Gov. Mike DeWine (left) sparred for more than an hour with primary rival Jim Renacci (right), a former congressman, over coronavirus policy, education, the economy and many other issues during a meeting with The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com editorial board on Monday. (Office of Gov. Mike DeWine; Marvin Fong, The Plain Dealer)
COLUMBUS, Ohio—For months, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Renacci has pushed to spar with incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine on a primary debate stage.
On Monday, Renacci, a former congressman from Wadsworth, came about as close to his goal as he’s going to get this primary campaign, trading arguments and policy points with DeWine during an online meeting with the editorial board of The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com. DeWine previously turned down an invitation to a debate with his GOP rivals ahead of the May 3 primary.
During the hour-plus meeting, Renacci took DeWine to task for his record on the state’s economy, the governor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the FirstEnergy scandal, education curricula, and other things. DeWine defended his record as governor and took a shot or two back at Renacci.
The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com invited the other two Republican gubernatorial candidates, Columbus-area farmer Joe Blystone and ex-state Rep. Ron Hood to participate in the meeting, but neither appeared.
Here’s more about what DeWine and Renacci talked about:
DeWine has been touting Intel’s decision to build a massive $20 billion semiconductor plant near Columbus. The governor said Monday that Intel’s presence in Ohio won’t just bring thousands of jobs to Central Ohio, but would also result in a “ripple effect” around the state by luring in suppliers for the massive semiconductor complex.
The governor also said Ohio’s bond rating is at its highest level since 1970 and cited reports such as Forbes Magazine ranking Ohio second in the nation when it comes to quality of life.
But Renacci criticized the $2 billion-plus in state incentives offered to Intel to come to Ohio.
“One of the worst ways of doing business development in the state when you have to pay to bring businesses in,” Renacci said. “It’s one of the reasons we can’t compete — because we still continue to use 20th century policies of buying companies to bring them in instead of using economic drivers to bring them in.”
Renacci added that while DeWine signed a balanced budget for the state, a large amount of federal coronavirus relief money “helped us fill the bucket of the deficit that would have been there without” the aid. He also cited a number of studies and rankings of his own indicating that Ohio has fallen, including a Republican National Committee list showing Ohio is in the low 30s among states in terms of economic recovery from the pandemic.
“The post(-coronavirus) recovery has been horrible,” Renacci said.
DeWine fired back at Renacci: “It’s interesting that Mr. Renacci didn’t cite one thing he’s going to do – he’s just critical of what we have done. We have a long, long list of what we have done to help people become productive, to help people live up to the American Dream.”
Renacci also said he was concerned that the governor “did not listen to the people” when he closed businesses, imposed a curfew, and unilaterally set other major rules in the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis in 2020.
He also criticized DeWine for relying on Dr. Amy Acton, the state’s health director at the start of the pandemic, asserting that “we could never find the statistics or studies to prove what she was saying” (Renacci didn’t specifically say which statistics or studies he was referring to).
“She scared people,” Renacci said, referring to Acton. “I talked to the elderly, who said to me, ‘I’m scared to death.’ These are the kind of policies that I don’t think are good.”
DeWine defended his coronavirus response, saying he made decisions based on the best facts he could get at the time.
“We took, I think, a middle-of-the-road position in regard to balancing lives and livelihood,” the governor said. “And I’m proud of what we did.”
Specifically, DeWine noted that in 2021, he successfully pushed nearly every school superintendent around the state to sign a promise to resume in-person classes by March 1, suggesting he would not start teacher vaccinations at districts that didn’t agree. That accelerated the reopening of Cleveland schools, which previously had planned to resume in-person learning in early April.
DeWine said his administration brought together business leaders in various sectors to set protocols for reopening – a plan emulated by some other states.
DeWine defended his decision in 2019 to appoint Sam Randazzo as chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Randazzo resigned in November 2020 after the FBI raided his Columbus home after FirstEnergy Corp. made public that it fired CEO Chuck Jones and two other senior executives over a questionable $4 million payment made to a company Randazzo controlled. In 2021, FirstEnergy admitted it bribed Randazzo, though the longtime utilities lawyer denies any wrongdoing.
The governor said he picked Randazzo for chair because he had expertise in utilities. DeWine said “it was no secret” Randazzo did work for FirstEnergy in the past, but he said it was also no secret that he also worked for buyers of electricity.
DeWine noted that attorney JB Hadden, an attorney and longtime friend who did work for AEP Ohio, another state electric utility, tried to warn him and administration staff about Randazzo’s suspicious ties to FirstEnergy. But DeWine said Hadden only offered information that was already public knowledge — adding that whenever he makes a PUCO appointment, he hears arguments from critics about why not to pick the person he favors.
“Obviously, if I knew then what I know today, we certainly would not have picked Sam Randazzo,” DeWine said. “But we did not know those things.”
Renacci noted that FirstEnergy was the third-largest donor to DeWine’s 2018 campaign for governor.
“That doesn’t mean it’s illegal, but this governor has used the pay-for-play abilities to really move around for the last 45 years,” Renacci said. “It’s one of the things I said that I’m going to end as governor.”
Ohio has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty while DeWine’s been governor, as the state has had ongoing problems getting the lethal-injection drugs needed to carry out executions.
DeWine noted that public opinion has been shifting away from support of the death penalty, but he said his job as governor is to follow the law. He noted he previously urged state lawmakers to choose a different method of execution in Ohio, something legislators have declined to take action on so far.
Renacci agreed that, as governor, he would follow Ohio’s death-penalty law. But he said if a bill to eliminate the state’s death penalty reached his desk as governor, he would sign it.
“As a faithful Catholic, I do believe life begins at conception and ends at natural death,” Renacci said.
Renacci said that on “day one” as governor, he would ask state lawmakers to eliminate the teaching of critical race theory and social emotional learning in schools, as well as blocking comprehensive sex education between kindergarten and the third grade. Critical race theory is currently not part of school curricula in Ohio.
“That is a position that you haven’t heard the governor talk about,” Renacci said. “It’s one of the reasons why Republicans are not comfortable with him.”
Renacci also said he favors expanding school vouchers and would support Ohio House Bill 61, which would prohibit transgender girls and women from playing girls’ and women’s sports in high school and college.
DeWine said he’s “already stated” that he’s against critical race theory. “As far as sex education, I don’t know anybody that thinks that first graders, second graders, (and) third graders should be receiving sex education in school,” the governor said, adding he’s also against “men competing against women.”
The governor said his administration has “significantly expanded” school voucher options. “We are believers in school choice. You know, we know it works.”
When DeWine was asked why he hasn’t played a stronger role in finding a solution to the months-long fight over redistricting, the governor compared his role to former President Ronald Reagan’s tactic to work with lawmakers behind the scenes to hammer out deals .
“That’s what a governor does — instead of fighting, and many times losing, veto overrides — sometimes … you try to work these things out and find a common ground of where things will work better,” DeWine said.
The governor added that “no one’s particularly happy” with how Ohio’s new redistricting process has worked in practice.
DeWine added that, personally, “the most alarming thing” has been that outside mapmakers “put a premium on fewer competitive districts” when drawing legislative district lines. The mapmakers based their plans on multiple Ohio Supreme Court rulings rejecting maps passed by DeWine and other Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission.
“That is not what anybody ever intended,” the governor said, adding “I think we have to rethink this (redistricting) process going forward.”
Renacci said he “appreciated” what DeWine said. “But he should have been saying that all along,” Renacci said, saying the governor “failed” as a leader.
Renacci also said the decision to have a legislative primary on a later date than the regular May 3 primary as a result of the redistricting impasse was “a back-room deal” that will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
“It’d be very easy to say, ‘Look, the one thing we should do because we failed – no matter whose fault it is – is we should not put the burden of the money on the taxpayer,” Renacci said. DeWine, Renacci added, “did not say that. He should have been saying that.”
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