Recession still hovers over Strickland campaign

Vice President Joe Biden puts in a word for former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who’s running for U.S. Senate against Republican Rob Portman, before campaigning Monday for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Sinclair Community College in Dayton. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
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Vice President Joe Biden puts in a word for former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who’s running for U.S. Senate against Republican Rob Portman, before campaigning Monday for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Sinclair Community College in Dayton. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

By the summer of 2009, the worst recession since the 1930s was punching historic holes in Ohio’s budget. With the state constitution requiring a balanced budget, Gov. Ted Strickland was facing spending reductions he never imagined.

During a meeting in a conference room on the third floor of the governor’s residence, a Strickland adviser suggested cutting a Medicaid program that supplied oxygen tanks for low-income elderly people.

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It was too much for the governor. “We’re not going to cut oxygen for poor people,” Strickland firmly said.

The steep budget cuts and the way Strickland guided the state through a crippling recession have emerged as one of the major issues in his Senate campaign against Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

To his detractors — and a well-funded Republican ad campaign — Strickland was in over his head and the wrong man at the wrong time. State Republicans claim he fumbled a chance to respond to the recession by fundamentally overhauling government in way to reduce its size and workforce.

The recession wiped away more than 350,000 Ohio jobs and after his defeat in 2010 to Republican John Kasich, the state had exactly 89 cents in its reserve fund, providing Portman with the opportunity to pummel Strickland with millions of dollars of TV commercials.

“Ted Strickland had to be doing something wrong for all these jobs to leave Ohio,” a Tipp City businessman said in one of the ads.

His admirers have a different take. In Toledo last week, Vice President Joe Biden said Strickland “got this state through a God-awful recession.”

Relying on steep budget reductions, a transfer of $1 billion from the state’s reserve fund, and a big check from the federal government through the 2009 economic stimulus package, Strickland argues today, “If you look at the data, I gave John Kasich a recovering economy.”

“I would love to be governor now when there are adequate resources to do positive things for people,” Strickland said. “A governor cannot create a recession and they cannot make it go away. But what they can do is manage a difficult situation with maturity, compassion and common sense.”

Strickland defeated Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell for governor in 2006 on the promise to “turn around Ohio.” Though never known for his flamboyance, he entered office with a reputation as a well-liked politician showed an occasional independent streak during his six terms in the U.S. House. He opposed gun restrictions and free-trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

He portrayed himself as the champion of the poor. Once while visiting an exceptionally poor area in Appalachia, he found an elderly woman in a decrepit mobile home “literally panting” because she had run out of oxygen. Strickland called the oxygen company, gave it his credit card and had the oxygen delivered.

Aides say he showed that same caring attitude toward them. One day, as he walked his Bexley neighborhood during a heavy snow storm, he noticed snow had completely covered the sidewalk outside the home of one of his aides, Aaron Pickrell.

So Strickland, assuming Pickrell was out of town, grabbed a shovel and started clearing the sidewalk. When Pickrell and his wife came out of the house, Strickland said, “It’s Ted. I’m sorry. I didn’t think you guys were home.”

During his first year as governor, Strickland won praise from both Democrats and Republicans. But that abruptly changed in September of 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the Wall Street crash.

By February of 2009, General Motors and Chrysler were fighting to survive, the national economy was losing 700,000 jobs a month, and the unemployment rate in Ohio soared from 5.6 percent in January 2008 to 10 percent by March 2009.

By the end of 2009, Strickland signed a bill that wiped out an $851 million budget shortfall by delaying the third year of a 21-percent income tax cut signed into law in 2005 by Republican Gov. Bob Taft. Overall, he had slashed state spending by $2 billion and cut the number of state workers by 4,900.

“We made cuts to a lot of really important programs that we had no choice but to do reductions for,” said John Haseley, who served as Strickland’s gubernatorial chief of staff.

“He didn’t slam local governments and education which would have created job losses at the local level,” said Haseley, in a none-too-subtle shot against Kasich’s decision during his first term to reduce state assistance to local government.

“Ted had created trajectory of growth that actually declined under the Kasich budgets when cuts to local government and education occurred,” Haseley said. “We would not have seen that under Ted Strickland.”

It galls Strickland and his advisers that Republicans this year essentially held him responsible for a national recession that crippled the entire country’s economy.

But many members of his own party predicted that is exactly what would happen and opted to support Strickland’s primary challenger — 32-year-old Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.

“The Portman attack on Ted as being personally responsible for losing 350,000 jobs is wholly unfair,” said Dale Butland, a Sittenfeld supporter. “And yet many of us knew that’s exactly what they were going to do and we feared it would be successful just like 2010.”