COLUMBUS: If Democrat Ed FitzGerald, as expected, launches his campaign for governor on Wednesday, FitzGerald will be taking on more than Republican incumbent John Kasich.
FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, also will be battling history.
Since Ohio began electing governors to four-year terms in 1958 — terms were for two years before that — Democrats have had trouble getting rid of Republican incumbents.
Things started out great for the Democrats. Republicans foolishly put the right-to-work proposal on the 1958 ballot and it went down to defeat along with nearly all Republican candidates, including Gov. C. William “Billy” O’Neill.
No incumbent Republican governor since O’Neill has been denied a second term. Republicans, meanwhile, have shooed Democratic incumbents to the Statehouse exit three times.
Jim Rhodes did it twice. In 1962, he dumped Mike DiSalle, the Democrat who had ousted O’Neill.
Then in 1974, Rhodes squeezed by incumbent John J. Gilligan in an election so close that Rhodes conceded defeat, went to bed and then woke up a winner.
Kasich, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, joined Rhodes as an incumbent beater in 2010 when he edged Ted Strickland.
Most times, Democrats haven’t come close.
In 1994, they were embarrassed. Incumbent Republican George Voinovich thrashed Democratic challenger Rob Burch by getting nearly 72 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Burch, a victory margin that set a 20th century record.
There’s a wisp of hope for Democrats who are in fairly pathetic shape these days in Columbus, despite President Barack Obama’s re-election last year.
They hold just 39 seats in the 99-member Ohio House and just 10 seats in the 33-member Senate. Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill is the Democrats’ only statewide elected official.
On paper, there’s a similarity to 1978, the year a Democratic challenger came closest to dumping a Republican governor. The challenger was Richard F. Celeste who, like FitzGerald, was from Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb.
FitzGerald is a former Lakewood mayor and so was Celeste’s dad, Frank.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, the Lakewood connection is where the similarity ends. FitzGerald is making his first run for statewide office. By 1978, Celeste was battle tested.
He was in his second term in the Ohio House in 1974 when he was elected lieutenant governor in the same election in which Rhodes ousted Gilligan. It was the last election in which the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately.
Rhodes and Celeste took office together in 1975 but Rhodes had no intention of giving Celeste much to do as lieutenant governor. He suggested that Celeste take up golf.
Instead, Celeste spent much of his time preparing to take on Rhodes in 1978.
Besides four years of preparation, Celeste had a hard-charging charisma that attracted near-fanatic discipleship. His followers became known as “Celestials.” By 1978, there was speculation that Celeste really wanted to run for president.
Celeste ran an aggressive campaign. At rallies he would shout “James A. Rhodes” and his followers would shout back, “pack your bags.”
Rhodes did not have to.
He mostly ignored Celeste but when he saw an opening he pounced. Celeste, like most candidates for governor up to the present, promised a be-all, end-all plan to improve Ohio schools.
It was a dud, short on specifics, with a special citizens’ commission playing a key role. Rhodes had no use for “commeshions.”
Earlier in the year, a fierce snowstorm had swept across the state and Rhodes declared war on the “killer blizzard.” He commanded snowplows like Patton directed tanks across North Africa.
“He (Celeste) says education is a crisis,” Rhodes said after Celeste unveiled his plan for schools. “So was the blizzard. And we did not have to appoint a commission to solve the blizzard. When you elect a governor you elect management and not a commission.”
Rhodes was re-elected narrowly, getting 48.7 percent to 47 percent for Celeste, with a winning margin of 47,536 votes.
Celeste learned from the experience and was elected governor in 1982 and re-elected in 1986. He remains the only Democratic incumbent since 1958 that Republicans couldn’t beat.
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.