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Voinovich Being Remembered As Something Rare - A Conservative And Yet Bipartisan Republican

Campaign buttons for George Voinovich show little indication of party affiliation.
Campaign buttons for George Voinovich show little indication of party affiliation.

Flags will fly at half-staff to remember former Cleveland mayor, Ohio governor and US Senator George Voinovich, who died suddenly over the weekend at 79. And some are saying his bipartisan approach to politics that demonstrates how different things are since he retired from elected office in 2010.

George Voinovich certainly viewed himself as a conservative on major issues such as spending – which he talked about in an interview with Ohio Public Television as he was leaving the US Senate in 2010. “We are borrowing ourselves into oblivion.  Our national debt and our budgets that are not balanced – we are in a fiscal crisis today," he said. "And it’s not sustainable."

And as governor, Voinovich racked up criticism for budget cuts, including some welfare benefits, his support for school vouchers, and what some environmentalists saw as inaction on out-of-state trash coming into Ohio and a hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool. But some of those who most closely followed his career feel he wasn’t as conservative as many claimed.

“I’ll always remember George Voinovich as a moderate Republican,  said former Ohio Public Radio Statehouse News Bureau reporter Bill Cohen. “I think Voinovich was a centrist," said former Columbus Dispatch reporter and editor Mike Curtin covered Voinovich’s eight years as the state’s 65th governor, a Republican who followed Democratic Gov. Dick Celeste. And since that time, the definition of what is means to be conservative Republican has changed, said John Green at the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “The Republican Party has moved very decisively to the right, so that people like George Voinovich who, when he first came into office, would have been viewed definitely on the conservative side of the spectrum seemed somewhat out of play,” said Green.

Former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Tom Suddes noted Voinovich came up as the Republican mayor of a heavily Democratic city – Cleveland – and then as governor had to work with the powerful Democratic speaker of the House, Vern Riffe. Suddes, now a columnist for Cleveland.com and a journalism professor at Ohio University, agreed that the political climate has changed now.  “Someone is either a hundred thousand percent one thing or a hundred thousand percent the other thing, anyone in between is somehow a sellout or a traitor or a RINO or a ‘squish’ or something. And I think that’s a problem he could overcome because he knew how to debate and argue and negotiate with people of different perspectives," Suddes said. "And I think that quality is diminishing because of polarization, unfortunately. It’s kind of hard to find someone whose attitude is “I want to solve problems”, not preach an ideology.”

Brent Larkin was a Plain Dealer reporter and later the paper’s editorial page director. He sat down with Voinovich not long ago to talk about what he was planning on doing with regard to Donald Trump, his party’s likely nominee. And Larkin said Voinovich’s concern with Trump may have been personal as well as political.  "He volunteered he has nothing with this presumptive Republican nominee for president. I mean, they could not be more different," Larkin said. "He didn’t have a crude, vulgar bone in his body.”

Voinovich held positions on hot-button issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act and green energy that most would call conservative. And he certainly was a prominent figure in the Republican Party, and But he didn’t talk much about party loyalty. In that 2010 interview with Ohio Public TV, he talked about voting against Republican-backed tax cuts while in the U.S. Senate. “If you look at my record, I’d say that I’m right of center. I think with the American Conservative Union or whatever it is, I think I’m a 70 or 75%. Now a lot of my colleagues are a 95%," Voinovich said. "But I try to do what I think is right. I’ve been in this business a long time.”

And though Voinovich had his critics - some within the GOP - he also had many supporters. He won re-election to the governor’s office in 1994 by the largest margin in state history, and was one of only two Senators to win all 88 counties. The other – his Democratic colleague John Glenn.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.