Next Tuesday, Central Ohio voters will take a swing at the country’s last congressional contest before the November midterms. Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor and state Rep. Troy Balderson are vying to finish the term of former Rep. Pat Tiberi, who stepped down at the beginning of the year.
The two candidates are in an odd spot. No matter who wins, the two meet again in November for another election, this time to decide who represents Ohio’s 12th Congressional District for the next two years.
O’Connor, a Democrat, faces an uphill battle for both: The 12th District has been Republican territory for some four decades. But energetic campaigning, and record-high unpopularity for President Trump, turned the election into anyone’s game.
“This district is comprised of seven counties, full of folks who are Republicans, Democrats and everything in between,” O’Connor says. “And I think having a message about why we want to protect access to health care, why we want to expand economic opportunity, why we want to invest in our communities, is really something that works for everyone.”
O’Connor has been criticized by Republicans for signaling that he could vote for Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader in the House. He says that’s not something that comes up on the campaign trail.
“I think that folks are sick and tired of the inside game,” O’Connor says. “I've never once had a voter asked me who I'm going to vote for for Speaker. People just don't care. People care about kitchen table issues. They care about who's going to fight for their access to earned benefits like Social Security and Medicare.”
O’Connor spoke to WOSU’s Clare Roth about his experience in office, his ideas for infrastructure and health care, and what he plans to do in Congress. (WOSU interviewed Balderson on August 1.)
Clare Roth: Danny O'Connor, this seat has been a Republican stronghold for years. What makes you think you have a chance?
Danny O'Connor: I think the way that we campaigned across this district. This district is comprised of seven counties full of folks who are Republicans, Democrats, independents and everything in between. And I think having a message about why we want to protect access to health care, why we want to expand economic opportunity, why we want to invest in our communities, is something that really works for everyone. Everybody wants a better country, everybody wants a better community. And folks really want new representation in Washington that's going to fight for them and move past these old partisan games.
Clare Roth: You're talking about the economy, you're talking about health care. Give us some specifics. Obviously, everyone wants to fix those. What sets you apart?
Danny O'Connor: So, I mean, on the economy, imagine what an infrastructure bill could do for us. Imagine if we were investing in our roads and our bridges. One proposal that I support for an infrastructure bill is to invest $100 billion in new schools. When we have an inequitable funding system like we have here in Ohio, that leaves some communities behind, investing in new schools is something that returns investment time and time again. It's good for our kids, it's good for our workers, it's good for our communities.
And then on health care, there are some commonsense things that we can do to improve our health care system. We should allow for negotiation across state lines. We should allow for Medicare to negotiate directly with prescription drug companies. We should allow for folks to engage in open enrollment through the health care system around tax season because that's a time when so many people are making decisions about their financial well-being.
Clare Roth: You've said that both parties need new leadership but you've added that you would support ultimately whoever the Democratic Party put forward, even if that's Nancy Pelosi. How can people who are fed up with both parties be sure that you're loyal to your constituents over your party?
Danny O'Connor: Yeah, I mean, I've said time and time again that I won't vote for Nancy Pelosi. And I think we –
Clare Roth: Even if she ends up being the Democratic Party's pick?
Danny O'Connor: That's a hypothetical that is going to be one of the last votes that I'm focused on. When I'm in office here in just about a month and I'm sworn in, there will be real things to focus on, like an infrastructure bill, like a Farm Bill, like making sure that we're protecting access to health care.
And I think that what we need in Washington is we need to have new leadership, and you know, I'll be the youngest member of Congress when we win on August 7 and when we go there. And I think that folks are sick and tired of the inside game. I've never once had a voter asked me who I'm going to vote for for Speaker. People just don't care.
People care about kitchen table issues. They care about who's going to fight for their access to earned benefits like Social Security and Medicare. People care about the retirement age. Troy Balderson wants to raise the retirement age. I think we need to treat working people with dignity, and one way to do that is to say, "If you put in 40, 45 years over the course of a career and do things the right way, we want you to know that you're going to have a safe and secure retirement." But there are folks like Balderson and (Vice President Mike) Pence who want to send a message to workers that their work doesn't matter, that the time they've put in doesn't matter. And we need representatives who are going to be focused on kitchen table issues, not Washington insider baseball.
Clare Roth: You mentioned your youth. You've never been in a legislative position before. How do you expect to work with President Trump? Is it going to be purely adversarial? How do you expect to affect change when you don't have that experience?
Danny O'Connor: Yeah, I think that, you know, in terms of experience, I run an executive office with the largest recorder's office in the state, in the second fastest growing real estate market in the state. I have a staff of 45, which is 43 more people than a state senator like Troy Balderson would have. And if I don't get the job done in my executive office, people notice. If a state senator doesn't show up, I don't think anybody really cares.
So, in terms of getting the job done, we've been doing that for a while here for the people of Franklin County. But if there's going to be leadership from the president or from Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., on things like infrastructure, on something like fighting this public health crisis that we have with opioids, I'm going to work with anyone on it. Because a good idea isn't necessarily a Republican idea or a Democratic idea, it's just a good idea. And if it's going to work for the people of the 12th Congressional District, it'll work for me.
Clare Roth: Turning to policy for a moment, President Trump's trade and tariff policies have the potential to benefit steel manufacturing in the state but possibly hurt farmers. Do you support them?
Danny O'Connor: Well, we need to have a trade policy that doesn't pit our farmers against our steelworkers. And in terms of China dumping cheap steel and engaging in currency manipulation, we need to ensure that American workers can compete on a level playing field. And I'm a big believer that we need to make it in America, and that we can do better things in this country. But that doesn't mean we should not allow our soybean, our corn, our wheat farmers, our commodities farmers to not export their products to market.
And engaging in a type of trade situation that we have with our allies, with Canada, with the European Union, it's nonsensical. Even our friends in organized labor are having issue with that type of policy. The focus needs to be on making sure that American workers can compete in a fair market, but we also need to make sure that we can export our products to market as well.
Clare Roth: What about the "Tax Cuts and Jobs Act"? If elected, would you vote to reverse it?
Danny O'Connor: I want to make sure that we have permanent, middle class tax relief. I think that the middle class is the backbone of our country. A strong middle class is really the defining characteristic of what's made our country great. Permanent giveaways for corporations, a tax giveaway where 83 percent of it goes to the top 1 percent, that's not good.
And I think I'm the only person really talking about taxes in this campaign, because when I'm out talking to voters, whether it's in Zanesville, whether it's in Mansfield, here in Columbus or anywhere in between, folks are tired of an economic system that's not fair. It's amazing to me to think that this past December, in December of '17, there was a conversation when this tax plan was enacted about not letting teachers deduct out-of-pocket expenses for their classrooms. That shows that we have some misguided priorities when it comes to our tax system, but we need to have permanent middle class tax relief. That's something that I would support.
Clare Roth: Does that mean, yes, you'd reverse it?
Danny O'Connor: I'd have to see if middle class tax relief was going to be put in a permanent place.
Clare Roth: We've heard a lot about a potential blue wave in November. That could hinge on any momentum that gets going for the party in August. Does that put added pressure on you?
Danny O'Connor: No! The only pressure I feel is I have a wedding on May 25 next year.
Clare Roth: Congratulations.
Danny O'Connor: We just got engaged on March 24 this last year, so, you know, we got our parish, St. Brigid in Dublin, I guess that counts as a shout out. I don't know how many shout outs for parishes there are a year, but we have our venue and we have our band, The British Invasion, so I don't feel any pressure right now with what I'm doing. I love what I'm doing. I love talking to people across this very big and gerrymandered district about the things that really matter to them and how I want to have their back in Washington.
Clare Roth: If you lose next week, what's going to change about your strategy in November?
Danny O'Connor: I don't think about losing.
Clare Roth: Sure, but I'm making you think about it, as a good journalist would.
Danny O'Connor: [Laughs] No, I mean, look, I don't think, I'm always going to be who I am. I'm going to be someone who goes out and has conversations with folks in every part of this district about their future, and about their well-being, about their hopes and dreams.
And I think, you know, one of the most important things that I think can be asked is, "Why are you running?" And for me, it's simple. I think of the family that wakes up at 6:15 a.m., gets their kids ready for school, clocks into work, takes an hour lunch, gets home, helps the kids with their homework, and they just want to get ahead. And those are the people whose back I'm going to have. And my strategy is always going to be one that fights for them.
Clare Roth: Danny O'Connor, thank you so much for your time.
Danny O'Connor: Thank you. Appreciate it.