Mike DeWine’s first term as Ohio governor, and his quest for re-election, are inextricably tied to COVID-19.
He was a year into office when the first COVID-19 case was reported in the United States. Since then the pandemic has defined much of his term, as it has for political leaders nationwide.
In an interview last week kicking off the last year of his term, as he seeks reelection, DeWine talked about struggles over vaccination, health mandates and the pandemic’s effect delaying progress on other important issues.
Republican legislators in Ohio tried several times to pass bans on COVID-19 vaccination requirements, but deadlocked on whether they should prevent businesses from imposing their own mandates.
Democrats have generally opposed all bans on vaccination mandates, public or private.
DeWine said the legislature “needs to stay out of this,” apart from pandemic relief appropriations.
“I’ve expressed my opinion very strongly that government should stay out of telling employers what to do,” he said. In particular, DeWine opposes telling health care facilities they can’t require employees to be vaccinated.
He urged school districts to require face masks as the best way to tamp down spread among students and staff, allowing them to continue in-person classes.
DeWine continues to hope Omicron infections will wane as swiftly as they rose, but he expects “another tough month” before that happens.
Early in the pandemic DeWine shut down in-person schools, restaurants and stores, issued a statewide mask mandate and imposed other restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19. He was advised by Dr. Amy Acton, then director of the Ohio Department of Health, but she stepped down in summer 2020 after backlash from Republican legislators. Subsequently, legislators overrode DeWine’s veto to pass Senate Bill 22, giving themselves the power to cancel any further health orders he might issue.
While DeWine could still promulgate statewide health orders, he said doing so would be futile because he expects legislators would immediately overturn them.
“They made it very clear that they would do that,” he said. “The only thing it would be is disruptive and confusing to people.”
Now, two years into the pandemic, willingness to comply with health requirements is fading, DeWine said. The effectiveness of any mandates depends on public acceptance, he said.
DeWine touted vaccination as the best way to avoid a severe case of COVID-19. About 71% of Ohioans over age 18 have gotten at least one dose, and that continues to grow, he said.
According to hospitals, 90% of their COVID patients are unvaccinated, DeWine said.
“Those numbers go much higher when you’re talking about the numbers of people in ICU or on a vent(ilator),” he said.
According to the Ohio Health Department, since Jan. 1, 2021, 94.4% of everyone who has been hospitalized with Covid in Ohio reported being less than fully vaccinated.
DeWine said he’s given no thought to what he’ll do if he’s not re-elected. His goals in a second term remain constant from his first, he said.
“We came into office with a very big agenda, and we’ve made some very significant progress on that agenda, but there is work to do in all areas,” DeWine said.
He cited the promulgation of H2Ohio, a water-quality effort; establishment of the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, using opioid settlement money for drug addiction services; and work on mental health and children’s services.
Then-President Donald Trump endorsed DeWine for governor in 2018, and DeWine was Ohio co-chair of Trump’s unsuccessful re-election bid in 2020. But while many Republican candidates have sought Trump’s blessing for this year, DeWine said he has not spoken to Trump about it “at this point.”
“If he offered it I would accept,” DeWine said. “We’re always looking for people to endorse. But I think that the reality is that this is an election that’s going to be decided in Ohio, going to be decided by Ohio voters.”
Trump has not issued an endorsement for the gubernatorial race, but in 2018 he endorsed former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci in the latter’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign. Renacci, opposing DeWine for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, chose as his running mate filmmaker Joe Knopp, who made a pro-Trump documentary.
Critical race theory
Last year some legislators sought to pass laws against the teaching of critical race theory, or CRT, in Ohio schools. House Bills 322 and 327 remain in committee; they refer to teaching “divisive concepts,” dealing primarily with race, gender and specific topics in U.S. history such as slavery.
DeWine was equivocal on the subject.
“Well, everybody seems to have a different definition of critical race theory,” he said. “As it is used by critics of some practices that they have seen in schools in this country, I’m against critical race theory as that is described. I think it’s important as we study history that we study the good and bad about our country.”
DeWine said he doesn’t want his grandchildren to be “told they’re victims.” While the existence of discrimination should be recognized, children shouldn’t be taught they’re “responsible for things 50 or 100 years ago,” he said.
Critical race theory is the academic concept that racism is not just individual prejudice, but is built into legal and social systems. Typically taught in college, it has become a hot-button issue nationwide, with drives in numerous state legislatures to ban it. Opponents denounce the bans as an attempt to suppress discussion of legitimate issues.
Asked if he had evidence CRT was being taught in Ohio public schools, DeWine said he only knew “what’s been reported and some people have been concerned about.”
“We have over 600 school districts, we have close to 5,000 separate (school) buildings,” he said. “I have simply read some of the complaints that I am sure you have seen about particular schools.”
DeWine said he would be open to some changes in the scandal-ridden House Bill 6, which passed in 2019. Pushed by electric company FirstEnergy, the bill increased Ohioans’ electric rates and provided huge subsidies for nuclear and coal-fired power plants while cutting subsidies for energy efficiency and renewable sources.
Prosecutors allege FirstEnergy paid $60 million in bribes to then-House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, to get HB 6 passed. Householder was expelled from the General Assembly in June and faces a federal corruption trial.
FirstEnergy paid a $230 million fine. Related investigations continue, but much of HB 6 remains law.
“My focus has always been, in regard to House Bill 6, is the focus on keeping nuclear power plants open in Ohio until their natural life has run out,” DeWine said. “So any kind of change or change in that bill, my attitude toward that would be depending on how it dealt with nuclear power.”
Lawmakers have already repealed the nuclear-plant bailout, but the bill’s subsidies for coal plants and other projects remain.
DeWine said he backed HB 6 for its support of nuclear power. As for other provisions of the bill, it’s “not a concern to me for them to be kept,” he said.
In June, DeWine, in line with Republican governors in several other states, ended a federal supplement of $300 per week to unemployment payments.
“This was something that employers requested because they were having a very difficult time finding employees,” he said.
But the state’s unemployment rate actually rose during the two months the supplemental payment could have continued, from 5.3% to 5.4%.
DeWine said some employers told him “anecdotally” that rejecting the federal payment helped them fill jobs.
The best way the state can help fill jobs, at least in the long term, is to offer skill training from early-childhood education through university level, he said.
“Education is really the one thing that government can do that impacts the availability of a workforce that can fill the jobs of the 21st century,” DeWine said. “The short run is more difficult, frankly.”
Hoping COVID-19 pressures end soon, DeWine predicted that “we are now ready to really roll in regard to new job creation in Ohio.”
Police, guns and crime
In June 2020, amid nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, DeWine endorsed a number of police reforms. Those included a ban on chokeholds in all but life-or-death circumstances, requiring professional licensing for police officers, and requiring body cameras for all officers statewide.
Last April, in the wake of the fatal shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by Columbus police, he spoke in favor of a police reform bill. The bill proposes more training for officers, including in de-escalation and use of force; an Ohio licensing board for officers that would create a statewide database of use of force complaints and officer discipline; and for the state to fund body cameras for departments that cannot afford them.
Police and community groups worked out a proposal for reform that DeWine supports, he said. It hasn’t been formally submitted, but is being worked on by state Reps. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., and Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison.
DeWine has said he would support stiffer background-check laws for gun purchases, and making it harder for criminals to obtain guns, but the General Assembly has not passed such legislation. Instead it sent him a “stand your ground” bill, letting people shoot in self-defense without trying to retreat, which he signed. Now legislators are expected to reconcile a bill authorizing concealed carry of guns without a permit, and some legislators are seeking elimination of gun permits entirely.
DeWine said he supports a bill sponsored by state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, intended to impose longer sentences on repeat violent offenders. House Bill 383, introduced in August and now in committee, increases penalties for people caught with firearms who are fugitives, convicted felons, the mentally incompetent, or a person who is “drug dependent, in danger of drug dependence, or a chronic alcoholic.”
DeWine also wants to see passage of the “Hands-Free Ohio” bill against distracted driving. Senate Bill 285 would make using a cell phone while driving a primary offense, meaning police could stop people for that reason alone. Introduced in 2020, it stalled in a Senate committee but DeWine said it has a “great deal of support.”