisions out of the hands of local communities and put too much power in state and federal oversight initiatives.
The most recent Ohio governor’s poll by Quinnipiac University showed Kasich with a 5-point lead, 43-38. FitzGerald said that puts him in a strong position, considering that the same poll showed that 70 percent of respondents did not know enough about him yet to form an opinion.
Across Ohio, people have more in common that unites them than divides them, said FitzGerald, pointing to the battle against the growing meth and heroin problems afflicting much of the state.
“The heroin problem has changed,” said FitzGerald, adding that it affects a wider segment of the population than it once did. When the state cracked down on “pill mills,” people turned to illegal drugs, he said. In Cuyahoga County, FitzGerald said he helped start an initiative to fight heroin, involving both law enforcement and health care providers.
He called Kasich’s efforts to fight drugs “a day late and a dollar short,” with its focus on intervention at the high school level.
FitzGerald said that recently-enacted sentencing guidelines are preventing judges from sending first-time offenders to jail, but “if you’re selling heroin, that’s as close to attempted murder as it gets.”
But it’s on economic issues that Fitzgerald focuses his harshest attacks on the Kasich administration. He said that state cuts to the Local Government Fund were disastrous, citing figures showing that Highland County lost $2 million to local governments and $3 million to area school districts.
So while Kasich balanced the state budget, “so did every other governor,” said FitzGerald, since states are required by law to have balanced budgets. But other states did not diminish Local Government Funds by 50 percent, he said.
“Either he’s ignoring history or he’s not a student of it,’ said FitzGerald, calling the Local Government Fund a “solemn promise” when it was first established.
FitzGerald said he is an advocate for “home rule,” and that local governments, from the township trustee and county commission levels, are the “front lines.”
“I believe home rule power is being undermined by the state,” he said, adding that “government works best when it’s closest to the people.”
He said that the Kasich administration’s claim that the improved economic condition of Ohio over the last three years constitutes a “miracle” is not borne out by the facts.
“I don’t hear anyone else say that,” he said, adding that Kasich is not a tax cutter, but a “tax shifter,” offsetting a slight reduction in the income tax with hikes in the sales tax, property tax, gas tax and other fees.
And while Ohio’s unemployment rate has dropped, so has the jobless rate across the nation, said FitzGerald.
By contrast, the Kasich campaign says that since Kasich became governor, Ohio overcame an $8 billion deficit and has added nearly a quarter-million private sector jobs.
The state has also seen fewer Ohioans file jobless claims in 2013 than any year since 2000, saw incomes grow at nearly twice as fast as the national rate, saw Ohio home sales grow by nearly 15 percent in 2013 over the prior year, and saw schools reap the benefits of $1.6 billion in new state funding, resulting in K-12 classrooms being funded “at the highest levels in Ohio history,” according to the Kasich campaign.
FitzGerald’s campaign hit some early turbulence when his first choice for a running mate, State Sen. Eric Kearney, withdrew due to business-related financial problems.
FitzGerald replaced Kearney with Dayton-area attorney Sharen Neuhardt, whom The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer described as a “twice-failed candidate for Congress known as a staunch defender of abortion rights.”
FitzGerald is a pro-choice candidate on abortion, and his position has been the subject of attack from Kasich supporters and conservative groups, with one pro-life organization claiming in February that FitzGerald “backs abortion through nine months.”
“That’s not true,” FitzGerald said Saturday, adding that he was unaware of any Democrat “in favor of extreme late-term abortion.” He said he respects differing opinions on social issues based on personal or religious beliefs.
“I came from a family with a lot of different positions,” he said.
FitzGerald said he has campaigned in all 88 Ohio counties, and wants to make personal contact with as many voters as possible. He said he believes he can win by focusing voters on how much better they should be doing economically.
“We didn’t have robust economic growth in the last couple of years,” he said, adding that too many Ohioans are working for minimum wage, and even others who are in better paying jobs are still “living paycheck to paycheck.”
FitzGerald and his wife Shannon, have been married for more than 21 years, and are the parents of four teenage children, two boys and two girls.