Ohio Democrats expected better a year ago. The party long in the statewide wilderness put together a strong slate of candidates. Democrats, here and elsewhere, were ready to make a statement about the first two years of the Donald Trump presidency. Then, the results arrived, and while the party scored victories, notably, a third term in the U.S. Senate for Sherrod Brown and two seats on the Ohio Supreme Court, the outcome was familiar. Democrats again fell short in all five races for statewide executive office.
So this was another moment to think about retooling, buoyed by Barack Obama twice carrying the state. And there has been activity, perhaps the most intriguing taking place in the Ohio House Democratic caucus, with Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat, as the minority leader. Sykes and company just spent August on their Ohio Promise Tour, conducting more than two dozen town halls across the state, with more coming this month.
The Ohio Promise, first unveiled in March, attempts to define more clearly where the party stands, and thus sharpen its identity. The caucus doesn’t just promise airily, “You can live the American dream, right here at home.” It includes policies and priorities, from improving college affordability and investing in early education to expanding broadband in rural areas and increasing public transit funds.
The additional four promises — “If you can work hard, you can get ahead”; “Family comes first”; “You can live, work and retire with safety and security”; and “We work for you” — follow the same approach, familiar words helpfully backed by detail. Among the proposals are an expanded state Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, paid family leave insurance, ending the marriage tax penalty, protection for Lake Erie and restoring local government funding.
There is a gun safety element, going beyond the recent proposals of Gov. Mike DeWine to include safe storage requirements and raising to 21 the minimum age for purchasing a gun.
The Promise has a laundry-list quality. Yet there are common themes. The most striking ups the ante on the governor’s argument that this is a time for Ohio to invest. At the unveiling, Democrats pointed to the unflattering numbers, such as the state adding jobs at three-quarters the national rate since 2011, household income in Ohio falling further behind the national median, the state slipping to 23rd in the academic performance of its primary and secondary schools, according to the Quality Counts report card of Education Week.
One obvious question arises: How would House Democrats cover the cost? They have an answer: Close the ill-conceived and wasteful tax break for small businesses, the first $250,000 in profits tax-free with any remaining such income taxed at lower rate. This arrangement costs the state more than $1 billion a year, or funding that could bolster shared priorities, for instance, schools and universities, transportation and water quality.
At one turn, in the recent state budget process, Larry Householder, the House speaker, joined with Democrats in backing a substantial narrowing of this tax break. Unfortunately, the effort fizzled. It was revealing in the leverage the caucus can apply, Democrats having provided Householder with the votes he needed to become speaker. Sykes and company took a gamble in supporting Householder, with his dark pay-to-play past. They may yet regret the move. For now, they have found a way to make their voices heard.
Which highlights a risk the party as a whole would do well to take: Define what matters to Ohio Democrats, and talk realistically about what implementation would involve. That is the start the Ohio Promise provides, Democrats doing a better job presenting the choice.