John Kasich says he matured — in his faith, in his compassion, in his politics — during his eight years as Ohio governor.
The brash, take-no-prisoners Republican who took office in 2011 exits Jan. 14 as a pariah to many in his party for his refusal to silence his active, acidic tongue in picking apart the presidency of Donald Trump.
He cares not. Kasich, the long-shot, last challenger standing in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, says his party left him rather than the other way around, proudly saying he charted his own course in forging what he believed best for Ohio.
He increasingly brawled with fellow Republicans who controlled the General Assembly, staging an end-around to enact the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid health care to the working poor while accusing legislative leaders of political cowardice for failing to move on some of his initiatives, including a gun-violence reduction effort.
Only in the hard-right world of Statehouse Republicans would Kasich's conservative credentials be questioned, with some portraying him as a moderate. He is not. He signed 21 restrictions on abortion into law (vetoing only the so-called heartbeat bill), approved all but one bill expanding the rights of gun owners and cut taxes by $5 billion.
Kasich, who famously refused to attend the nomination of Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and voted for the late John McCain for president in 2016, plans to write another book as he retreats to his home outside Westerville. He will not be silent. It's likely he will land a regular TV gig someplace such as CNN.
While saying he could not beat Trump in 2020 — as it stands for the moment — the potential third-time presidential candidate leaves office more popular with Democrats than Republicans. Trump loyalists who wrested away his sway over the Ohio Republican Party are cheering his departure. He can live with that. He wants to restore mainstream Republican values.
"I'm not the same person as when I came in," Kasich told The Dispatch. The 18-year congressman says he evolved into a people-first, rather than politics-first, governor embodied by his mantra that "no one was left behind." He says he can look St. Peter in the eye when his time comes.
He's not big on legacy — people can assess that when he is dead — but Kasich said, "I would hope people would say he took care of all the priorities, he wasn’t cutting anybody out on partisanship or special interests. He saw his duty and he did it.
More than words
Kasich does allow himself a Trump-like boast: "I think we got more done than any administration I can think of in modern times."
But he backs up that assertion by ticking numbers and facts dating from 2011:
• About 566,000 private-sector jobs created, with the state unemployment rate falling from 9.3 percent to 4.6 percent. While Ohio long trailed national job growth, its more-diverse economy has exploded to create jobs the past two years.
• Amid what Kasich praises as his fiscal restraint limiting state spending to an average annual growth of 2.2 percent, the rainy day fund has grown from 89 cents when he took office to $2.7 billion. To the consternation of local governments whose state aid has been slashed, Kasich and legislative Republicans have protected the stockpile from spending raids.
Tim Keen, Kasich’s budget director for his entire eight years, also served in the budget office under two other Republican governors — George V. Voinovich and Bob Taft. “Clearly Kasich was the most aggressive in terms of taking on big, tough issues,” Keen said. “He also faced the most challenging budgetary circumstances of the three.”
• More than 650,000 working-poor adults receive health care through the Medicaid expansion, with about half receiving mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Kasich also talks of large infrastructure improvements and steps to improve the lives and outlooks of the physically and mentally disabled, tax reductions for the poor, job-training programs and other moves to assist what he has long called "the people in the shadows."
"The list goes on and on … If I had not been strong, it would not have happened. I had good partners (in the legislature) for most of the time who were willing to take risks and chances and it's necessary if you are going to grow a state."
Schools, and their funding, remain a frustration for Kasich. He enacted some reforms, but not the ones he most wanted in hopes K-12 classrooms would better prepare students for the real world and jobs demanding more technological sophistication.
He also failed to win a school-funding model based on local property tax capacity and effort to make well-off districts pick up more of the tab while more state aid went to poor districts.
Kasich has few regrets, but concedes his support of Senate Bill 5 to limit the collective-bargaining rights of police, firefighters and other public employees was his biggest mistake. Ohioans threw the measure back into the faces of Kasich and legislative Republicans, overturning it by a 62- to 38-percent margin at the polls in 2011.
"That could have been handled so much better," Kasich said. "I took the defeat, I think gracefully, and learned from it. It was a mistake, that’s all." Kasich since has brooked no talk of Ohio becoming a right-to-work state.
After ousting Democrat Gov. Ted Strickland by 2 percentage points in 2010 as Ohio struggled to emerge from the recession, Kasich rebuilt his popularity. Early in his term, the late Ohio GOP Chairman Robert T. Bennett predicted, "They'll hate him in two years but love him in four."
In a lopsided mismatch against underwhelming and underfunded Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald in 2014, Kasich carried 63.6 percent of the vote and 86 of 88 counties to win his second term in the second-largest romp in gubernatorial history.
He used his large win as a partial springboard to the uphill fight for the GOP presidential nomination, where he found money and media attention hard to come by amid the tough-talking Trump outsider phenomenon. He spent more than 200 days campaigning out of state while compiling more than $300,000 in overtime for his Highway Patrol security detail. Critics derided him as an absentee governor. He ended with little to show beyond a runner-up finish to Trump in New Hampshire and a 11-percentage point Ohio win as a favorite son.
The 66-year-old Kasich is keeping the door open to a 2020 return, but he says he will not make a decision for some time. But much could change about Trump's status given the Mueller investigation and Democratic control of the U.S. House. He appears to be in wait-and-see mode. "It's not like I'm on scandal watch, I'm not that kind of guy," he said.
And, you will not hear him butting in with commentary about successor Mike DeWine, the Republican attorney general who takes over on Jan. 14 — after largely distancing himself from Kasich during his run for governor. Kasich only offers this advice to DeWine: "Just don't do political decisions."
Dispatch reporter Jim Siegel contributed to this story.