Don’t touch the third rail.
You’ve probably heard people in politics talk about the “third rail” – the one on a subway track that carries the electric power.
In Congress, the “third rail” has traditionally been a hot-button issue like Social Security. If you even hint at reducing benefits or raising the eligibility age, you face the wrath of hordes of seniors and baby boomers who just might turn you out of office.
You don’t survive touching the third rail.
There seems to be a new “third rail” in Ohio politics; an issue that Gov. John Kasich and the Republicans who once embraced and now hardly ever mention – the issue of curtailing the collective bargaining power of public employees’ unions.
Kasich campaigned on the issue in 2010, when he was up against incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland, going so far as to say that public employees who go on strike should be fired, no questions asked.
And then, not long after Kasich was elected and took office, the Republican-led legislature passed Senate Bill 5, which did exactly what they had promised to do – scale back the power of public employee unions in a major way.
Kasich – who may have wanted to achieve the reforms piecemeal rather than in one big gulp as Senate Bill 5 bill – was stuck with defending it.
All it did was wake up a sleeping bear – organized labor in Ohio.
Labor unions in Ohio went ballistic. But they didn’t just talk about it. The unions – with the help of the Obama campaign organization, the Ohio Democratic Party and other liberal groups – went out and gathered signatures to place the issue on the Nov. 2011 ballot as a referendum.
A whopping 62 percent of Ohioans who voted in that election voted to repeal Senate Bill 5.
That got Kasich’s attention.
“It’s clear the people have spoken,’’ the governor said on election night. “I heard their voices. I understand their decision.”
That same coalition that went out in 2011 and smashed Senate Bill 5 came back the next year and gave Obama Ohio’s 18 electoral votes by a slim margin; and got Ohio’s Democratic senior senator, Sherrod Brown, re-elected.
You might think that, since the Republicans still control the Statehouse in Columbus, they want might to revisit the issue of collective bargaining for public employees.
But there’s been no hint of that so far. Certainly not from the governor’s office.
Kasich is up for re-election next year. He’s riding pretty high right now – a recent Quinnipiac University poll had his job approval rating at 53 percent – the highest it has been since he took office in Jan. 2011.
And he has a rather full plate, trying, as he is, to get his budget passed, which includes cuts in income taxes but new taxes on a myriad of goods and services – everything from getting a haircut to buying a ticket to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair.
Those sales tax increases aren’t really selling very well with the public, the polls suggest.
And, now, he is in a running battle with the state auditor from his own political party, Dave Yost, who wants to audit the records of JobsOhio, the privatized economic development agency that Kasich created. Yost has subpoenaed JobsOhio’s records; the governor has resisted.
And Democrats and liberal groups are on the sidelines, giving the governor grief over not revealing what is being done with millions of state dollars that go through JobsOhio.
He’s got enough on his hands without picking a fight with organized labor again over collective bargaining for public employees. He will do and say a lot of things between now and next year’s election, but he won’t be touching that third rail.
Why go out of your way to enrage organized labor and make them go out and work even harder to scuttle your re-election bid than they will anyway?
Three years ago, Kasich and the Republicans in the legislature violated one of the cardinal rules of politics. Maybe they learned a lesson.
The rule is simple: when you come upon a bear sleeping in the woods, don’t kick it.
It just makes it very, very mad.