FLORIDA, July 25, 2012 — When I first inquired about an interview with George Voinovich, I wasn’t sure what to call him.
After all, he has been an Ohio assistant attorney general, state representative, Cuyahoga county auditor, lieutenant governor, mayor of Cleveland, governor, and last — though most certainly not least — U.S. senator. I went with “Senator”. It was a good call.
For a man who has held more public offices than anyone in Ohio history, Voinovich is down-to-earth as one could imagine. In a lengthy discussion, he spoke about not only his long and distinguished career, but the key issues facing the American politics.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics. When you were serving as Cleveland’s mayor and the governor of Ohio, bipartisanship was far more prevalent. Why do you think that politics have become so divisive? What can be done to bring compromise back from the history books?
Senator George Voinovich: The fact is that your mayor, city councilmember, governor, or state legislator has to get something done. We have a lot of people in Washington today that, quite frankly, are not getting things done.
Cotto: I can understand that. It’s very interesting, when you look at things. Many of our problems seem to stem from the fact that there has been a rise in new media, and that there is more money in politics now because of Citizens United.
Sen. Voinovich: First of all, you’ve got a lot of people now with no experience in government to speak of. A lot of people who got elected the last time around who really cared about their country are enamored with a particular point of view. They have not had the experience in government to understand that most of the public wants you to find those things that bring people together, rather than divide them.
With many, there’s not enough focus on looking forward. We’ve got too many former House members in the Senate, who carried over what happened in the House. The Senate should be a body where you’re more thoughtful and look at the big picture rather than respond to the flavor of the day.
Another thing is that with the media the way it is, there are people watching you. Politicians who, frankly, are not that experienced feel they’ve got to react to some of these things that are coming along rather than sit back and say, “Hold on a second, let’s look at this one later. We have other major things that we need to deal with. Should we go off on this particular tangent and spend all our time on it when there are other things that are far more important?”
I was talking to a member of the Senate today. In the old days, you could go to a meeting with some insiders and let your hair down. There were some procurations, quite frankly, that you wouldn’t do in public. Now, by the time something is out of your mouth, it’s in the paper, or somebody’s taking your picture and recording what you said. The next thing you know, it’s a T.V. commercial.
I’ll never forget, back in 2008, I was campaigning around Ohio for the presidential election. I was down in Meigs County with my wife; she’s an advocate of breast cancer awareness. She was doing something and I went to a meeting of the Republican Party there and referred to Barack Obama as a socialist. I said that I liked him as a person, but he’s a socialist. The next day, there were calls over. I didn’t say that for publication, I just basically was talking about personal observations.
The point is that this is a more difficult environment for people to operate in and it threw off many of them. I was lucky, I’ve been elected to more offices than any person in Ohio history. So, I had a lot of experience in how to deal with the media. A lot of these folks, they just haven’t had the opportunity to do that.
Cotto: When you were elected mayor, Cleveland was facing some of the most dire socioeconomic conditions imaginable. Throughout your decade in office, you managed to deal with many of these. How did you accomplish this, and what can Washington learn from the Forest City?
Sen. Voinovich: Well, my motto was “together we can do it”. I understood that if I was to be successful, I had to have a symbiotic relationship with the president of the city council and the members of council. I had to have a symbiotic relationship with the private sector.
What we did was we brought people together. The only goal in mind was to move the city out of default. I understood that I couldn’t do it alone. I developed a relationship with George Forbes, who probably was the most powerful president of the city council here. It wasn’t politics; we were at the bottom and we had to get out of there, we had to move forward.
We had this period when Cleveland won three All-American City Awards within five years. That had never happened before. It was kind of a fusion government that we had bringing people together. Quite frankly, that’s what we need at the federal level. People on both sides should realize that a lot more can be accomplished when you work together and compromise than if everyone goes off and does their own thing.
To make a long story short, we got along together and decided that we would try to concentrate on those things that we agreed upon. People used to ask sometimes, “Who runs this city, George Forbes or George Voinovich?” I said, “We both run the city. The city can’t move forward without the two of us working together.” Some said I was kowtowing, but the fact was that if I had gone off and done my own thing, we wouldn’t have accomplished three quarters of what we did.
Cotto: Republicans have had a tough time winning in urban centers for generations. As someone who repeatedly defied this trend, what advice do you have for inner city GOP hopefuls? In this day and age, can the Party mount serious races in such challenging environments?
Sen. Voinovich: It’s like anything else. You have to identify the issues that are important to the people. Right now, of course, it’s the economy. Then, you have to come back with common sense recommendations and solutions to the problems. The people expect that you understand what is confronting them as a community, and that you are very sincere in dealing with their problems.
You have to reach out and do your job in a network of operations, so that everyone feels they’re a part of it. I think that’s basically it. A lot of times, if you’re not successful, it’s because, frankly, you don’t go out and ask people for their help. It’s like anything else in life. People have got to feel that you have empathy for the problems that they’re experiencing. They want you to feel those problems sincerely, and be sincere about reaching out and coming up with solutions for those problems. Your solutions may not necessarily be those that people are accustomed to, but the fact is that they are solutions.
I think that might be the challenge of Mitt Romney; he has to convince people that he does understand their problems, and has better solutions than the man who’s in the White House right now. He has to let folks know that, from the tips of his toes to the top of his head, he’s sincere about moving this country ahead.
Cotto: During your two terms as governor, you attained widespread popularity. There were many causes for this, but from your standpoint, which resonated most with voters?
Sen. Voinovich: I was reelected with 75 percent of the vote, the largest majority that any governor got in the last century. That was in 1994, and I got the highest majority of any Republican or any governor that year. I think people just felt that I cared about them and their problems; I was just trying to do the job that they elected me to do.
I tried to survey the problems that the state was facing. People got an idea that I was trying to help them. I didn’t have some scheme that I was trying to promote. I didn’t try to engage people in battle. I was just looking at all the things that could unite us. My motto when I was governor was “Together, we can do it” and “With God, all things are possible”; that was our state motto.
Also, I think people liked the fact that when I ran I said, “Gone are the days of public officials who will be judged on how much they spend on a problem. The new reality dictates that public officials will be judged on whether they can work harder, smarter, or more with less.” In my State of the State Address, the legislature would take bets about how many times I used “harder” and “smarter” and “more with less”.
We got unemployment down and created 600,000 jobs. After the first couple of years, things really started to move in the state. I had a great team, a good relationship with the legislature, and a good relationship with the private sector. Again, I just realized that if you want to be successful, you have to bring everybody together and figure out how we could all work together to make a difference.
In the years before his retirement, Voinovich was one of the most moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill. This earned him the ire of many activists. What does he think about the rightist insurgency which has recently taken hold in primaries?
The right-wing media played a large role in churning up national sentiment against Voinovich’s centrism. What impact does he think the rise of talk radio, cable news, and the Internet have had on moderate Republican politics?
After the Citizens United ruling, millions of Americans became nervous about the influence which money plays in politics. Does Voinovich share these concerns? Or is Citizens United merely formalizing what has gone on under the table for centuries?
During the second part of our discussion, Sen. Voinovich will explain and tell us a bit about his life and career.
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