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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.

Jim Obergefell, running as a Democrat in Ohio, knows about beating the odds

jim obergefell
Courtesy
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Emma Parker

Being called an underdog in his campaign for a seat in the Ohio House does not faze Jim Obergefell in the least.

He's been there before.

The former Cincinnatian, now back in his hometown of Sandusky, has his name attached to one of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions in history — Obergefell v. Hodges — which established that same sex marriages must be recognized by all states.

It was an amazing victory in June 2015 for the nation's entire LGBTQ community and freed countless people to achieve their dreams of living as legally married couples, with all the rights that come with that.

dj swearingen
Ohio House of Representatives
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Swearingen has served in the Ohio House as a Republican since 2019.

And now, Obergefell, a Democrat, faces a tough battle against an incumbent Republican, State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, in Ohio's 89th House District, made up of Erie and Ottawa counties, both on the shores of Lake Erie between Cleveland and Toledo.

"Yes, it’s a challenge," Obergefell said of his first campaign for public office. "But I don't mind being an underdog. I've taken on that role before. It's worth it when the cause is something you believe in."

And he is willing to fight that battle not only in a campaign for the Ohio House, but against a U.S. Supreme Court that has swung far to the right since the 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and seems to be on the verge of undoing Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old decision that established a woman's right to an abortion.

He fears that an ultra-conservative court could continue its attacks on social justice, including the right to same-sex marriage.

"Concerned does not come close to how I feel about it," Obergefell said. "I am terrified. Terrified by what this court might do.

"We can't sit by while this Supreme Court undoes all the progress that has been made on so many fronts," Obergefell said. "They seem to want to stick us permanently in the past."

The decision that lead to this decision

Obergefell's life is tied inextricably to the decision the Supreme Court made seven years ago in his case.

The story of Obergefell and his longtime partner, John Arthur, was both inspiring and heartbreaking.

They had a relationship for 22 years in Cincinnati. In 2013, Arthur was suffering from ALS, and clearly did not have much time to live.

The two men were determined to be married because they both knew that John was failing fast. But Ohio's law at the time expressly forbid same-sex marriages. So, in July 2013, they took a medical jet to an airport runway in Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal.

On the plane, with a small group of friends looking on, Jim Obergefell and John Arthur were married. They had to flee their home state to do so.

About three months later, Arthur died. His death certificate, issued in Cincinnati, listed him as unmarried.

Obergefell said that before John died, they had decided they were going to fight Ohio's ban on same-sex marriage in court.

Eventually, the case made its way to the Supreme Court.

During the oral arguments, Obergefell sat in the ornate hearing room and listened as lawyers from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan argued that he and the man he loved, his faithful partner for nearly a quarter of a century, were not worthy of being legally married.

But, on June 26, 2015, Jim Obergefell and the late John Arthur won the case — as did millions of other LGBTQ couples coast to coast.

The days which followed the decision were days of celebration, with same-sex couples rushing to clergy and justices of the peace to take their wedding vows.

James Obergefell, wearing a lei and a black t-shirt with the word "equality" written in the colors of the rainbow, waves during the Cincinnati Pride parade, Saturday, June 27, 2015.
John Minchillo
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AP
Gay marriage plaintiff James Obergefell, right, waves during the Cincinnati Pride parade, Saturday, June 27, 2015. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide.

Obergefell said that eight days later he was in Philadelphia for a celebration on the Fourth of July — a celebration not only of the nation's birth but a celebration by the city's LGBTQ community of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision.

"I remember one friend coming up to me in the celebration and saying 'Jim, do me a favor. People are going to come to you and tell you that you should run for office. I'm asking you to not dismiss the idea. Consider it.' "

"I had been thinking about it ever since," Obergefell said.

After a while, he returned to Sandusky, where he was born and raised in a blue-collar family. His dad, a Navy veteran of World War II, was a factory worker. His mother was a librarian at the Sandusky public library. As a teenager, he worked his first job at a McDonald's next to the Sandusky Mall.

"I still have family here; I wanted to be close to them and I have always loved this place," said Obergefell, who turns 56 next month. "It took me so long to realize just how important family is."

So, he said, when the chairmen of the Erie and Ottawa county Democratic party organizations came to him and asked if he was interested in running against Swearingen, the answer was "yes."

'I will be the water'

He knows that even if he is elected, he will almost certainly be part of the minority caucus in a Republican-dominated legislature.

The Republican "extremists" who are running the legislature now need to be opposed, "even if it is just to call them out," he said.

On abortion, on attempts to interfere with the teaching of history, on gun violence, on keeping transgender people from participating in women's high school sports — all of it is "appalling," according to Obergefell.

"They want to have genital inspections for girls playing high school sports," Obergefell said. "It is awful. And, at the same time, they are taking Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill and making it worse."

When the Republicans in the legislation voted to ask that Canada be put on a federal watch list because of its COVID restrictions "they went over the top," Obergefell said.

"This does not represent what most Ohioans care about,'' Obergefell said. "Does any of this legislation help people pay for gas, buy food?"

Obergefell said his campaign will focus on practical issues he believes are important to all Ohioans:

  • Job creation to generate opportunities for young people to stay in Ohio after their schooling
  • Fixing Ohio's public school funding system, declared unconstitutional over 20 years ago, "so that every school in every neighborhood offers students a quality education."
  • Opposition to school vouchers, which he believes is a threat to public schools
  • Protecting the environment, an important issue in an Ohio House District where the economy is tied to the health of Lake Erie.

Obergefell understands full well how challenging his race for the Ohio House will be.

But, win or lose, he is determined to continue to be a voice for the LGBTQ community and for all who he sees being oppressed. He understands, too, that change does not often come overnight; it is a long process of water re-shaping stone.

"If that's what my role is," he said, "I will be that water. It comes down to doing the right thing."

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.