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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: Mike DeWine appears to be running out the clock on debating Nan Whaley

Ohio governor Mike DeWine speaks during the announcement on Friday Jan. 21, 2022 in Newark, Ohio, that Intel will invest $20 billion to build two computer chip factories on a 1,000-acre site in Licking County, Ohio, just east of Columbus.
Paul Vernon
FR66830 AP
Ohio governor Mike DeWine on Friday Jan. 21, 2022 in Newark, Ohio.

Why won't Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine meet his opponent, former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley, in a good old-fashioned, face-to-face, debate?

Well, the answer is that, after 46 years running for every significant public office in Ohio, he is flat-out afraid.

Knee-knocking scared to death.

Terrified of talking about issues that could motivate the Democratic opposition to vote in huge numbers or alienate his Republican base voters, many of whom already look at the governor with a jaundiced eye.

"There's only one reason for Mike DeWine to refuse to debate his opponent,'' said David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. "Fear. Just plain fear. That's the only possible explanation."

This is a guy riding high in the polls; the favorite for re-election to a second term as governor. Two independent polls in August — from the Trafalgar Group and Emerson College — each had DeWine with a 16 point lead over Whaley.

Does he think that if he goes on the air before a statewide audience and has to talk about difficult issues that his big lead in the polls will instantly disappear in a puff of smoke?

He's been around a long time; he knows better.

So what's he scared of?

Well, there are a number of subjects the governor would just as soon avoid talking about in this campaign, including:

  • Abortion, and the likelihood that if the Ohio General Assembly passes a bill banning abortion, without exceptions, that he would sign it into law, thus firing up the opposition once again.
  • His administration's response to the COVID crisis of 2020. DeWine got high marks from some — mostly Democrats — but most of the Trump devotees in his party are still accusing him of trampling on individual rights.
  • Gun control, which became a big problem for DeWine after the August 2019 mass murder in Dayton's Oregon District. The governor promised action on gun control but abandoned his own agenda at the first sign of opposition from the Republicans in the legislature. Instead, he ended up signing a number of bills that will do nothing but make guns more prevalent.
  • The governor's links, as reported in the media, to First Energy and the House Bill 6 bribery scandal.

So far, DeWine has been able to pretend none of these issues exist.

When I see him doing everything possible to avoid engaging Whaley directly, my mind goes back to 1992 when DeWine — then Gov. George Voinovich's lieutenant governor — was running against Democratic incumbent John Glenn for the U.S. Senate.

Glenn, after a lot of cajoling, agreed to one televised debate with DeWine; and the Republican candidate spent part of it whining about the fact that Glenn would not agree to a series of debates all over Ohio.

Shoe was on the other foot back then. DeWine was the underdog, struggling for attention, running against a national icon. Of course, back then, he wanted debates. The more the merrier.

His campaign gave me a written statement on his position about debates:

“Throughout the fall, Governor DeWine and his opponent will have ample opportunity to outline their very different records and visions for Ohio. This includes during the Ohio Association of Regional Councils Forum, the Vote for Ohio Kids forum on October 6, as well as the multiple Ohio newspaper endorsement screenings that have long served as de-facto debates."

I hate to break the news to the DeWine campaign, but "newspaper endorsement screenings" are nothing like "de facto debates," even if they feature both candidates sitting in a board room together and even if they are live-streamed so that voters can listen in.

Trust me on this. I sat in on more of these newspaper endorsement meetings than I care to remember in my 30 years at the Cincinnati Enquirer. They are not free-wheeling discussions of a broad range of issues important to the public; they tend to be limited to whatever parochial interests the newspaper editors have. And the interests of the editors rarely match the interests of voters at large.

To call them "de facto" debates is laughable to anyone who has had to sit through them.

DeWine, over his 46 years in Ohio politics, has blown hot and cold when it comes to debating opponents. He does it when he thinks it can benefit him; he refuses when he thinks it could hurt him.

In the spring of this year, he refused the Ohio Debate Commission's invitation to debate his GOP primary opponents. The commission, which is funded by Ohio philanthropies, had to call off the debate.

Again, the fear factor. He didn’t want to give Trumpish opponents like Jim Renacci and Joe Blystone a chance to sink their teeth into him. Scared of a couple of guys who had absolutely no chance of winning the primary.

Whaley's campaign, not surprisingly, has accepted every debate invitation it can. She has far less name recognition than her opponent, who began his political career the year she was born. She would debate him face-to-face every day between now and Nov. 8 if she could.

Nan Whaley, former mayor of Dayton, responds to a question in the Ohio Gubernatorial Democratic Primary Debate with John Cranley, former mayor of Cincinnati, at the Paul Robeson Cultural & Performing Arts Center at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, Tuesday, March 29, 2022.
Meg Vogel
AP Pool The Cincinnati Enquirer
Nan Whaley, former mayor of Dayton, responds to a question in the Ohio Gubernatorial Democratic Primary Debate with John Cranley, former mayor of Cincinnati, at the Paul Robeson Cultural & Performing Arts Center at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

DeWine has yet to accept an invitation to a real debate.

Jill Zimon, executive director of the Ohio Debate Commission, said the organization is still trying to put something together, even though the clock is ticking.

"We are continuing to reach out to the campaigns," Zimon said. "We are still hopeful that we can put this together."

When I talked to Cohen in August, the University of Akron professor said he would be "flabbergasted" if the two candidates for governor did not have a real debate.

Now, though, he says he doubts it will happen at all.

"It would appear (DeWine) has no intention of debating," Cohen said. "It's really remarkable.

"A sitting governor should be able to go in front of the people of his state and make his case," Cohen said. "If he can't do that, he should get into another business."

Maybe DeWine should take a page from the book of George Voinovich, the late governor responsible for making DeWine a statewide political figure in 1990 when he chose the relatively obscure congressman from Greene County to be his running mate.

In 1994 — the same year DeWine was first elected to the U.S. Senate — Voinovich ran for re-election as governor and his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Rob Burch, was totally unknown outside his tiny corner of eastern Ohio. Burch had zero chance of winning that race.

Yet Voinovich agreed to one debate with Burch, which took place in the CET studio in Cincinnati.

Voinovich was reluctant to say the least, but he did it. There was no harm and no foul in the debate itself and Voinovich won the election with 72% of the vote. Burch had 25%.

No offense intended to Burch, a good guy, but he was in over his head. Whaley, on the other hand, is 10 times the candidate Burch was.

Ohio voters deserve to hear from both DeWine and Whaley. If George Voinovich was still around, I have a feeling he would tell DeWine just that — suck it up and do it.

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