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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Commentary: What Is Mike DeWine So Scared Of?

mike dewine
Tony Dejak

What has Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine so scared when it comes to issuing a mandate that masks be worn in all of Ohio's K-12 schools?

Anything that moves, apparently.

Particularly anything called the Ohio General Assembly, run by a super-majority of his fellow Republicans, which six months ago passed Senate Bill 22 – an extraordinary piece of legislation that essentially gives the legislature veto power over any emergency health orders DeWine might issue.

Scared too, of former congressman Jim Renacci, an anti-mask Republican from Medina County, who is challenging DeWine for the 2022 gubernatorial nomination. Renacci has been in DeWine's grill on a near-daily basis, saying the governor really wants a mask mandate in the schools.

"The only reason (DeWine) has not done so is because the state legislature has courageously passed a law to protect children from DeWine's harmful decisions,'' Renacci said this week.

Between the anti-maskers in the legislature and their power, and the noise from the right threatening him in the 2022 GOP gubernatorial primary, DeWine is locked up, frozen, apparently afraid to act.

He's like a baseball pitcher who has a mental block that makes it nearly impossible for him to throw to first base to hold on a runner. He has a severe case of the yips.

And to compound his misery, DeWine has two Democratic candidates who want his job – Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley - questioning his political courage and telling him he should defy the legislature, issue a mask mandate for the schools and fight it out in court.

But all he seems to be able to do is urge school districts around the state to issue their own mask mandates because he says he can't do it – it would just get knocked down, he says, by the provisions of Senate Bill 22, a law of dubious constitutionality.

"They've made it very clear that if we put a mask order on, they're going to come out and take that off,'' DeWine told Statehouse reporters this week. "If I thought otherwise, I would have certainly taken action myself."

Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports that even without an order from DeWine, a third of all public school districts in the state have adopted a mask policy on their own, so that 54% of Ohio public school students are required to be masked in class right now. That includes Cincinnati Public Schools.

The timidity DeWine has shown lately is a far cry from his combativeness back in March, when the Republican super-majority in the legislature passed Senate Bill 22.

Then, he was calling the new law "unconstitutional" and saying it "clearly violates the separation of powers." He vetoed the bill in March, but, of course, the GOP super-majority overrode his veto and it became the law of the land.

And now DeWine acts as if he is powerless to do anything about it.

His Democratic would-be replacements say there is plenty he can do.

"It's time for him to show some courage and stand up for Ohio's children,'' Whaley said. "He needs to stop putting politics ahead of public health and demonstrate leadership by issuing a statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools."

If that means challenging the law's constitutionality in court, then so be it.

It is something both Whaley and Cranley agree on.

"He should not abdicate his role as a leader,'' Cranley said. "If you have the governor pre-emptively kowtowing to the legislature – well, he seems to be saying that he is putting politics ahead of his duty to the health of the public."

Meanwhile, the COVID crisis grows worse, and a quarter of the new cases reported over the past few weeks have been kids under the age of 18.

But there's nothing the governor can do about it. At least that's how he sees it. It looks as though we will never know if he can or he can't.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.