CLEVELAND – The modest two-story beige house with green shutters on a quiet street a half-block from Lake Erie holds little evidence of the life George Victor Voinovich is about to leave.
Amid the clutter of his study, there are no photographs of him with presidents, fellow senators, governors or mayors. There are no plaques on the wall to commemorate Voinovich’s historic 43-year run in public office, no proclamations about his accomplishments.
Instead, the house where George and Janet Voinovich have lived for all but 10 of their 48 years of marriage is a shrine to their family. A painting depicts a church atop a Slovenian hill where Voinovich’s great-grandfather played the organ. Photographs of the Voinoviches’ three surviving children and eight grandchildren abound. On a table next to their love seat is a photo of George and Janet with daughter Molly, taken a few days before she was struck by a van and killed while walking to school in 1979. Molly would be 40 now.
This house, along with a one-bedroom condo in Florida, is where the 74-year-old Republican plans to spend the rest of his days. On Jan. 1, for the first time in more than four decades, Voinovich will have no office in a government edifice, no affairs of state to manage or legislate. How will it be for Janet to have him around the house?
“That’s yet to be determined,” she said, smiling. “The good news is that we like each other a lot.”
On Thursday, Voinovich’s unprecedented career in Ohio politics will be honored at a reception in the Statehouse. Invited friends and former staff members will attest to his effectiveness and rightfully place him among the most popular political leaders in state history, alongside the likes of former Gov. James A. Rhodes and Frank J. Lausche, Voinovich’s boyhood idol from the Collinwood neighborhood. Lausche was a fellow Eastern European who was the only other Clevelander to serve as mayor, governor and U.S. senator.
Voinovich is the most prolific vote-getter in Ohio history. No gubernatorial candidate ever received a higher percentage of the vote than he did in 1994, almost 72percent, and no Senate candidate ever received more raw votes than the nearly 3.5 million he won in 2004.
“If Jim Rhodes was the Babe Ruth of Ohio politics, then George Voin-
ovich is the Henry Aaron,” said Curt Steiner, communication director and chief of staff during Voinovich’s first term as governor.
“It is hard to imagine that his record of service will ever be matched inside the borders of Ohio. This was somebody you knew you could count on year after year after year.”
On Friday, after the Statehouse celebration of his life and times, Voinovich will go home to his new reality – retirement.
“My No. 1 priority in retirement is to take care of my physical, mental and spiritual health,” he said. “I want to do that so I can take care of my wife. And then, there are my children and grandchildren. Those are my priorities.”
Voinovich wants to write a book. He will fish Lake Erie earnestly for walleye, and he and Janet will take long walks along the lake, up to Wildwood Park, whose expansion and improvement are Voinovich’s doing, and they will gaze at sunsets.
“We live where you can see a painting by the Master and it changes every night.”
Voinovich contemplated running for a third term in the Senate, but he thought better about being there when he will be 80, knowing that he and Janet are of ages – she’s now 77 – requiring them to stay close by each other. Besides, a frustrated Voinovich said, the politics of Washington have become so polarized and poisonous that it’s difficult to forge progress on what he views as the nation’s biggest problem: the budget deficit and national debt.
“Somehow, we have got to get people to understand that you’ve got to work together,” Voinovich said. “Right now, the country is as fragile as I’ve ever seen it. I could cry right now, that’s how worried I am about our future.”
Crying would not be out of character for Voinovich. Throughout his career, his emotions have been on public display. As governor in 1992, he wept before TV cameras as he announced amid a budget crisis that he was cutting a welfare safety net for 100,000 chronically unemployed Ohioans.
And he flashed his famous temper in 1995 when his gubernatorial plane was grounded on the tarmac by President Bill Clinton’s visit to Columbus. Grabbing the cockpit mike, Voinovich yelled to an air traffic controller that the Secret Service “can go screw themselves.”
Yet, Ohioans seemed to like the genuineness of the devoutly Catholic Voinovich, who often said that his service to the public was guided by the Holy Spirit. Famously frugal personally and a devotee of fiscal responsibility in government, Voinovich advocated tax or fee increases or opposed tax cuts more than two dozen times since 1971, and he was never punished by voters. He handily won his first race for Senate in 1998, even after 80 percent of Ohio voters turned down his request that year for a penny-per-dollar increase in the sales tax to help schools.
Voinovich’s fondest and most productive years in office were as mayor and governor. “Always in his heart he was a Clevelander, but he loved being governor as much as anybody who’s ever served in the job,” said former Ohio Senate President Stanley J. Aronoff, a Republican.
Voinovich’s eight years as governor were wrought from economic chaos, but they ended in prosperity. At the end of his first two years, he had cut $711 million from the state budget and raised taxes, largely on the rich, by more than $400 million to usher forth fiscal soundness in state government. Voinovich was anything but a caretaker governor: He implemented welfare and workers’ compensation reform, spent massively on children’s programs and for new schools, and allocated $600 million extra to poor school districts after the Ohio Supreme Court declared the school-funding system unconstitutional in 1997.
Perhaps his greatest challenge came on Easter Sunday in 1993 when a riot erupted at the maximum-security prison in Lucasville. Inmates controlled the prison for 11 days, the longest state prison riot in U.S. history, resulting in the death of a guard and 10 inmates. Under enormous pressure to go to the prison himself and, ultimately, to storm it with troops, Voinovich listened to the counsel of experts to stay away. The inmates relented, avoiding more bloodshed.
“If anybody wanted to study how a governor handles a crisis, they ought to look at what George Voin-
ovich did during Lucasville,” said Attorney General-elect Mike DeWine, then the lieutenant governor.
Election to the Senate in 1998 fulfilled one of Voinovich’s chief ambitions. Throughout his career, he often had signaled he was more interested in becoming a senator than in being governor.
In 1986, when he was still mayor of Cleveland, he rejected pleas from Republicans to challenge Gov. Richard F. Celeste, preferring instead to run for the U.S. Senate two years later against Democrat Howard M. Metzenbaum. When Voinovich lost to Metzenbaum in 1988, his only option left was running for governor in 1990.
Yet after becoming a senator in 1999, Voinovich quickly found the job frustrating. The institution often seemed paralyzed by intense partisan divisions; his very first major vote was whether to convict Clinton of impeachment charges approved by the House.
Gone were the heady days of Cleveland and Columbus, where he forged alliances with powerful Democrats, including Cleveland City Council President George Forbes and Vernal G. Riffe Jr., the legendary Ohio House speaker, who, Voinovich said, “became one of my best friends.”
The Senate, Voinovich discovered, was different. Because Senate rules allowed 41 senators to block any bill, passing laws was difficult. He once acknowledged to another senator, “It’s much more stressful being governor, but much more frustrating being a senator.”
“He is much more willing to make compromises than his colleagues” are, said Ted Hollingsworth, Voinovich’s chief of staff in the Senate. “Partisan politics in Washington particularly frustrated him. He was the guy wanting to work out deals, and partisanship makes that very difficult.”
Just before last month’s congressional elections, Senate Republicans urged Voinovich to oppose a necessary measure to increase the national debt ceiling. Without an increase, the government would have shut down.
Instead, Voinovich provided the 60th vote needed to break a Republican filibuster and allow Congress to approve the measure. He complained, “A lot of my (GOP) colleagues didn’t want the president to have a victory before the election.”
He acknowledges that he liked being mayor and governor much more than being a senator: “I’m a leader. You come down here (to Washington) and you are not the orchestra leader, you are a member of the orchestra.”
Throughout his two terms, Voin-
ovich and his staff boasted that he was the No. 1 deficit hawk in the Senate. He reinforced that in his first term during the Clinton presidency when he opposed Republican efforts to cut taxes without cutting spending.
But in 2001, President George W. Bush assumed office and pushed Congress for a major tax cut. The federal government had run a $236billion surplus in the 2000 fiscal year and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office was projecting that the government would have a staggering $3.4 trillion surplus in the next decade.
Conservatives were eager to cut income-tax rates across the board, and the House and Senate appeared to rally around a 10-year tax reduction of $1.35 trillion.
The administration badly wanted Voinovich’s vote. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill invited Voinovich over for a breakfast meeting while White House budget chief Mitch Daniels visited Voinovich at his office. Both, Hollingsworth said, insisted that the Bush administration would restrain federal spending in the future.
In addition, Voinovich was meeting privately with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Over breakfast in the Senate dining room, Greenspan warned that the surplus was so large that some tax reductions would help the economy. Greenspan insisted there was a risk to the economy in paying down the national debt too rapidly.
Voinovich relented and joined 45 other Republicans and 12 Democrats in approving the tax cut. Two years later, with the economy struggling from a recession, Bush once again called on Congress to cut taxes. This time, the administration wanted to reduce investment taxes – primarily taxes on capital gains and dividends – by about $700billion over 10 years.
Once again, the administration needed Voinovich’s vote. By the spring of 2003, the combination of the 2001 tax cuts, the 9/11 terrorist attack, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the accounting scandal highlighted by Enron’s collapse had transformed projected surpluses into frighteningly large deficits.
In addition, the Bush administration had shown no inclination to curb federal spending and wanted Congress to approve an expensive bill that would provide prescription drugs to Medicare beneficiaries. The administration’s spending plans worried Voinovich.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and White House chief of staff Andy Card invited Voinovich and Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine to the White House, where they pleaded for their votes.
Voinovich refused. “I stuck to my guns,” he said. Faced with opposition from Voinovich and a handful of lawmakers, the administration reduced the size of the tax cut to $350 billion and scheduled it to expire at the end of 2010. With these concessions, Voinovich voted for it.
Today, with the federal government’s annual deficit exceeding $1trillion, Voinovich acknowledges that the 2003 tax cut made the deficit worse. “If you asked me, ‘Did that contribute to that,’ the answer would be yes,” he said.
Historians likely will judge Voin-
ovich’s 10 years as Cleveland mayor as the most important of his career. A year after Cleveland became the first American city to default since the Great Depression, Voinovich defeated Mayor Dennis J. Kucinich, a Democrat, in 1979 and restored financial stability with help from city banks and new taxes.
“His time as mayor of Cleveland will stand out for most people,” said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist. “He helped save Cleveland from bankruptcy and turn it into a city with a future.”
Showing off Cleveland to a visitor the day before Thanksgiving this year, Voinovich barely contained his affection for the city. Memories bled from his skin as he pointed out his Serbian grandfather Victor Bernot’s old meat market at 160th and Holmes streets, passed by Collinwood High School where he and his Slovenian mother are enshrined in the hall of fame, and perused the skyline from the downtown lakefront park named in his honor.
As mayor, Voinovich presided over a $2 billion building boom downtown. It is fair to ask whether new stadiums for the Indians and Browns, the basketball arena for the Cavaliers, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center would have been built if he had not nurtured government-corporation partnerships.
“It was a public-private partnership that did it,” Voinovich said, referring to the transformed skyline. “It was a symbiotic relationship between all these various entities who said this is important to the city. … People tell me they like the architecture on the Rock and Roll Hall, but I say the real interesting thing to me is the civic architecture – how did it get built?”
Asked what Voinovich has meant to Cleveland, Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the rock hall, responded: “Everything … What many people say about him being Ohio’s greatest politician is true.”
Voinovich demurred when asked to characterize his political legacy.
“Are you really ready to quit?” Janet asked, perhaps one last time.
“You go as far as you can and then it’s someone else’s time,” her husband said.