|photo by Donn Nottage|
Anita Rios, the Green Party candidate for governor, sat beside FitzGerald before an audience of more Greens than Democrats. John Kasich was a no-show, unwilling to let pesky challengers chink his armor and chip at his 22-point lead.
So “the only gubernatorial debate in the state of Ohio in 2014” (as City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop noted) became a shadow play of the debate Ohio could’ve had, if not for the car trouble that drove FitzGerald to the curb.
There wasn’t much debating in this debate. FitzGerald and Rios tag-teamed, slamming Kasich’s policies on jobs, taxes, local government cuts, gay marriage and Lake Erie.
“Yes, we woke up one morning and couldn’t drink the water,” said Rios. Like many Toledoans, she drove to Michigan for bottled water after the lake’s algae bloom made tap water undrinkable for 400,000 people this summer. She and FitzGerald said they’d regulate fertilizer use on farms to protect the lake.
“It’s not rocket science to fix the runoff issue,” Rios said. “There are many things farmers can do to correct that. It’s just that there have been no regulations put in place. Our leaders do not have the will.”
“Gov. Kasich and his friends are still having conversations about how they’re going to balance the concerns of the fertilizer industry and everybody’s need for safe drinking water,” FitzGerald said. “When it comes to safe drinking water, you don’t balance it. It’s a moral issue. It’s a human right. Anything poisoning it needs to be regulated immediately.”
It was a night for issues, not the character questions that have dominated press coverage of the governor’s race.
Moderator Robert Higgs of the Plain Dealer’s Columbus bureau asked FitzGerald, almost apologetically, about his ten years of driving without a license and his late-night appearance in a car with an Irish trade delegate. What role should character issues play? he asked.
FitzGerald said he should be judged by his record as Cuyahoga County executive, such as cleaning up after corruption. Kasich, he argued, revealed his character by not showing up for the debate and by working for the defunct Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers. Kasich once lobbied public pension funds to invest with the firm; pension funds in Ohio later lost about $500 million because of its collapse. “What’s a greater moral issue?” FitzGerald asked, to applause.
Rios backed him up. “Shame on the media for focusing on that,” she said of FitzGerald’s car trouble.
Higgs asked FitzGerald and Rios how they’d encourage higher-wage jobs. FitzGerald said he’d support small business over large corporations and raise the state’s minimum wage. He bashed Kasich for not opposing free-trade deals. Rios said she wants the state to support worker-owned cooperatives.
Both candidates ripped Kasich’s tax cuts. But when Higgs asked if they’d reverse any, FitzGerald demurred. “I’m not running on a tax increase philosophy,” he said. “I do think we need to fund social services, hunger relief and job creation. [But] is there a way for us to live within our means?” Rios said she’d restore the estate tax, because it mostly taxed the wealthy.
Questions from the Green Party tables swung the debate farther left. FitzGerald searched politely for common ground. Rios supported amnesty for illegal immigrants; FitzGerald endorsed immigration reform and voiced concern about exploitation of migrant workers. Asked about affirmative action, FitzGerald talked about including disadvantaged groups in contracting, while Rios endorsed civil disobedience to preserve racial preferences in college admissions.
One questioner asked a wide-ranging question about the war on terror, militarized police forces, and “subsidizing violence all over the globe, but mostly in Ohio.” Rios promised to assemble a group of anti-war governors, “rather than squandering [money] in some sad place, doing some evil deed.” FitzGerald, not used to debating pacifism, said he endorsed community policing and the need to fight poverty because “you can’t prosecute your way out of a problem.”
Finally, a Green pushed Rios and FitzGerald to disagree about something. “I think I’m a lot more strident on anti-fracking,” Rios said. “I consider the Lucasville 5 on Death Row to be heroes.” (The convicts were found guilty of leading a murderous 1993 prison riot.) FitzGerald agreed to disagree with her on that.
In his closing, FitzGerald fired off the tightest critique of Kasich that I’ve heard from him. He said Kasich is taking credit for a nationwide economic recovery, while Ohio’s job growth has been slower than most states. “That’s one of the reasons John Kasich is not here -- he would love to have a 30-second television commercial conversation about that.” He bashed Kasich’s tax cuts, saying the governor paid for them with higher property taxes and cuts to public schools, local governments and heroin treatment.
“We are one election away from going in a totally different direction if we actually focus on real issues,” FitzGerald said.
He was describing the election Democrats wanted. But because of FitzGerald’s slipups and despite his best efforts, it’s not the election Ohio is getting.