Romney Steers Clear of Union Fight in Ohio

Romney Steers Clear of Union Fight in Ohio

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 25, 2011

Mitt Romney stopped in Ohio Tuesday, met with the state's Republican Party chairman and stopped by a call center where volunteers were busy cultivating voter support for two key local ballot measures -- one dealing with public sector unions and the other with health care -- that figure to be important barometers heading into 2012 presidential election. But he refused to explicitly endorse either one, triggering negative responses from both ends of the political spectrum.

In two weeks, Ohio voters will head to the polls and weigh in on a pair of controversial issues: One would keep in place a bill Republican Gov. John Kasich signed into law that limits collective bargaining for public sector unions and forces government union workers to contribute 10 percent of their earnings toward their pensions, among other provisions. This measure (Senate Bill 5) is dubbed Issue 2 on the November ballot. Voters can choose “yes” to keep the law and “no” to repeal it. The other bill on the ballot -- Issue 3 -- would modify Ohio's state constitution to block the federal government from requiring residents to carry health insurance, as President Obama’s law requires.

After dropping by the Cincinnati phone bank, Romney said he would not weigh in on state ballot issues. “But I certainly support the efforts of the governor to rein in the scale of government,” he said, according to a CNN report. “I am not terribly familiar with the two ballot initiatives. But I am certainly supportive of the Republican Party's efforts here."

The influential conservative group FreedomWorks, which is mobilizing support in Ohio for the bill limiting union bargaining, accused Romney of playing politics. “You’re in the state . . . and this is the big battle royale for conservatives in Ohio, and it’s setting up for the contrast for 2012 between Obama and [Democratic Sen.] Sherrod Brown and conservatives and whoever is the Republican candidate,” Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, told RCP. “So it’s a big battle and if you’re not in the fight . . . then I have a feeling it’s going to hurt you in Ohio.”

State Democrats pounced on the former Massachusetts governor’s comments and used them to further color him as a flip-flopper on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

In a statement emailed to RCP, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said, “Gov. Romney believes that the citizens of states should be able to make decisions about important matters of policy that affect their states on their own.”

The Ohio GOP maintains it never expected Romney to take a stand on these ballot issues. The state party extended an open invitation to GOP White House candidates to “help grow their grassroots coalition in the state” because “Ohio matters,” said Chris Maloney, spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party. “It was not an event for them to come in and take a position on state issues.”

Romney -- who said Tuesday he believes the Republican nominee can’t win the White House without Ohio -- was "the first one of the presidential candidates to take Chairman [Kevin] DeWine up on the offer," according to Maloney.

About 175 volunteers worked the phone lines at the Cincinnati call center and knocked on doors to encourage voters to support the measures on Nov. 8, Maloney said. “We couldn’t be more happy with the turnout that we had today . . . and with what Governor Romney had to say about empowering the private sector for job creation and growing this economy and revitalizing the manufacturing sector."

In addition to the state party's efforts, two groups are working to spread awareness of the collective bargaining ballot measure: We Are Ohio, which opposes the law, and Building a Better Ohio, which supports it.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday morning finds that 57 percent of Ohio voters want to repeal the law while 32 percent want to keep it. The poll also found Kasich’s approval rating underwater, 36 percent to 52 percent. The results are encouraging for those opposing the public union law. “We feel strongly that the legislative process was flawed and wanted the opportunity to have voices heard at ballot box,” says Melissa Fazekas, spokeswoman for We Are Ohio.

Still, the labor community remains cautious ahead of the vote.

“We are seeing both momentum and reasons to be concerned,” one national labor official told RCP. The official noted that poll results on this issue could be inherently skewed because of the way the issue is framed in the survey (“Do you support or oppose limiting collective bargaining for public employees? “) differs from the way it will appear on the ballot (vote yes to keep the law, no to repeal it). But then again, “How many things that get politicized end up with 56-33 support?” If the ballot measure is repealed, “it will send a message that collective bargaining should not be a partisan issue,” says the official. But upholding the law “would be a big blow” to unions’ bargaining rights.

Those who back Kasich’s law say the issue boils down to “a chance to do something differently,” says Connie Wehrkamp of Building a Better Ohio. “The taxpayers, I hope, will have a voice and be able to say we want to have a seat at the table.”

Representatives from both groups will go head-to-head in a debate Tuesday night that will be broadcast on NBC affiliate stations. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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