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September 1, 2015 6:32 am

Don’t Underestimate John Kasich

avatar by Eric Rozenman

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Don't underestimate John Kasich as a potential presidential candidate. Photo: Facebook.

Don’t underestimate John Kasich as a presidential candidate. Photo: Facebook.

Ohio Governor John Kasich hasn’t broken out of the pack of Republican presidential nomination hopefuls, but early coverage generally has been favorable. Conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin has derided him as an anchorless establishment Republican, but a word of caution based on personal experience: Never underestimate John Kasich.

In 1978, the 26-year-old Kasich became the youngest person ever elected to the Ohio Senate. He knocked off Democratic incumbent Robert O’Shaughnessy, winning 56 percent of the vote. That was not supposed to happen. O’Shaughnessy family members had populated the Ohio General Assembly and Columbus City Council for years.

But Kasich had spent months going door-to-door, connecting with O’Shaughnessy’s constituents. I was a reporter at the old Columbus Citizen-Journal, and the city editor assigned me to do a post-election interview with the surprise winner. Before answering my first question Kasich peremptorily corrected my mispronunciation of his last name: not Kay’-sich but Case-ick.’

Four years later, he swept a Republican primary to win the congressional nomination. In the general election, Kasich beat the Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Bob Shamansky, whose press secretary I then happened to be. Shamansky had grabbed an upset win himself in 1980, ousting a 22-year Republican incumbent by five percentage points. Named to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he dealt with the Saudi AWACS sale, Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and the invasion of Lebanon, among other issues.

But he wound up on the wrong side of his own party’s Speaker of the Ohio House, the powerful Vern Riffe. Redistricted, Shamansky lost 50 to 47 percent to Kasich, who during the campaign again spent months going door-to-door.

So in January 1983, I was looking for work. Hired by the Columbus Jewish Federation as community relations director, I went back to Washington that spring for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference. At the congressional dinner, I was seated with other Buckeyes, including new Congressman Kasich. The conversation was informal and wide-ranging but, considering he’d caused me to be unemployed only months before, not awkward.

We had a more serious, one-on-one telephone dialogue a few months later. Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah terrorists had blown up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 service members. Kasich questioned the Reagan Administration’s continued deployment of U.S. forces in Lebanon.

I called to urge a sustained American counter-attack against the terrorists and those behind them. I expected to speak to a staff member but Kasich himself came on the line. A first-name conversation ensued during which the Congressman remained unswayed by my arguments. At the Iowa State Fair this year he called himself a “cheap hawk,” favoring a strong military but wary of Pentagon overruns — and still, perhaps, of multifaceted overseas commitments.

In 1984, Kasich won the first of eight reelections to the House, never with less than 67 percent of the vote. Along the way, he became chairman of the Budget Committee, first jumping over six Republicans with more seniority to emerge as the committee’s ranking minority member.

He left Congress after 18 years, and his 2000 run for the GOP nomination ended almost as soon as it began.

By then I had returned to Washington, editing the Washington Jewish Week and B’nai B’rith’s International Jewish Monthly, among other things. I hadn’t seen Kasich for more than two decades — except when channel-surfing brought me to his Fox TV show From the Heartland with John Kasich, which aired from 2001-2007. Then one day I ran into him on a Capitol Hill sidewalk. I reintroduced myself, shook hands and said, “I hear you’re going to run for governor.” He gave a dismissive shrug and said, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”

Generally good advice, but in 2010, Kasich defeated the Democratic incumbent, Governor Ted Strickland, 49 percent to 47. He won reelection in 2014 with 64 percent of the vote.

Early this year a National Journal feature referred to the 62-year-old Kasich’s impatience as “a visible force.” It also mentioned his “cheeky” and “brash” personality. Former Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial page editor Brent Larkin went farther in a commentary headlined “Ohio Gov. John Kasich runs the risk of being perceived as a jerk.”

Maybe, but not so far on the campaign trail. And when Bob Shamansky died in 2011, Kasich attended his funeral, entering and leaving through a side door to attract as little attention as an incumbent governor with a security detail could. Another former Shamansky staffer, never a Kasich fan, called it a classy gesture.

Is John Kasich presidential timber? Time and campaigning should tell. In the meantime, those who underestimate him may find themselves overmatched.

The writer is a Washington, D.C.-based news media analyst. Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.

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