COLUMBUS: Gov. John Kasich’s pick to lead the Ohio Republican Party was elected Friday over a conservative challenger who warned party leaders they are dangerously out of touch with the party’s grass-roots base.
The GOP State Central Committee voted 48-7 to elect Matthew Borges chairman over Portage County businessman and tea party leader Tom Zawistowski. There were three abstentions.
Borges, 40, said he believed his victory put to rest criticism he had faced about a past misdemeanor conviction and tax liens. He pledged to pull together all Republicans, including tea party activists who applauded loudly throughout Zawistowski’s campaign speech.
“Sometimes family fights are the roughest fights of all. You might say something to your cousin or your brother that you wouldn’t say to anyone else,” Borges said. “But at the end of the day, you’re still family and you work together and you do what you know is right for the state. And in this case, what’s right for the state unequivocally is getting John Kasich re-elected governor in 2014.”
Zawistowski is a leading figure in a conservative and tea party backlash against Republican leadership. His camp raised questions about Borges’ suitability for the job, Kasich’s support for Medicaid expansion under the federal health-care law and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s recent reversal in favor of same-sex marriage.
Before the vote, Zawistowski talked about the tea party and other conservatives forming a third political party if Borges were elected. He didn’t back away from that possibility after the vote.
People have dismissed the idea for a third party, believing it was impossible or illogical because it would split the conservative vote, he said.
“But that [thought] has changed,” Zawistowski told the Beacon Journal. “There is an overwhelming desire for a third party. ... The fact of the matter is that neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party are parties. They are election machines.
“They don’t have anything to do with policy. The problem we’ve had, the anger that we’ve had, has come from the fact that we thought they were political parties.”
Zawistowski said he will meet with his coalition partners in the weeks to come to discuss opportunities to attract independents. Still, he also said he plans to work with Borges to try to keep the rift from leading to a party split.
“Now, we don’t think that’s the way to go, but we have people who are not satisfied with the results they get from these people they elect,” Zawistowski said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Despite his convincing victory, Borges said he recognizes that pulling the factions together is a must.
“Whatever the message was in that room today is a message that we’ve known for a long time,” he said. “And whoever the next state chairman was going to be was going to have to take on the very serious responsibility of working together, building coalitions.”
Susan A. Thompson, a Taco Bell cashier from Findlay who attended the meeting to support Zawistowski, said she will “not give one more dime or moment of my time to the GOP here in Ohio.”
She said Kasich’s support for Medicaid expansion was a slap to volunteers who spent two years gathering signatures for a ballot initiative opposing government health-care mandates — and Borges’ election effectively validates that stance.
Borges replaces veteran chairman Bob Bennett, who returned to the party’s helm last year after Kasich allies took control of the central committee and forced out then-chairman Kevin DeWine. Bennett retires May 31.
Borges also had faced criticism from some establishment Republicans, including statewide officeholders, for not making known to them tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid state and federal tax liens.
He ultimately paid the bulk of the liens — about $150,000 worth — ahead of Friday’s election. He said he accrued the debts while fighting a 2007 lien. At issue was how income was counted from the sale of a $575,000 home, he said.
On Friday, Borges said he wouldn’t talk about the issue anymore — though Democrats continued to press it and even some Republicans remained upset by it.
Arlene Dye, a Montessori teacher backing Zawistowski, said the liens bothered her.
“I had a lot of issues with it, because if that were me, I’d be in jail,” she said. “How can you lead people and have that going on? That’s not honest; that’s dishonest.”