It has been a confusing time of late for Americans. We’ve had to make sense of a dizzying array of facts, fiction, and anxiety. So it seemed to fit this pattern when Ohio’s impish, conservative governor, Mike DeWine, was suddenly on Ohioans’ TV sets every day, touted as some kind of larger-than-life John Wayne character. As one whose temperament has often seemed closer in spirit to that of a crossing guard yelling at school kids, how was this guy garnering bipartisan praise from across the country?
In short, many asked, how the hell did Mike DeWine become one of the good guys?
It is DeWine, after all, who led a wholly dishonest crusade against women’s reproductive rights as Ohio’s attorney general from 2010-2018. He spent seven figures of taxpayer money crashing through all obstacles to stop a dying Ohio citizen, John Arthur, from marrying the man the loved, Jim Obergefell.
Yet, since it became apparent to the medical community, and beyond, that COVID-19 would become the worst pandemic in 100 years, you’d be hard pressed to find a governor who has acted less partisan and more responsible than DeWine. This has stood out even more in comparison with Republican leaders, from the president of the United States to governors across the country like Georgia’s Brian Kemp.
About three weeks ago, Kemp claimed he was unaware there were asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 (this didn’t stop him from ordering the reopening of such essential businesses as bowling alleys—that is, large, dingy rooms, with aging men in rented 1970s shoes gathering in groups and forcing their sweaty fingers into the holes of a spherical ball where scores of other fingers have already been). Two nights ago, President Donald Trump suggested people might try drinking bleach to rid themselves of this virus because “it does a number on the lungs.”
Yet, DeWine, by contrast, has been clear, quick, and commanding in his response to the coronavirus. As Politico writer Bill Scher put it, while ranking gubernatorial responses to the pandemic:
On March 12, even though Ohio had yet to suffer a major outbreak of COVID-19, DeWine called for the statewide closure of public schools—the first governor in the nation to do so, forcing most of his fellow governors to recognize they had to follow suit, and fast… The lifelong Republican public servant has been calm, sober and data-driven. He has not only been uninterested in emulating Donald Trump’s style, he has been willing to defy Trump’s edicts.
To be fair, some other Republican governors have rejected their party’s anti-intellectualism and been responsive to pandemic science. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts are two. But they’re the last vestiges of the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, that only exists in the most liberal corridors of the Northeast and West Coast. If Hogan and Baker didn’t respond this way, they would become massively unpopular in two of the most Democratic states in the country.
DeWine, however, is in a purple state leaning red. And he has gone beyond public proclamations. He named the statewide hero of this crisis, Dr. Amy Acton, to head the Ohio Department of Public Health in October 2019.
You’ll immediately notice the difference from the Dear Abby of bleach guzzling at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as DeWine appointed the individual he seemingly thought best qualified for the job. Not a crony, or college senior with zero experience. Not a Labradoodle breeder. And possibly not even a Republican. Acton wouldn’t confirm whether she voted for DeWine when asked.
Acton has made a huge difference, as not only has she been professional, but has made Ohio’s decisions appear non-partisan during hyper-partisan times. Ohio House Minority Leader, Democrat Emilia Sykes, called Acton “the real MVP of Ohio’s coronavirus response.”
In fact, when the non-spontaneous protests against stay-at-home orders hit Ohio’s capital of Columbus, DeWine didn’t flinch in the face of this astroturf assault from people who, as a Republican officeholder, amount to his base. He simply acknowledged their right to protest, and carried on.
Then, last week, DeWine made his boldest statement of all. Acton was quoted in the press speaking admiringly of countries that had started requiring certificates of immunity from the virus for businesses. A state senator from DeWine’s own party, Andrew Brenner, joined his wife in ridiculously comparing Acton’s statements to (who else?) Hitler on Facebook.
DeWine didn’t hesitate or look the other way as Republicans do so often these days in the face of these kinds of outrageous statements. He immediately responded by pointing out how this was “offensive” and betrayed a “complete lack of understanding of the Holocaust.” Oh—Acton is Jewish.
He also tweeted: “Any complaints about the policy of this administration need to be directed at me. I am the office holder, and I appointed the director. Ultimately, I am responsible for the decisions in regard to the coronavirus. The buck stops with me.”
Doesn’t get much better than that. Maybe the president could learn a little something from this, and try this whole accountability thing?
The question for many, however, is still pretty simple: How? How has Governor DeWine, with a re-election on the horizon where he will need his base, a guy who wrote a brief signed by 19 other Republican state attorneys general defending “religious freedom” as it was defined in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores—how has this guy become a paragon of science, trusting expert opinion over the blind ideology of many other leaders in his party?
I believe you can find your answer in his record as a U.S. Senator, a position he held from 1994 to 2006. After a blistering defeat at the hands of then Congressman Sherrod Brown, DeWine made his comeback running for attorney general in 2010. He quickly adjusted to the new post-Tea-Party reality of the GOP, where one only moves in an extreme starboard direction or risks the fate of the late Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana or Congressman from Delaware, Mike Castle. The latter lost to an opponent who had to deny in a general-election tv ad she was a witch. But she was well to Castle’s right politically, which was all that mattered to the Delaware GOP primary electorate.
Yet, if you look back at Senator DeWine, you’ll see that outside of issues that touch on his Catholic faith, where he always has taken a far-right position, he was often one of the more reasonable Republicans in the Senate. He joined late Senator John McCain on his signature McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. He also joined McCain in co-sponsoring a bill to close the gun-show loophole, and in 2004 co-sponsored an amendment to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban.
In fact, he was one of only two Republicans to vote against the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,” a blatant and successful play to immunize the gun industry from the kind of lawsuits that brought down Big Tobacco. On this vote, he was to the left of Bernie Sanders.
In another high profile vote in 2005, as the Senate went on the record for the first time to clearly state that climate change was real, and mandatory limits on pollution from plants, factories, vehicles and other sources of carbon were necessary to reverse “global warming,” DeWine joined a majority in opposing an attempt by right-wing Senator and vocal climate change denier, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), to kill the resolution. In voting this way, he was one of only 11 GOP Senators (out of 51) to take this stand, breaking with Ohio’s other GOP Senator, George Voinovich. It was an even bigger deal as a Senator representing a state with a coal-mining industry.
In other words, as best one could glean, DeWine, with his current leadership, has returned to his roots as a center-right Republican or “reasonable” conservative. This doesn’t mean he won’t embrace anti-science quackery if he sees a primary challenge in 2022. And this won’t stop him from taking positions on issues like women’s choice that are anything but mainstream.
Yet the best reading of DeWine right now is that he’s trying to do what the science dictates. Likely, because of this aggressive approach, he has saved many Ohioans’ lives. And at least right now, all Ohioans should be thankful for it.