Eight More Years: Alumna makes career of advising Ohio’s leaders
Looking out of her corner office window from the 17th floor of the Rhodes Tower in downtown Columbus, Mary Mertz ’02 can see her resume on Capitol Square. She spent eight years in the Rife Building, working for former Lieutenant Gov. Mike DeWine and former Gov. George Voinovich ’61, and eight years in the Huntington Center as an attorney at Squire Sanders and Dempsey LLP. Now, she hopes for eight years in the Rhodes Tower as the first assistant attorney general to Attorney General DeWine.
Fresh off Capitol Hill in 1990, Mertz made her way back to Columbus to work for DeWine during his time as lieutenant governor. She previously worked in the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House during the Reagan administration and for Ohio Congressman Bob McEwen.
An eager young woman in her 20s with a degree in political science, serving as DeWine’s chief of staff was an opportunity to jump-start her career. DeWine served as mentor to Mertz, educating her on issues affecting Ohio’s criminal justice system, like appropriate resource allocation or aiding those who are mentally ill in ways that do not involve incarceration. She’s still working on these issues 25 years later.
“It was draining the state budget and not having the impact that we wanted. We needed to be smarter. It wasn’t that we were going to just let the criminals run loose; we were going to lock them up and be smarter about how we deal with it,” Mertz said.
Her understanding of Ohio’s criminal justice system landed her a job with Voinovich that allowed her to take the reins on issues involving the law and criminal justice. She also worked on environmental issues affecting Ohio, serving as his liaison to eight state agencies, including the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. There, she was tasked with overseeing the implementation of the E-Check program, used to identify motor vehicles that emit excessive levels of pollutants into the air.
“That was my baptism by fire with the Ohio EPA,” Mertz said. “It was very unpopular, but it was required to maintain … federal EPA standards.”
Despite some “steep learning curves” during her time with Voinovich, the experience led to invaluable friendships that Mertz maintains today.
After her time in the governor’s office, Mertz earned her law degree at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. She then took a job with Squire Sanders and Dempsey LLP, where she worked on campaign counseling and election law, in addition to commercial litigation.
“There’s a reason I’m being pulled (toward politics) because I really enjoy government and public service and being in that mix,” she said of her time at Squire Sanders.
In 2006, Mertz survived a life-changing battle with breast cancer.
She went through extensive chemotherapy and lost her hair. “I did the whole wig thing,” she said, pointing toward a black and white family portrait. “Funny thing, for most women when your hair grows back, it grows in curly. So I have the curly ’do up there.”
Although it was a difficult time for Mertz, she doesn’t consider the cancer to be something that hindered her career. “Squire Sanders was wonderful. There’s nothing more they could have done to be helpful,” she said.
A co-worker introduced Mertz to the organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Mertz served on the board and participates in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure every year.
Her battle with breast cancer made Mertz realize that life is short; sometimes one needs to take a leap of faith. “I’m much more willing to take a risk and live for the ‘now,’ ” she says about life after cancer.
With that in mind, Mertz decided to leave her job at Squire Sanders in 2010 to run DeWine’s campaign for Ohio attorney general.
It was a gamble, but one that she felt she had to take. “I really wanted him to win, and I really wanted to do it. I thought, ‘If this works out, this could be the best ever.’ So I just did it. I don’t know if I would have done that before,” she said.
The past two years as DeWine’s first assistant have made the risk worthwhile to Mertz.
Her prior experience as DeWine’s chief of staff has come in handy because of the administrative work involved as his first assistant. Mertz handles the budget for the attorney general’s office as well as hiring.
Mertz also works on a wide variety of issues ranging from juvenile justice to cracking down on credit reporting fraud. With Mertz’s help during his days at lieutenant governor, DeWine was able to implement RECLAIM Ohio, a funding initiative that places convicted youth in a community-based program allowing their friends and families to be a part of the treatment and rehabilitation process. It’s worked so well that it has been taken up for consideration on a national level, Mertz says.
In the Attorney General’s Office, the DeWine administration is working with the business sector of Ohio to focus on Ohio’s business climate. This means criminalizing the actions of “fraudsters” involved with charities or nonprofits and working to create a better relationship between the private business industry and the public sector.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Mertz said.
Although she’s not sure where her next opportunity lies, she knows she won’t be ready to leave Capitol Square anytime soon.