John Kasich is ready to be president. And I should know: I have known the Ohio governor for nearly 25 years and worked alongside him for more than eight. So while he may not be blowing up in the polls yet, those who choose to underestimate him do so at their peril.
The reason Kasich is to be taken seriously in his bid for the White House, in addition to his enormous success in the Buckeye State, is that he has always overcome obstacles when people told him what he couldn’t. When he was just 18 and a freshman at Ohio State, Kasich pestered the secretary to then-OSU President Novice Fawcett for a meeting. When she relented and added him to the schedule, Kasich discovered that Fawcett was about to leave for a meeting with President Nixon.
Kasich was turned down in his request to join Fawcett’s meeting with the president, but he didn’t walk away empty-handed—Fawcett agreed to deliver a letter from the young freshman asking for his own meeting with the president.
In part, Kasich wrote on December 2, 1970: “I would immediately pass up a Rose Bowl trip to see you. My parents would permit me to fly down and see you anytime and I know my grades wouldn’t suffer…I know how busy you are and this is probably a ridiculous request but to me it would be a dream come true.”
Surprising nearly everyone except Kasich, Nixon agreed to a sit-down with the young student. The two would meet nearly three weeks later and Kasich spent nearly 20 minutes with the president. And, being Kasich, he wound up doing most of the talking.
Kasich’s raw political talent is formidable. When he was just 26 years old, he shocked the Ohio political establishment by winning election to the State Senate. Four years, later he became the only Republican challenger in the nation to beat a Democratic incumbent in 1982. Kasich would remain in the House of Representatives for 18 years, serving as House Budget Committee chairman, where he was successful in working with President Clinton to balance the federal budget for the first time since 1969. He was also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, giving him an insight into the military many other candidates lack.
While serving in Congress, Kasich, a devoted budget hawk, was always willing to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats to the chagrin of many of his Republican colleagues. In the mid-1990s, then-Congressman Ron Dellums (D-CA) and Kasich teamed up to try to kill production of the B-2 stealth bomber, much to the annoyance of hawks like future Vice President Dick Cheney. Kasich, a “cheap hawk,” looked to rein in unnecessary military spending so much it would turn the Pentagon into a Triangle after a retiring colonel told him it cost the military $500 to procure a simple hammer.
Back in 1993, Kasich also joined forces with then-Congressman Tim Penny (D-MN) to reduce government spending by $90 billion over five years. The White House worked feverishly with many in Congress to defeat the plan (it failed by a narrow margin), but the effort paved the way for Kasich to work with Congressional Democrats to balance the budget in 1997.
Kasich’s zeal to restore fiscal order would occur once more as he unseated incumbent Governor Ted Strickland in 2010. The governor erased an $8 billion budget shortfall. Kasich’s reforms cut small-business taxes in half, reduced income tax rates by 10 percent, and eliminated the death tax. Simply put, his fiscal record will be the envy of most of the other Republican candidates in the field.
Often mocked for appearing to “wing it” in delivering remarks or discussing complex policy matters, those who know the Ohio governor are aware there is much more going on behind the scenes. I remember when Kasich was chairing the House Budget Committee and he couldn’t find his reading glasses. Remembering that he left them at home, I volunteered to fetch them, as we lived around the corner from each other in Alexandria, Virginia.
In a sight that surprised my fellow staffers and me, Kasich’s glasses were sitting on a thick stack of Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports about a variety of policy complex matters. Kasich did his homework out of sight from many who worked for him. The hard work paid off, and he always seemed to have an encyclopedic understanding of budgetary matters. Night after night, he was back home burning the midnight oil to remain abreast of a variety of issues. He takes policy seriously, which is a breath of fresh air during a time when charlatans like Donald Trump are doing well in the polls.
But Kasich’s bipartisan accomplishments in Congress and the Ohio Statehouse, and his willingness to buck party orthodoxy, won’t prove to be his Achilles’ heel in his quest for the nomination; instead, it could well be Kasich’s personality, a frequent topic of discussion in the media.
This is an uncomfortable question for those who know Kasich well. There are times when the governor can be acerbic, harried, dismissive and downright cranky. Speaking from the perspective of someone who has been at the receiving end of numerous Kasich lectures about everything from my political opinions to my driving route to the U.S. Capitol, I can tell you that the man is, for lack of a better word, blunt.
But if one is willing to look past his somewhat peevish temperament, Kasich is deeply committed to his family, his faith and doing the right thing for those he represents. I remember back in early 1993 when Kasich announced he would hold an open house to celebrate the victory of President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I asked Kasich why in the world we would welcome a bunch of Democrats to the office to celebrate the defeat of President George H.W. Bush. He replied that the folks coming to town to attend the inauguration were his constituents, and even if they didn’t vote for him, it was their office, not his.
The open house was largely comprised of African-Americans who hailed not just from his district but from throughout Ohio. There were many laughs and photos with Kasich that day—a lesson for me to always look beyond party affiliation, and treat everyone with kindness regardless of their politics.
There is a reason Kasich always had solid numbers of people of color voting for him while in Congress and in his bid to become governor—Kasich received 26 percent of the black vote in his re-election bid last year, an unheard of success for a conservative Republican in the Obama era. Why? Simply put, he doesn’t treat black people like black people—he instead views people as individuals.
Back in the 1990s, people were surprised that Kasich had me serving as his legislative director and had several black staffers working for him on the House Budget Committee. I vividly remember being with him when a member of Congress asked him why he had so many people of color working for him. “I don’t see color,” Kasich shrugged. “I see people and I hire the best people I can find to get the job done.” I have never forgotten that exchange because that is precisely the prism from which he sees the world.
Kasich’s empathy and compassion for others, particularly children in distress, is little known. We had a young woman named Christine Stephan who worked in Kasich’s office as in intern in the mid-1990s. Stephan was full of energy and life even though she had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and given little time to live. Kasich closely monitored her condition even after she had returned to Columbus following her internship to await a new set of lungs at Children’s Hospital.
Christine was a big fan of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. As she lay dying in her hospital bed, Stephan asked if Kasich could fulfill one of her final requests: a signed photograph of the new Speaker to place in her hospital room. Kasich’s eyes welled with tears when I told him of her wish—and I was blessed to deliver the treasured photo to her just days before her death in July 1997. The unbridled joy Christine took in receiving a photo from her political hero lit up the room with energy and light even as she lay dying.
John Kasich is ready to be president. The question is whether Republican voters around the country are ready for Kasich. I believe his intellect, experience, and, yes, temperament has prepared him for the most difficult job in the world. Addressing a group in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, Kasich said: “I’m not the same guy many of you in this room knew 20 years ago. This job [governor] humbles you, mellows you out a lot.”
So don’t be shocked should a mellow, humble, relatable, and likeable Kasich catch fire on the campaign trail.