On the morning of Dec. 15, 2010, Sen. George V. Voinovich took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to say farewell.
His speech carried appropriate thanks to God; his wife and steadfast partner in politics, Janet; family; friends; and the people of Ohio. Voinovich gave a nod to his grandparents’ immigration story and included words of wisdom his father shared along the way. He even fit in a lesson from his ninth-grade social studies teacher.
Then, in his characteristic frankness, Voinovich admonished his colleagues and the American media for playing into a Washington, D.C. culture that values message and conflict over progress.
“The American people have made it clear that they are not happy with partisanship in Washington. But the fact is, there are some great partnerships here, and those partnerships and relationships result in action,” he said.
While Voinovich gave several examples of bipartisan efforts at home and abroad to aid the United States’ economy and security, he shared his frustration that finding common ground on significant issues does not happen often enough in Congress.
Republican and Democratic leaders should come together at the beginning of each Congress to identify issues and challenges important to the American people. Then, they should agree to set a common agenda that will make a difference in citizens’ lives. Voinovich compared careful planning and goal-setting for the country and legislative committees to five-year plans of successful corporations.
“Where are we going? What are our priorities? What are the things we agree upon?” he asked. “Let’s not spend time on those things where we disagree.”
He added, “Our situation today is more critical – more critical – than at any time in my 44 years in government. How we work together will determine the future of our country.”
In closing, he selected a reading from One Quiet Moment, a book of daily devotionals from former Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie. The passage was written for an Election Day.
“May the immense responsibilities they assume, and the vows they make when sworn into office, bring them to their knees with profound humility and unprecedented openness to You. Save them from the seduction of power, the addiction of popularity, and the aggrandizement of pride. … May they never forget they have been elected to serve and not be served.”
With that, Voinovich said, “Mr. President, I yield the floor.”
An Auspicious Start
When he was 17 years old, Voinovich told high school classmates he was determined to be a politician. Many of them swear he promised to one day be the mayor of Cleveland, just as classmates from Ohio University tell stories of Voinovich predicting he would one day be governor.
Voinovich was working on a bachelor’s degree in government when he considered continuing on to law school. A law degree would provide him a career from which he would not need to retire, in addition to giving him a strong foundation for pursuing a career in government.
He was tempted to enroll at Case Western Reserve University, which would have been closer to his parents’ home in Cleveland. However, a fortunate meeting during a career day on the Athens campus brought Voinovich to The Ohio State University.
“As president of the student body, I wanted to host Frank Strong, the dean of The Ohio State University law school, that day. I was so impressed with the dean. He was just quite a guy, a constitutional lawyer,” he said.
Not only did Strong tell the young man that a law degree would be the perfect fit for a career in politics, but Strong told him that Ohio State was the best choice.
“I figured Ohio State would give me a feeling for the state of Ohio, just as Ohio University had done,” Voinovich said. “I thought I would go there and meet people from all over Ohio, who would one day be leaders across the state.”
It was a smart bet, even if Voinovich got off to a rocky start in Columbus.
His early days of law school were difficult – “I was suffering the effects of being a BMOC (big man on campus) at Ohio University” – as he was wooed away from books by card games that stretched late into the night at the undergraduate house where he stayed.
“I almost flunked out my first year,” he said. “I was really worried about cashing out. After a couple of quarters, I had to get out of the house.”
He moved to Northwood Avenue and joined Stephan Gabalac ’61 and Clifford “Kip” Cloud ’61, whose father, Roger, was a Republican and speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. Voinovich found a good influence in his roommate and additional motivation on early mornings from a sign he posted next to his alarm clock: “What would Grandma think?”
His mother’s parents had emigrated from Slovenia, and his grandmother could neither read nor write when she arrived to the United States. She frequented the library and taught herself the English language. She was proud of the eldest of her daughter’s six children, Voinovich, as he succeeded in his studies and won contests for class president in high school and president of the student body in college.
“There’s a word in Slovenian, moraš, which means, ‘You must.’ You must. She was so proud of me, and I did not want to disappoint my grandmother,” he said. “Of course, my parents were interested, too, and so was I. But she was the inspiration.”
Voinovich remained a BMOC in law school, but now the “M” stood for something else entirely.
“I felt like I was a monk. I really did,” he said of Saturdays spent in the stacks of the Thompson Library. “I felt like I was in some seminary because that’s all I did – work, work, work, work. The most wonderful thing about law school, for me, was that I learned how to work. It gave me self-discipline.”
Even in law school, though, Voinovich found a foothold in politics, as president of the Class of 1961 and president of the Law School Republican Club. He squeaked out a victory in the latter with two more votes than classmate Michael Moritz ’61.
Voinovich claims he would not have won the race without the help of Michael Colley ’61, who was his moot court partner and campaign manager. Colley, who served as president of two national trial lawyers’ associations, went on to be chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party and served as the Republican National Committeeman for Ohio since 1988. He was Voinovich’s first appointment to The Ohio State University Board of Trustees in 1991.
Many years later, at a class reunion in Washington, D.C., someone suggested to Voinovich that Moritz might be a senator had he won the Republican Club presidency.
“Maybe he would,” Voinovich said. “But I can guarantee you this: There would be no way that George Voinovich would have ever been able to contribute $30 million to The Ohio State University law school! Everybody cracked up. Of course, now it’s the Michael E. Moritz College of Law, which is great. He was a wonderful guy.”
From ‘neighborhood lawyer’ to governor
After graduating from law school in 1961, Voinovich returned to Cleveland in the hopes of establishing himself as “the neighborhood lawyer.” His first office was located above a laundromat across from the Salvation Army and near his high school, and he worked on anything available – from research to filing clients’ tax returns.
Those humble years were happy ones, though.
In September 1962, he married Janet, a woman he had his eye on since meeting at a Greater Cleveland Young Republicans Club gathering three years before. At the law practice, he enjoyed resolving neighbors’ needs. As an adolescent, someone advised Voinovich that he would do well as a minister, teacher, or social worker.
“Honest to God, that’s what I was. All three,” he said. “These people would come in, and you took care of them.”
Also in 1962, Voinovich campaigned for the election of William B. Saxbe ’48 to the Ohio Attorney General’s office. Saxbe returned the favor, appointing Voinovich assistant attorney general. His boss was Robert Duncan ’52, who was in charge of the attorney general’s workman’s compensation division.
After that, it was Voinovich for whom people campaigned in a dizzying number of contests. At the urging of his good friend and former roommate Cloud, Voinovich ran and won a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives in 1966 – the biggest upset in the state, with a Republican winning a district that was 6-to-1 Democratic. He was appointed Cuyahoga County Auditor in 1971, retained the seat in 1972, and was re-elected in 1974. Voinovich was sworn in as a county commissioner in 1976.
Gov. James A. Rhodes invited Voinovich to join him on the ticket as lieutenant governor in 1978, and they won. With the governor’s office in his sights, Voinovich was confronted with what he’s called one of the most difficult decisions in his political career.
“The business community in Cleveland came to me and asked me to come home,” he said. They wanted Voinovich to challenge Mayor Dennis Kucinich in the next election.
The city was debilitated by fiscal crisis that resulted in its declaration of bankruptcy in 1976. Its image as a destitute metropolis with a river polluted to the point of flammability was known nationwide. Late-night comedians made Cleveland the butt of their jokes.
“The city was in trouble, and I believed Kucinich was a real threat to our future. I had confidence that, with the right leader, Cleveland could become something sensational,” Voinovich said, “and I was right. The talent was there.”
He won the race and inherited the first city to default since the Great Depression. Cleveland was $111 million in debt, and unemployment hovered near 20 percent. Voinovich enlisted the help of more than 300 volunteers to examine every part of city government to save money by improving efficiencies and eliminating waste without sacrificing quality of services. It was a model later studied at Harvard Business School.
“It was really rough, but everybody came together and pitched in,” Voinovich said.
Cleveland experienced a renaissance over the next two decades, with the development of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Great Lakes Science Center, Playhouse Square, and The Flats (Cleveland’s famous riverside entertainment district). Voinovich and leaders in the business community went on a public relations blitz to turn around the city’s image nationally. The hard work paid off when Cleveland was voted an All-America City winner three times in the 1980s. Voinovich’s reputation extended beyond Ohio’s borders, and he was elected president of the National League of Cities.
By 1990, he was nominated by the state’s Republican Party to replace Gov. Richard Celeste.
He won the race and was re-elected easily four years later, despite walking into another situation in which government had a staggering deficit of $1.5 billion. Culling from his mayoral experience, Voinovich established the Quality Services Through Partnership initiative to empower state employees and citizens to reduce expenses without chiseling away at services for children, families and the elderly.
“I’m sure you’ve worked at places and said, ‘If somebody would just sit down with me, I’d tell them about how we could do better here.’ But for some reason, it doesn’t happen in some places, especially in government,” Voinovich said. “We did total quality management with 56,000 people. … When I left state government, people were excited about their jobs.”
The nation also was in the midst of a recession when Voinovich stepped into the governor’s office. Yet, more than 600,000 new jobs were created in Ohio from 1991-98. Voinovich introduced and the Ohio Legislature approved manufacturing machinery and equipment tax incentives as well as other enticements to attract new businesses. Again, he was propelled to a leadership position among peers as chairman of the National Governor’s Association.
“Frankly, I’m a management guy. I believe in empowering people who work with me,” he said. “I realized government is just one thread in the fabric of a community, and my job was to get out of the way or to grease the skids to make things possible.”
A focus on fiscal responsibility
Voinovich found it difficult to grease skids when he arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1999.
“When you get to the Senate, you have 100 people, and we all have significant egos. It’s very difficult to get things done,” he said. “Governor and mayor were the toughest jobs, but less frustrating. In the Senate, too much time is wasted on messaging and not enough time on substantive things.”
For the first time in his political career, Voinovich did not strive to be the leader. He compares it to an orchestra. As a governor and mayor, he could be the maestro. In the Senate, he focused on becoming the first chair in a couple of sections.
Of great importance to him then and now is assuring fiscal responsibility within the federal government and eliminating the nation’s debt for future generations.
In 2003, he stood in opposition to President Bush over an economic growth and stimulus package, or the “Bush tax cuts.” On Meet the Press with Tim Russert, Voinovich stated publicly that he and the president were in disagreement. Eventually, the proposed $725 billion plan was slashed to $350 billion. Three years later, Voinovich pushed through the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. The bill, which he cosponsored, established a search engine and database to track $1 trillion in federal grants, earmarks, and loans.
Perhaps his most stubborn display of commitment came through in his perennial introduction of the Securing America’s Future Economy (SAFE) Commission Act.
Beginning in 2006, Voinovich introduced into each Congress his proposal to establish a national commission with the purpose of scrutinizing the country’s tax system and entitlement programs. When an act similar to his own was introduced in November 2009, Voinovich met with President Obama to persuade him in person to endorse the statutory, bipartisan debt commission proposed by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).
Voinovich told USA Today after the meeting that the president was supporting it, but his main concern was whether there was enough bipartisan support for the commission to become reality.
“If they’re not in favor of the commission, then what are they for?” he asked. “Politics is trumping what is in the best interests of our nation – we’ve got to figure out how to work together.”
The bill came up seven votes short in the Senate. At his State of the Union the following day, Obama announced that he would use an executive order to create a commission – commonly known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission – with the same qualities as the one proposed by Voinovich.
Last summer, as negotiations over the debt ceiling played out in dramatic fashion, the retired senator crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head.
Leaning forward and punctuating his points by drilling his index finger on the table in front him, he said, “Congress needs to realize you’re going to have to deal with entitlements, Social Security. You’re going to have to deal with Medicare. You’re going to have to deal with Medicaid. You’re going to have to get rid of these tax expenditures and loopholes. And, yes, we may have to increase taxes. It’s going to have to be balanced.”
He senses Americans have lost faith that legislators will do the responsible thing and get back to the fundamentals of governing. However, voters aren’t holding elected officials accountable either, he said. Everyone will be better off, Voinovich said, once they realize that short-term pain is necessary for long-term gain.
“Everybody’s got to sacrifice. Everything’s got to be on the table,” he said. “We’ve got to look at our children and grandchildren. What kind of legacy are we going to leave them?”
Retiring from political life
At 75 years old, most would expect Voinovich to focus on shaping his legacy story. While he is putting thought into writing a book about his 44 years of public service in seven different elected offices, it’s not as if Voinovich has stepped away from politics entirely.
Pete Peterson, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Nixon and president of the Concord Coalition, asked Voinovich to serve on the coalition as well as on a committee for responsible budgeting. He was supportive of the Gang of Six’s recommendations during debate this summer.
But Voinovich retired in order to enjoy life with Janet while they were still in good health. He’s fished the Snake River, and they meandered through Sun Valley and Glacier National Park. Always a family man but one whose career involved a lot of nights and weekends, Voinovich for the first time watched closely the rapid development of a newborn’s first year in his granddaughter, Molly.
Molly is the namesake for the youngest of the Voinoviches’ four children, who was killed when she was 9 years old by a driver who ran a red light.
“I’m getting to see my granddaughter grow up. She’s crawling, and then she can say ‘hi’ – you want to see a picture?” Like any proud grandpa, he fishes out his wallet and flips it open with pride. “She’s just beautiful.”
He looks at his watch and holds up his hands. “Janet’s going to kill me. I’ve been talking too long.”
They have a busy day tomorrow at the Ohio State Fair. The Voinoviches are putting in several appearances at different expositions, and they will have grandchildren to spoil, just as they have done at the fair the last 10 years. Yet, always gracious, Voinovich obliges one more question.
“What do I want my legacy to be?” he said, gathering his thoughts. “I believe that I tried, to the very best of my ability, to take the opportunities that God and the taxpayers have given me to make a difference in people’s lives. I want my legacy to be the things that we put in place that will be here long after I’m dead.”
George Voinovich on…
- A career in government: “Government is a wonderful, wonderful way of taking your legal background and really making a difference in people’s lives. When I was a youngster, I didn’t want to work for a corporation. I thought they were kind of selfish. I wanted to get into something where I could make a difference. But I have learned to have the highest regard for people who create jobs.”
- Moderate politicians being a dying breed: “I don’t think so. I consider myself to be a real conservative. Some people refer to me as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). I am not a RINO. I am someone who came to government to make a difference. I’m someone who realizes that if you’re going to make a difference, you have to work with other people and you do have to compromise.”
- The Tea Party: “I respect the Tea Party people because they got fed up and are doing something about it. God bless you for getting involved. But the fact is that many of them are neophytes to the system. Many of them would just as soon destroy the system, and we’re in a fragile situation today. We cannot let the Tea Party define the Republican Party.”
- The Gang of Six: “I think they are patriots.”
- Political fundraising interfering with legislating: “Sure it does. My last two years were very productive because I didn’t have to go out and raise a bunch of money. One of the banes of today is that most senators spend 25 percent of their time raising money. … How can you do oversight, do your homework, and look at stuff and be out 25 percent of the time? We can’t keep going this way.”
- Early days of being Cleveland’s mayor: “It was hell. You want to talk about tough jobs? Nobody wanted the job in Cleveland.”
- Going for the governorship: “I always felt like if I could make it in Cuyahoga County, I could be governor.”
- Advocating tax reform to President Bush: “I was hammering him those first four years. ‘I used to do tax returns for my clients. I did my own, and now I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.’ Let’s get rid the loopholes and lower the rates.”
- The Class of 1961: “We had a great class, really spectacular people. And along the way, I was able to help a few of my classmates. Law school was tough, hard. But it was a great experience. I’ve been a very blessed person.”