Expect a battle over international trade deals in Ohio's Senate race

May 3, 2015

The late Jim Rhodes, who managed to be elected Ohio governor four times and was about the most pragmatic politician we’ve known in over 40 years of covering politics, had a saying about Ohio voters.

Actually, he had many sayings. But this one rang true back in Rhodes’ day and till holds some power today.

Ohio voters, Rhodes would say, care the most about three things – “jobs, jobs, and jobs.”

To many Ohio workers, the debate over “free trade” and “fair trade” is very real.

Some – union workers and others – believe that international trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the proposed Trans Pacific Pact (TPP) are job-killers, giving the advantage to other nations and putting Ohio jobs in jeopardy.

Others believe, just as strongly, the international trade deals open up new markets for Ohio’s manufactured goods and farm products – and that translates to more jobs.

It’s been an issue in Ohio congressional campaigns before; and you can bet your last nickel that it will be again in the state’s 2016 U.S. Senate race.

There is no question that the incumbent Republican senator, Rob Portman, is a free trade guy. He was, after all, President George W. Bush’s trade representative for a time; and has supported (and negotiated) international trade agreements.

Last month, he voted in the Senate Finance Committee to pass the Trade Promotion Authority, also known as the “fast track” legislation because it allows trade agreements to be negotiated secretly and move through Congress without Congress’ ability to make changes. An earlier “fast track” law expired in 2007.

Portman voted for it, even though the committee rejected an amendment that he co-sponsored to get tough with countries – like China – that manipulate their currencies to hurt American interests.

Ever since, the two Democrats who want his job – former Ohio governor Ted Strickland  and Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld – have been hammering Portman over the head for his “fast track” vote. The Ohio Democratic Party, which is backing Strickland in the primary,  put out a statement saying fast track “paves the way for the job-killing (TPP) to sail through Congress – making big bucks for big corporations without adequate protections for Ohio jobs.”

China is not part of the TPP agreement the Obama administration wants, but Democrats like Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown, say they wouldn’t be surprised to see China try to get in on the deal in a few years.

Portman, in a conference call with Ohio reporters Thursday, said, rightly, that there really is no TPP agreement yet – it is still being negotiated by the Obama administration.

“I certainly haven’t made my decision on whether I can support it or not, because there is no agreement,” Portman said. “I’ll be judging it on something very simple, which is jobs in Ohio.”

Then he said some things that made it clear he thinks international trade is a good thing for Ohio.

“If you are for more jobs in Ohio,’’ Portman said, “you should be for expanding export markets for our workers and our farmers. And  you should also be for leveling the playing field so that it’s fair and includes more enforcement of unfair imports, but also more enforcement of international rules, including stopping manipulation of currency.”

International trade, Portman said, “is extremely important for Ohio. Twenty-five percent of our factory jobs in Ohio are now trade jobs. We’re losing market share every year because America is not opening up new markets for these workers.”

And don’t forget the farmers, Portman said. Sixty percent of Ohio’s soybean crop is now exported.

“Farmers need those markets,’’ Portman said.

After the fast track vote, Sittenfeld put out a statement slamming Portman.

“TPP is the son of NAFTA,’’ Sittenfeld said. “Except this time, 12 countries are involved – and American workers will be competing against those in Vietnam where the average wage is $2.75 per day.”

On fast track, Sittenfeld said “inexplicably, Rob Portman voted yes. If I were in the Senate, my vote would not just be ‘no,’ but ‘hell no.” The last thing this country needs is yet another assault on working families.”

Sittenfeld is the underdog in a Democratic primary where Strickland has the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sherrod Brown, Bill Clinton and the Ohio Democratic Party.

So the party has taken up the sword for Strickland on this issue.

“Portman isn’t just working to pass the job-killing TPP, he’s working to fast track it, so his Wall Street friends can cash in even faster by sending Ohio jobs overseas,’’ Ohio Democratic Party communications director Meredith Tucker said. “While Ted Strickland has consistently fought to protect and grow Ohio jobs, Rob Portman has spent decades fast-tracking those jobs right out of Ohio to places like China.”

Portman’s campaign committee responded to Strickland with a web video on a theme that has been heard before and will be heard 10,000 times more between now and November 2016, if in fact Strickland is the Democratic Senate nominee.

It is the charge that Ohio lost 350,000 jobs in the four years that Strickland was governor. It is a theme Republican John Kasich rode successfully in 2010, when he up-ended Strickland’s bid for re-election in a close election.

As Portman says, TPP is not complete yet. If it becomes reality, it will become an issue in the 2016 Senate race in Ohio – as will the long-standing debate over whether or not international trade agreements help or hurt Ohio workers.

And, in a close race, it could make a real difference in whether or not Portman gets a second term in the Senate.

Jim Rhodes’ mantra had it right – jobs, jobs, jobs.