Monday, August 28, 2006

The 12th District: In the Shadow of John Kasich

It's an amazing fact of life, when you get down to it, how little most of us know about the people who represent us or aspire to represent us. During the hours I spent yesterday updating this blog to get it into campaign fighting trim, I knew maybe two-thirds of the people who are standing for the offices I'll be voting for come November, and I did that well only because I knew the incumbents.

The single most startling discovery I made is that Bob Shamansky is running to become the next Congressman from the 12th District, which happens to be my district now that I've moved from Clintonville, which was in the 15th District, long dominated by two formidable Republicans, first Chalmers P. Wylie and now Deborah Pryce. During the time I lived in Clintonville (1996-2003), the chance of unseating Pryce was pretty much zilch. Things weren't a lot better in the 12th District, where the hard-charging John Kasich had been Congressman since first winning election in 1982.

Kasich gained the office by defeating this self-same Bob Shamansky, 88,335 votes to 82,753. (A Libertarian candidate, Russell A, Lewis, received 3,939 votes, most of which would otherwise have gone to Kasich.) [See this link for 12th District election results.]

Shamansky had been in office only two years, having handily beaten 12-term Republican Samuel L. Devine, known in some quarters as "the Abominable No-Man" because of his penchant for voting against everything that might disturb the status quo. The 1980 vote was 108,690 for Shamansky and 98,110 for Devine: an impressive performance, particularly in a district that has been gerrymandered to favor Republican candidates for as long as I can recall. I can only guess why Shamansky lost after only a single term, despite the advantage of incumbency. The demographics of the district probably hurt, especially in an off-year election, and Shamansky was unfortunate to have to square off with perhaps the best natural politician to come out of central Ohio in, well, forever.

I can't say I ever liked Kasich. It was a purely personal thing. Interested in politics and aware that Kasich was sure to run a first-class campaign, as a 22-year old college senior I placed a call to his headquarters and volunteered to work for him. An hour or two later Kasich phoned back, his voice far more bold and booming than necessary. He was apparently under the impression that I had significant previous experience and at first behaved as if I were someone worth trying to impress. Once he divined that I had simply worked for a couple of campaigns in very minor capacities, he didn't bother to hide the fact that he had no time for the likes of me. I could go to his headquarters and stuff envelopes. Over and out!

I have had one or two other encounters like that with politicians. They say you can measure a person by how well or poorly they treat those who can be of no use to them. By that standard, Kasich failed to cut the mustard.

But what the hell. Kasich did run a great campaign, he handily bested Shamansky, and once he got the 12the District seat, beat the crap out of every candidate that challenged him. After a while the Ohio Democratic Party couldn't get anyone of real stature to run against him.

Not only that, Kasich became a prominent figure in Congress, especially after the Republicans won control in 1994, and his name was sometimes bruited about as a possible presidential candidate. He might even have run but for the fact that when his best opportunity came, in 2000, the annointed one was . . . George W. Bush, son of an ex-president. With no new worlds to conquer in Congress and, I would guess, no scope for a U.S. Senate run because Republicans already held both Ohio seats, Kasich decided to pursue other opportunities in business and the media. He was then just 48 years old.

I suspect his ship has sailed in terms of a run for the presidency, but as late as October 2000 -- despite his dutiful support for Bush -- Kasich still told a New York Times reporter he'd like to be president some day.

[O]only the next time he will not be so starry-eyed. ''I was not prepared for the fact that money was the dominating factor,'' he said.

The solution, he says, is to eliminate the $1,000 limits on individual contributions so that a candidate can raise a significant amount of seed money from relatively few people.

''No more pied piper for John Kasich,'' he said. ''Pied pipers don't win in America.''
Nowadays he's a managing director at Lehman Brothers and host of Heartland With John Kasich on -- yuck -- FOX News. I run into it occasionally and encounter that too bold, too booming voice, now in the service of some trumped-up piece of fake indignation that is the bread and butter of cable news commentary. It's kind of a waste, if you ask me.

Kasich's decision not to run in 2000 emboldened the Democrats to actually run someone of substance, Maryellen O'Shaughnessy, who comes from a distinguished family in central Ohio politics and had won a seat on the Columbus City Council in 1997. She's running for reelection to council again this year. Among the things not in her charming campaign bio is the fact that she met defeat in her run for Congress at the hands of Republican Patrick J. Tiberi. The vote was 139,242 to 115, 432, with a few thousand votes going to minor candidates.

Following Tiberi's victory, the Democrats went back to running Ed Brown, who got blasted by a 2-to-1 margin by Kasich in 1998 and lost just as about as badly to Tiberi in 2002 and 2004. Have a look at Brown's amateurish web site, with its frantic text and anemic political track record, and you will be forced to conclude, as I was, that only a Yellow Dog Democrat would waste a ballot on him. (For the uninitiated, a Yellow Dog Democrat is someone who would vote for a yellow dog before he'd vote Republican.) Brown was going to run again this year, only to be told by the Democratic steering committee that their nod was going to Bob Shamansky. Brown was incensed, writing in his campaign blog:

I stated to the steering committee that my campaign was about "The People and their Rights" and described many of my concerns and what I thought was needed to correct the problems that presently confront us. Several times I was questioned as to how much money I could raise and/or contribute. When I tried to expand on Social Security, Taxes, and Medicare problems, the raising campaign money question was again asked.

It became apparent that while my priority is "The People and Their Rights", their's [sic] is Money. Why should I have any reason to expect their endorsement when our priorities are so different?
Yes, Ed. Their priority is winning.

There are three great things about the 79-year old Shamansky. First, he is not Ed Brown. Second, he is not one of five other contenders for the nomination in the Democratic primary, one of whom I met in March and who assured me, in all seriousness, of her deep belief in UFOs and alien abductions. Third, he has money.

Lots of it.

As Columbus Dispatch reporter Joe Hallett put it after interviewing Shamansky in June, "[H]e has made millions as an attorney and real-estate investor, and he’s willing to spend some of it on his campaign. How much? 'I’m prepared to help,' he says. 'How’s that for a precise answer?'"

It's the kind of answer that would hack off Ed Brown, who doesn't have millions, only a passion for the People and Their Rights. And it impressed Hallett less than his observations of Shamansky's staff, which struck him as first-rate.

So why is Shamansky, "who spent a minute or two in Congress twenty-five years ago," vying once again to become the 12th District's representative? Not, apparently, to spare Democrats like me the ignominy of tripping a lever for Mr. People and Their Rights. Rather, he sees the Bush administration as incompetent, the Republican-dominated Congress as a disgrace -- these are not exactly profound observations -- and Patrick Tiberi as a softer, gooier version of Sam Devine.

Which for all I know isn't far from the mark. In six years I've never heard of Tiberi doing a damned thing, nor have I even received, to my knowledge, one of those starchy "Your Congressman Reports to You!" bits of franked mail that used to be de rigueur.

But let's face it. Suppose Shamansky unseats Tiberi in November. How likely is he to hang on to the 12th District for any length of time? How effective is he likely to be? Why can't the Ohio Democratic Party cultivate some young blood with grit, guts, and staying power, someone with a too bold, too booming voice? Someone likely to really make a difference?

Am I going to vote for Shamansky? Sure. What the hell else can I do? And I hope he wins in November because I don't think the country can afford a continued Republican majority in Congress and every defeated Republican is a step in the right direction. And I'll give Shamansky closer scrutiny than I have so far managed to do. But I've got a suspicion that what we've got here is a yellow dog with money.

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