Ed FitzGerald reclines, relaxed, methodically taking notes as though he were culling together arrows for his political quiver.
He glances up periodically to scan the reactions of the 125 Athens County Democratic Party members gathered at the local American Legion hall listening to area favorite Debbie Phillips introduce the man who will challenge Ohio Gov. John Kasich this November.
Athens County Democrats haven’t gathered a crowd so large for a party dinner since another local favorite, Ted Strickland, was running for governor in 2006. The doors to Post 21 have been flung open to allow in the cool Saturday night air.
Party members push away from what’s left of their locally sourced meals, sipping coffee, enjoying dessert.
Phillips holds the admiring crowd’s attention as the Ohio House Assistant Minority Leader works her way through an inventory of grievances against Kasich and his administration. FitzGerald, the Ohio Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate for governor, nods knowingly, smiles approvingly.
“We really need some change and that is a big part of why I’m so excited we’ve got Ed FitzGerald running for governor,” Phillips tells the crowd. “As Cuyahoga County Executive, Ed FitzGerald has led in a very positive visionary way, promoting early childhood education, promoting personal savings, doing things that are going to strengthen the county for the long hall.
“That’s the kind of leadership we need in Ohio to get out of all this infighting, away from the secretive deals and cronyism that we’ve been seeing, and really focus on what’s going to move Ohio forward.”
FitzGerald’s Claddagh wedding band glistens as he takes a sip from his Diet Coke. He buttons his well-tailored suit and takes the microphone to a standing ovation. Over a year on the campaign trail has fostered in FitzGerald a comfortable confidence.
FitzGerald jokes that he may be able to raise more money than Kasich after all if his finance team takes note of how much money Athens County Democrats are willing to shell out for fundraiser cheesecake.
He circles back several times to the acknowledgment he will be outspent in this race. He tells the crowd that he’s been outspent in every election he’s ever ran in.
“What is the most powerful thing in politics? It isn’t money. It’s a face-to-face conversation between two people.”
Money is important, he says, but personal interaction is the most important.
He analogizes it to seeing an advertisement for a restaurant versus talking to a neighbor who said the food is terrible.
“John Kasich has served up a terrible meal for everybody. We need to tell everybody, don’t go there again,” he hits his mark. The crowd applauds.
“Would you rather have a campaign where people agree with you about the issues and you are speaking for them, or would you rather have a campaign where people are in total disagreement with you but you have more money than your opponent? Because that’s what this is going to come down to.”
FitzGerald is pulling out arrows and letting them fly.
“Once (John Kasich and statehouse Republicans) got into office in 2010, they started to implement the most extreme agenda any of us have ever seen before in this state’s history… Right now you just don’t have a state government that is of the people, by the people and for the people. There is a very small group of people who are running the state government and they are running it for their own benefit. They’re making money off it. They’ve monetized it. They are taking every service you can think of and they are twisting it, taking something that is supposed to serve the average person, and using it to serve their own selfish interests.”
He begins going through his own list of what’s happened since Kasich’s election in 2010.
“They started out with Senate Bill 5, right out of the box. Right away they try to take the rights away from people to organize for working conditions and wages. It’s not in most people’s interest, but it was in the interest of their very small group of people.”
And then, “They cut the local government fund by 50 percent. That hurt every single county in Ohio… They took $40 million out of my county budget. I’ve been to places where there have been drastic cuts to police and fire as a result. I’ve seen plenty of places where they’ve tried to raise their own taxes to make up the difference.”
The education arrow flies. “Then they cut, originally, $2 billion out of K-12 education. Teachers were laid off. Programs were cut. I’ve been in school districts where every single program that wasn’t on a state test has been cut. And they did it at the same time they were imposing all kinds of new requirements on schools.”
FitzGerald loads his bow once more. “You look at privatizing. I don’t have time to talk about everything they’ve tried to privatize. You have privatized prisons in Ohio, which are unsafe for the prisoners, unsafe for the guards. They cost a lot of money. Whose interest is this in? The people who run the private prison corporations, but it is not in most people’s best interest.”
The JobsOhio arrow comes out. “People ask me what I think about JobsOhio based on my experience (investigating political corruption) as an FBI agent. I say, look, if I were an FBI agent and you told me the governor took a public entity and made it private, and took public money and now we’re going to pretend it’s private money. And we’re going to get a friend of mine from out-of-state, he’s going to move here and run it for me. And then we’re going to put people on the board, and the entity is going to give out money to companies that they sit on the board of. And when the auditor says, I better audit this; they pass a special law in about 48 hours to stop the auditor from looking at the books. If I were still an agent, this is was we used to call ‘a clue.’”
In his half-hour, FitzGerald stresses his view that Kasich is beholden to this small group of interested parties, and states that he, on the other hand, is running to represent the best interests of all Ohioans.
“When you run government for the benefit of a very small group of people, there’s good news and bad news,” he says. “The good news is that those people you’re running government for are grateful and will give you all kinds of campaign donations. The bad news is you have to hope that people don’t find out what you have done.”
FitzGerald says that a lot of Ohioans know Kasich’s record but a lot of others don’t.
Over the next seven months, Ohio Democrats need to show fellow Ohioans that the Kasich administration has taken the state in a direction that nobody signed up for, FitzGerald says.
He points to lower taxes for top earners and higher taxes for low earners.
He cites legislation that he charges is intended to restrict women’s health care.
“People didn’t know what they were in for, but now they do,” he says. And if Kasich is re-elected, he warns, he will feel free to continue pursuing this type of agenda without the restraint of having to campaign for another term in office.
FitzGerald also champions his own plans such as implementing universal pre-kindergarten education across the state, supporting equal marriage rights, respecting the right to organize and collective bargaining, and increasing the minimum wage.
“It’s not about just vetoing their bad ideas, but it’s also about building a society in Ohio that we can be proud of,” he says. “You are one election away from… making this state the kind of state all of us know it can be.”
As the evening winds down and the party regulars shuffle to their cars, FitzGerald is able to rest assured that Athens County will likely come in as blue as ever this November: Southeast Ohio’s lonely island in a sea of red.
I catch him just as he’s ready to head to his car.
“You anticipated most of my questions,” I tell him. “All this stuff you’ve talked about here: SB5, attacks on unions, attacks on teachers, attacks on education, scandals at the ODNR, scandals at JobsOhio, how do you make this stuff stick come November?”
Will voters remember? Will all these wounds be smarting enough to rock the vote when it matters?
“For a lot of people, they’ve never heard it before,” he tells me. “I just point out that the state is being run for the benefit of a lot of Kasich’s friends, and that’s what it comes down to. And then there are a lot of examples to fill in the blanks with that.”
As he removes his jacket, neatly tucking it into the backseat of his large, dark SUV, FitzGerald tells me that what will matter to voters is localizing these issues so they know how it is affecting them and their communities.
“We are going to go around to a lot of local school districts and tell them, this is the bill that you got stuck with, this is how much your local taxes went up, this is how many teachers got laid off, this is how many police and firefighters got laid off,” he says. “You’ve got to figure out local relevance. You’ve got to show people how this is all relevant to their lives.”