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Government & Politics

The GOP's Move to the Right Might Have Shifted Voinovich's Conservative Bona Fides

photo of Voinovich campaign buttons

Flags will fly at half-staff to remember former Cleveland mayor, Ohio governor and U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, who died suddenly over the weekend at 79. And some are saying his bipartisan approach to politics demonstrates how different things are since he retired from elected office in 2010.


George Voinovich certainly viewed himself as a conservative on major issues such as spending – which he talked about in an interview with Ohio Public Television as he was leaving the U.S. Senate in 2010.

“We are borrowing ourselves into oblivion. Our national debt and our budgets that are not balanced; we are in a fiscal crisis today. And it’s not sustainable.”

His record as governor
And as governor, Voinovich racked up criticism for budget cuts, including some welfare benefits, his support for school vouchers  and what some environmentalists saw as inaction on out-of-state trash coming into Ohio and construction of a hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool. But some of those who most closely followed his career feel he wasn’t as conservative as many claimed.

“I’ll always remember George Voinovich as a moderate Republican.”

“I think Voinovich was a centrist.”

What it means to be a conservative
Retired Ohio Public Radio reporter Bill Cohen and former Columbus Dispatch reporter and editor Mike Curtin covered Voinovich as the Republican who succeeded Democratic Gov. Dick Celeste in 1991. And since that time, the definition of what is means to be conservative Republican has changed, says John Green of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

“The Republican Party has moved very decisively to the right, so that people like George Voinovich who, when he first came into office, would have been viewed definitely on the conservative side of the spectrum seemed somewhat out of play.”

Reaching across the aisle
Former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Tom Suddes notes Voinovich came up as the Republican mayor of a heavily Democratic city – Cleveland, and says as governor he had to work with the powerful Democratic Speaker of the House Vern Riffe. Suddes, now a columnist for Cleveland.com and a journalism professor at Ohio University, agrees that the political climate has changed.

“Someone is either a hundred-thousand percent one thing or a hundred-thousand percent the other thing. Anyone in between is somehow a sellout or a traitor or a RINO or a ‘squish’ or something. And I think that’s a problem he could overcome because he knew how to debate and argue and negotiate with people of different perspectives. And I think that quality is diminishing because of polarization, unfortunately. It’s kind of hard to find someone whose attitude is “I want to solve problems”, not preach an ideology.”

Voinovich on Trump
Brent Larkin was a Plain Dealer reporter and later the paper’s editorial page director. He sat down with Voinovich not long ago to talk about what he was planning on doing with regard to Donald Trump, his party’s likely nominee. And Larkin says Voinovich’s concern with Trump may have been personal as well as political.

“He volunteered he has nothing (in common) with this presumptive Republican nominee for president. I mean, they could not be more different. He didn’t have a crude, vulgar bone in his body.”

The importance of party loyalty
Voinovich held positions on hot-button issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act and green energy that most would call conservative. And he certainly was a prominent figure in the Republican Party. But he didn’t talk much about party loyalty. In that 2010 interview with Ohio Public TV, he talked about voting against Republican-backed tax cuts while in the U.S. Senate.

“If you look at my record, I’d say that I’m right of center. I think with the American Conservative Union or whatever it is, I think I’m a 70 or 75 percent. Now a lot of my colleagues are a 95 percent. But I try to do what I think is right. I’ve been in this business a long time.”

And though Voinovich had his critics, he also had many supporters. He won re-election to the governor’s office in 1994 by the largest margin in state history, and was one of only two senators to win all 88 counties. The other was his Democratic colleague, John Glenn.