A few weeks into his second term, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine took a spill while inspecting the damage in the East Palestine community where a freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed last month. He suffered a displaced fibula fracture walking down the steps at a church that had set up a medical center for residents.
It hurt and he wore a boot, but the 76-year-old governor has suffered worse trying to navigate his place in a splintered Republican Party.
In a wide-ranging interview with POLITICO, DeWine talked about the East Palestine disaster, maneuvering within the Republican Party and how he’s approached policy issues related to education and abortion.
On the issue of East Palestine, DeWine says the federal government needs to do more to prevent similar accidents in the future.
“There are some things we can do, but I don’t want to mislead anybody. They’re only a fraction of what can be done,” the governor and 20-year veteran congressman said. “Railroads are preempted by the federal government, so the answer, frankly, lies with Congress now. The federal government has a major responsibility.”
In the meantime, Ohio has added $800,000 in grants toward hazardous materials training.
It’s the sort of low-flair approach DeWine has taken throughout his nearly 50 years in public office in the Midwest’s biggest swing state. Along with serving as governor, he’s held positions as a senator, lieutenant governor, congressman, state senator, attorney general and county prosecutor.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You criticized President Trump’s involvement in Jan. 6 and then he didn’t endorse you until after your primary last year. Do you think that lack of support undercut your ability to negotiate with your GOP-led legislature?
I’ve been very successful with our Republican Legislature in getting budgets every two years. We’ve had two budgets, and now we’re on to our third. But if you look at the first two, we got 97 percent of the things that we asked for in the budget, so I think we’re doing fine with the Legislature.
POLITICO has reported that local election officials all over the country are preparing to be challenged by people who are aligned with Trump’s stolen-election conspiracy. What are you or your Legislature doing to address that?
I haven’t seen much of that in Ohio, but the Legislature passed and I signed some modest changes in our voting laws. We do a very good job in Ohio in conducting elections. And there’s not been a great groundswell for changes. We count our votes quickly. We have a great opportunity for people to vote. We’ve not had the problem that some states have had about absentee ballots being counted.
When it comes to Covid, you were the first governor — Democrat or Republican — to close schools when the pandemic started, even before Illinois and New York. What is the biggest issue that Ohio schools and students are struggling with now after so much remote learning?
Our urban schools were particularly hit because they did not go back as quickly as our rural schools and our suburban schools. To get the urban schools back, candidly, was to offer them and all the school personnel to be put in front of the line in regard to vaccines right when the vaccines came out. So we were successful in doing that.
There is no doubt that we have kids that are behind as a direct result of being out of school. Our urban children have been particularly hard-hit by that. One thing we always worry about, even before the pandemic, is reading. It’s really the key. In my budget, we have a provision that says the science of reading is what should be taught in all of our schools. We also budget to train teachers in regard to the science of reading. We think the evidence is abundantly clear that this is the best way, the fastest way to help kids read.
What do you say to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to change how Black history is taught in AP classes?
I don’t know enough about what’s going on in Florida to make a comment about that. In Ohio, we want our history taught. We want to help kids understand the history of the good and the bad. My major in college was education. I student-taught. I thought I was going to be a social studies teacher. So I’m a believer in teaching about government and focusing on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Switch to politics, do you think age matters in running for office? You’re 76. And at various times it’s been suggested that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are too old to run.
I really feel that I’m in my prime as far as my ability to make decisions and get things done. It just depends on the individual. I feel that for me, at least, I’m in the prime time of my life or at least my career as far as being a public servant.
In terms of policy, a young Ohio girl last year drew national attention when she wasn’t able to get an abortion. You called it “gut-wrenching” at the time. Are you or the Ohio legislature doing anything to address that this year?
What I’ve said to the state Legislature is we need to look at the issue. Need to look at the bill that was passed. And the goal should be to try to [see] if there are areas that are not clear — and don’t give proper guidance to physicians, to the public — then we should go in and make them clear.
I have a long career of being pro-life. I’m very pro-life, but I think that our concern is saving the most lives. The best way to do that is to have a clear statute that is not ambiguous in any way. And also that recognizes that the voters are going to be able to go to the ballot and express their will and we want to build a law that will be sustainable over a long period of time.
How do you break through in a bipartisan way?
Politics had nothing to do with dealing with how we clean up the mess from the train, for example, or how we hold the train company liable and accountable for this. So Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and I both from the point of view of, “Hey, we got a problem. And let’s go fix it.” So yeah, I think there’s plenty of opportunity for people to work in a bipartisan way.
Another example is Gov. Steve Beshear, in Kentucky, another Democrat. He and I are going to build a bridge across the Ohio River. We got the federal government and we got our money and his money, and we’re going to build a bridge. We’ve worked exceedingly well together.
So, yeah, I think people want us to get things done. I think they don’t like partisan battles. You know, there are gonna be things that parties just are going to disagree about. And that is what it is. I have always found in my 20 years in Congress, particularly my 12 years in the U.S. Senate, as well as my time now as governor for the last four years, that you can find common ground. You can get things done.
What are your policy goals for your second term?
Since I took office, I have put an emphasis on mental health and fulfilling John Kennedy’s pledge in 1963, 50 years ago, to have mental health services available in every community in the country. From Day One, I put an emphasis on this. I provided in my first budget, my second budget now my third budget about $650 million for schools to use for mental health.
When the pandemic hit, we put money directly into our colleges and universities for mental health for students. We continue to have a very aggressive budget. In regard to mental health, we’re also taking this into the communities. We have additional money in this budget, for example, if it’s approved by the legislature, in regard to the research. We’re not doing enough research in the area of mental health. So, that’s a priority.
Prenatal care and pre-K education is also a priority and getting kids ready for school. Reading, as I told you, is important.
Another area is community development. We have a proposal in our budget this year that I think is unique. And it is to set aside a half billion dollars in what we call the Ohio Future Fund and that is to help local communities when they have a prospective site that needs to be cleaned up or that needs to be gotten ready for developments. They can tap into that fund. I consider it a window of opportunity for Ohio.
We are in a great position. Not only have we brought Intel chip fabrication plants into Ohio, but we’re having a groundbreaking for a new Honda facility to make electric batteries. This is really, I think, Ohio’s time.
Finally, and more personally, you have eight children, more than any other sitting governor to my knowledge. How has being a father affected your ability to be in public office?
It keeps me grounded. You know, now we have 26 grandkids. And most weekends we’re going to basketball games or soccer or something with some of our grandkids. Along with keeping me grounded, it also keeps informed of what different generations are thinking and what they’re doing. There’s diversity in our family, a diversity of views, and that’s always helpful as well.