By Joe Hallett
COLUMBUS: So, Connie Pillich, what did you do in the Air Force?
“I prevented nuclear war.”
Pausing, she added, “You’re welcome.”
And, Mrs. Pillich, what’s your husband’s name?
Pausing, she added, “He didn’t want to change his name when we got married.”
Those answers might give Josh Mandel pause, because they say several things about state Rep. Connie Pillich, his Democratic opponent for state treasurer next year: She has a sense of humor, a military record to match Mandel’s, and she is a very determined woman.
Here’s how determined: Legislative Republicans, worried about the up-and-comer, gerrymandered Pillich’s suburban Cincinnati 28th House District in 2010 to make it 54 percent Republican. Even so, she beat her GOP opponent by 9 percentage points last year.
She won by knocking on 24,000 doors and talking with voters about what concerns them: education, the economy and getting things done, not the issues that fixate House Republicans — abortion and guns.
“This isn’t the first time I’m running an uphill battle,” said Pillich, now serving her third two-year term. “I’m never supposed to win, but I do.”
Let’s not be delusional: There is a good chance the Democratic ticket, including Pillich, could be swept for a second consecutive statewide election in 2014. Gov. John Kasich heads a slate of Republicans with decent records and built-in advantages, including superior fundraising, an unpopular Democratic president and likely low voter turnout in a state that already leans Republican.
If probable Democratic nominee Ed FitzGerald loses to Kasich by 10 points, he’ll take down the ticket. But if FitzGerald can keep it close, down-ticket Democrats have a chance — maybe Pillich more than the rest.
Here’s why: Mandel has made himself a flashpoint for controversy. He spent about 10 minutes in the treasurer’s office before deciding he wanted to be a U.S. senator. His loss to incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown after a raunchy campaign left Mandel with nearly universal name-recognition and a whole lot of negativity attached to that name.
Mandel has stayed in the news by joining the tea party charge against Kasich’s efforts to expand Medicaid coverage and impose a fracking tax, and more recently by becoming ensnared in a budding fundraising scandal involving indicted wealthy GOP donor Benjamin Suarez.
“This is a race where name-recognition is not going to help him because of his negatives,” Pillich said of Mandel.
Mandel is a tireless campaigner who prominently displays his service as a two-tour Marine veteran of the Iraq war. But Pillich, a 53-year-old mother of two college students and wife of a Proctor & Gamble chemist, might be his match as a campaigner, and she has an impressive military resume of her own.
Raised in a small town near Buffalo, N.Y., Pillich landed an Air Force ROTC scholarship to the University of Oklahoma and then spent more than eight years on active duty, getting a business master’s from the University of North Dakota while stationed near Grand Forks and serving in Berlin during the Cold War.
She ended up as a recruiter in Cincinnati, where she met her husband, went to law school and eventually opened her own firm.
The treasurer’s office “is a good fit for me,” Pillich said. “My MBA, my work in banking law, running my own business — those are great skills to bring to the office.”
Along with incumbency, Mandel has another mighty advantage: He is one of the best fundraisers Ohio has ever seen and he could overwhelm Pillich with money.
But in Pillich, beleaguered Democrats at least have found the right candidate for the right race.
Hallett is senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.