Rob Burch: A Candidate With Plenty Of Moxie, But Few Votes

Sep 14, 2018

As long as I cover politics, I will remember the name Rob Burch as a politician with nothing but moxie.

I could not blame you if you don't recognize that name.

But in 1994, the then-44-year-old state senator from Dover, Ohio – one of the most obscure politicians in the state – was the Democratic candidate for Ohio governor.

Burch won a Democratic primary that year against an opponent who was even less well-known than he was, which is hard to imagine.

But the diminutive, mustachioed lawyer from Dover took on Republican governor George Voinovich and was such a weak candidate that – with 24.9 percent of the vote – came within shouting distance of turning the Ohio Democratic Party into a "minor party" under Ohio election law.

Give him credit, though, Burch was willing to try.

Other, better-known Democrats were quaking in their boots at the prospect of running against Voinovich, who was at the time, without question, the most popular Ohio governor in living memory.

Tony Celebrezze Jr., the former attorney general and secretary of state who lost to Voinovich in 1990, wanted no part of a re-match with his fellow Clevelander. Attorney General Lee Fisher, who had gubernatorial ambitions, chose instead to run for re-election and ended up losing to Republican Betty Montgomery. Former two-term governor Richard Celeste clearly had no interest in mixing it up with Voinovich.

Many other better-known Democrats took a pass. Your uncle Sal, the union steward, was probably better known in Ohio than Rob Burch.

It is hard to describe just how popular George Voinovich, who, sadly, passed away two years ago, was with Ohio voters at the end of his first term.

He came to the office after nearly 10 years as mayor of Cleveland, where he was credited with pulling the city out of financial disaster and keeping his hometown from swirling down the drain.

As governor, he erased a $1.5 billion state deficit; reformed the welfare system; and got rid of unfunded mandates, among other things. And he did it all with this sort of boyish charm that made people like him.

George Vionovich gets ready to debate Rob Burch in November 1994.
Credit Screen Grab / C-SPAN

He could, when he wanted to, thumb his nose at the Ohio Republican Party establishment, because, frankly, he was bigger than they were. And they didn't mind, because he had a habit of pulling in Cleveland Democrats and winning elections, even though, on the ballot, he had that scarlet "R" behind his name.

Still, Burch played the role of The Little Engine Who Couldn't, But Who Tried Really Hard.

Get this straight – for all his weakness as a candidate, Burch was not the worst major party candidate for governor I have seen in the 12 Ohio gubernatorial campaigns I have covered.

That would be one Ed FitzGerald, the former Cuyahoga County Executive who embarrassed the Ohio Democratic Party on a nearly daily basis four years ago when he was running against incumbent Republican John Kasich. One scandal and misstep after another doomed FitzGerald before he even started.

Yes, FitzGerald got 33 percent of the vote, which was more than Burch, but there were more Democrats in Ohio in 2014 than there were in 1994.

Kasich pretended FitzGerald didn't exist; debating the Democrat was out of the question. Kasich barely had to lift a finger to win a second term, after barely defeating incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland four years before.  

But Burch, who was in his third term as a state senator at the time, did get one thing that FitzGerald did not – a televised debate with his opponent.

It took place on Nov. 1, 1994, and was sponsored by the Cincinnati Post and carried on CET, channel 48, the public television station, and shared with public TV stations around the state.

In fact, the one-hour debate took place in the CET studios, in the same building where I am writing this column.

Burch was a feisty fellow during the debate, accusing Voinovich of running an administration full of scandal in various departments.

Burch was clearly getting under the governor's skin. Voinovich, who had been flashing his trademark grin in the early part of the debate, valued his reputation for integrity above all else, and barked back at Burch when he started flinging around accusations of misconduct in the administration.

Voinovich pointed out that every newspaper in Ohio that endorsed in the race had endorsed him.

Burch was running a shoe-string campaign; he had very little money to spend, while Voinovich had a campaign bank roll of over $8 million. One of the panel of journalists questioning the candidates, Lee Leonard, then of the Columbus Dispatch and the dean of statehouse reporters, asked Voinovich about his campaign contributions coming in large sums, some of which came from people doing business with the state.

You could look at Voinovich and see that he was not a happy camper.

"We raised most of that money last year, when I thought we were going to have a more formidable opponent,'' Voinovich said, jerking his thumb in the direction of Burch.

Burch did his best in the debate, but his best was not enough. He traveled the state, usually by himself, stopping to talk wherever voters were gathered. None of it helped.

The polls showed impending doom.

That was never more evident than on Labor Day, the traditional day for kicking-off fall campaigns.

Burch made his way to Cincinnati's Coney Island, where, as happens every Labor Day, more than 10,000 union members and their families gather for cookouts and political speeches.

Most of the union members vote for Democrats, so if you are a Democrat running for office, Coney Island's picnic grounds is the place to be.

Burch showed up by himself and stood along the walkway into the picnic grounds with at least a dozen other Democratic candidates. He had a huge stack of his campaign lit pieces that he was passing out to people as they came in, most of them looking at him in bewilderment.

I was there too, and I happened to amble up to Burch to chat. I had been coming to the AFL-CIO Labor Day Picnic for years, and I knew people in nearly every union local in the region.

And they knew me.

As I chatted with Burch, dozens of them came up and greeted me with a Hi, Howard and most stopped by to chat for a minute or two.

Not one of them paid the least bit of attention to the short man with the mustache standing next to me.

Then it occurred to me: These people all belong to unions, many of which have endorsed Rob Burch for governor, and they have no idea who he is!

I decided the least I could do was introduce him to his own supporters.

Hey Bob, I'd say, Have you met Rob Burch? The Democratic candidate for governor?

Oh, so you are Rob Burch, Bob would say. I would have never recognized you.

I repeated this process a few dozen times, introducing them to their candidate for governor.

After a while, Burch looked at me with a sheepish grin.

Thank you, he said. I have to say, this is kind of embarrassing. Maybe you should be running for governor.

Thanks, but no thanks, Rob, I said as I walked away. You're doing fine.

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.