By Joe Hallett
COLUMBUS: Democrat Ed FitzGerald needs some buzz.
A year out from the election, the Cuyahoga County executive’s campaign seems to be unfolding slower than past gubernatorial candidacies. Recent interviews with four ex-Ohio governors about what it takes to win Ohio magnified the grueling journey ahead for FitzGerald.
There are millions to be raised for TV ads, county chairs to coddle, position papers to proffer and thousands of voters to visit in dozens of towns that demand to see their gubernatorial candidates.
Republicans George V. Voinovich and Bob Taft and Democrats Richard F. Celeste and Ted Strickland have been there and done that. At this juncture, all seemed further ahead of FitzGerald, whose campaign gives little notice about his whereabouts.
An underdog to GOP Gov. John Kasich, FitzGerald needs to get voters talking about him to gain traction.
“You need a long and sustained presence,” said Taft. “You have to be active across the state. Politically, Ohio is closely divided, so you’ve got to constantly beat the bushes because a small number of votes could matter.”
Strickland and Voinovich stressed the importance of meeting voters on their turf, letting them know you’ll be around.
“They have to know who you are in your heart,” Voinovich said. “They want authenticity. They want to know: Who is this person that wants me to support him? You’ve got to motivate the grass roots.”
Eventually, trust is what voters must feel, Strickland said: “So much of what happens in a campaign never gets down to the nitty-gritty details of public policy, but it is conveying an impression to the voter that creates a certain image or feeling about a candidate. The person is more important than the message because ultimately the voters respond to the person more than the message they try to convey.”
By now, most voters know how they feel about Kasich. The challenge for FitzGerald as a first-time statewide candidate is to be viewed as a viable alternative. First, however, he has to become known.
More than a year before launching his first statewide campaign for lieutenant governor in 1974, then-Clevelander Celeste said he needed to answer a question: “Do you have the stamina for this?” So, he and his brother, Ted, took a weeklong road trip to parts unknown, visiting county Democratic chairmen across eastern and southern Ohio.
After determining he was physically and emotionally ready for the race, Celeste said, “My brother and I decided one of the things I have to do is go to every county in the state, no matter if they were Republican and weren’t going to vote for a Democrat.”
That summer, Celeste visited all 88 counties, introducing himself to elected officials, political activists and newspaper editors, confirming what he had learned on the earlier road trip: “Nothing beats being physically present.”
Likewise, Voinovich launched his long career as governor and U.S. senator — winning five of six statewide races — in 1978 as a lieutenant governor candidate by renting a motor home and taking his family to voters across Ohio.
“You have to break the ice with your party and with voters, and that is real work,” Voinovich said. “We would get up on a Monday morning at 4 o’clock to drive to some far-out county, going from county to county. We’d have breakfast at somebody’s house or a restaurant where all the locals hung out. Many times, families would put us up for the night. At the end of the summer, we were beat.”
For sure, FitzGerald has his hands full running Cuyahoga County, the state’s second-biggest government, but he knew he faced an impossible juggling act when he signed up to run against Kasich.
If he is to have a serious shot at winning, he needs to get started.
Hallett is senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.