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Government and Politics

Gilligan remembered as a change-agent in Ohio
Former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan dies at age 92

Karen Kasler
Ohio Gov. John Gilligan pushed through Ohio's first personal income tax, to his political detriment.
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Flags are at half-staff today to honor a former Ohio governor. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports on the life and legacy of John Gilligan.

LISTEN: John Gilligan's life in politics

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LISTEN: Extended story, John Gilligan's life in politics

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John J. Gilligan, known as Jack, was born in Cincinnati in 1921. He served in the Navy in World War II, earned his masters and started teaching and ran for Cincinnati City Council in 1953. He served several terms there and then launched to Congress. In 1970 he ran as a liberal Democrat and became Ohio’s 62nd governor. It was his administration that did something that may now seem incredible – passing the state income tax to fund state operations, over objections from a Republican controlled House and Senate. But he was vilified in 1974 by Republican James Rhodes, seeking his second term as governor, for raising taxes, and Rhodes ended up becoming governor again by 11,000 votes. At a forum in Columbus in 2007, Gilligan was asked how serving as governor changed his perspective on life.

“Well, it added a, an element of humility to my character, especially at the end of my administration when I failed to be re-elected.”

When Gilligan was governor, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency was established, and the Highway Department was merged with air, bus and rail services into what is now the Ohio Department of Transportation. Gilligan also oversaw the creation of the commission on aging, which is now a cabinet-level agency. But most remember him as the father of the personal income tax, a role he came to embrace. House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a conservative Republican from Medina, was in his first years of service in the Ohio House when Gilligan was governor.  He says Gilligan was very bright and committed to his ideas, though Batchelder admits he disagreed with many of them.

“I know a lot of people felt that he was confrontational and so forth – that’s a governor’s job. He taught American literature at Xavier, I believe. So I loved American literature, and so he and I talked about American literature more than we did about what he wanted me to vote for.”

Democratic former Senate President Harry Meshel of Youngstown won his first seat in the Senate the year Gilligan was elected governor.  He says Gilligan was an intellectual of the first order, and he says that may be why some people found him abrasive. But Meshel says he leaves a great legacy.

“The tax was very important, and of course it hurt some of us politically, but it was the thing to do. And the succeeding governors also enjoyed the largess that came from that. We did the hard work; they got the credit and they had an opportunity to spend it.”

And Gilligan was known for outrageous off the cuff remarks and headline-making gaffes, some of which came back to haunt him in his re-election campaign. Lee Leonard was a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.

“He was no stranger to controversy and I think we were so intent at that time on covering him hard that we really didn’t realize all the accomplishments that were being made.”

After many years out of politics, Gilligan decided to run again in 1999 – for the Cincinnati Board of Education, where he held a seat till 2007. Gilligan and his wife had four children – among them Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor who is now President Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary. They were the first father-daughter gubernatorial team in US history.  His legacy continues at the Statehouse, where his grandson Joe Gilligan is a policy analyst with the House Democratic Caucus.

“He held firm convictions in his progressive ideology and I think that he was a person who wanted to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Former Governor John Gilligan was 92.

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