Something of an era has passed in Ohio with the death over the weekend of the state's last reasonable, moderate Republican statesman, former governor and Senator George Voinovich, at age 79.
The news shook friends and supporters across the state, with remembrances pouring in from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“He was a unifier who thought outside the box, never gave up and worked hard for the ideas he believed in up until the very end of his life," Ohio's current governor, John Kasich, said in a statement. "Thanks to that leadership he saved Cleveland, governed Ohio compassionately and responsibly and was a candid voice for reason in the U.S. Senate."
David Pepper, chairman of Ohio's Democratic Party and former Cincinnati city councilman, recalled giving then-Senator Voinovich a tour of Cincinnati.
"It was clear he was still a mayor at heart," Pepper said. "He didn’t miss a detail, and that’s what a great public servant does--focuses on the details and brings people together to find solutions."
Voinovich was deeply religious, believing that everyone had God-given gifts, recalled Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. He took home work every night and weekend as governor. And though he was a "city kid," he loved the Ohio State Fair.
"His administrative style and philosophy were to hire good people, hold them accountable, but let them run their departments," DeWine recalled in the statement.
Voinovich was governor in the 90's and did things like "increase taxes to pay for welfare and other social programs", something that would have gotten him flayed by today's GOP.
As governor, Voinovich cut $720 million from the budget in two years.
But he was also willing to take political risks--and to show a softer side. He once broke into tears when protesters gathered outside the governor's office to demand that he restore cuts the Legislature made to welfare.
And in 1993, Voinovich worked with leaders of both parties in the Legislature to push through a tax increase aimed at shoring up the state's finances. The move angered some conservatives who began questioning the governor's commitment to their cause.
In an interview Sunday, ex-state Sen. Stanley Aronoff, a Cincinnati Republican whose time as Ohio Senate president overlapped with Voinovich's governorship, said "he lived a relatively frugal life, but he also wanted to take care of everybody." Aronoff said Voinovich was a "bipartisan" chief executive in the true spirit of that word.
Former President George H.W. Bush weighed in on Sunday as well. "George Voinovich was, in my view, the quintessential public servant," he said in a statement. "He brought people together, focused on results, and left his state and our country a better place thanks to his selfless commitment."
When he was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1979, the city had defaulted on its loans and was in fiscal ruin. Voinovich raised taxes and balanced the books. He ran for governor in 1990, saying he would bring the same fiscal discipline to the state budget.
"It is not an exaggeration to say he personally saved the city from default and revived the spirit of Cleveland through sheer force of will, an unyielding work ethic and an infectious optimism," Terrace Park Republican Rob Portman, who succeeded Voinovich in the Senate, said in a statement Sunday.
Voinovich was a nice, boring, nerdy Republican numbers guy. He wasn't a punisher, he didn't try to shut down abortion clinics or drug test welfare recipients of scam the state's parents with charter schools, in fact he was one of the few GOP senators who voted against Dubya's No Child Left Behind bill because the numbers didn't add up.
He did things like "raise taxes in order to fix bridges, roads, and put people to work" and "wanted us to pay for our war in Iraq or leave because we couldn't afford it otherwise". He thought President Obama's stimulus was too much pork, but he though Dubya's stimulus was too much pork too, and voted against both.
In other words, as far as Republicans went, he was reasonable and wasn't insane, he wasn't a religious fanatic, he didn't want to punish those people all the time and was, by all accounts, a decent guy. When 2010 and the Tea Party rolled around, Voinovich retired from the Senate because he saw what was coming and wanted no part of it. He voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as one of his final acts, thought gun control legislation was acceptable, and didn't go around screaming at his opponents.
He would have been primaried out of existence today. Never would have made it in the GOP. No, George Voinovich wasn't great, but he actually did his job.
That's worth mourning.