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Photo by: Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer

Slovenian George Voinovich, former Cleveland mayor, Ohio governor and U.S. senator, dies

CLEVELAND, Ohio – George Voinovich, an earnest-looking Collinwood boy who grew up to be an Ohio legislator, Cleveland mayor, Ohio governor, U.S. senator and one of the most popular Buckeye State politicians of his generation, died early Sunday. He was 79. His son, George, said his father died peacefully in his sleep.

“His two main things in life were public service and his family,” the younger George Voinovich said by telephone. “He genuinely cared about his fellow man. Despite his political success, he never let it go to his head.”

His death comes weeks before his 80th birthday and a Republican National Convention that his home city will host. Voinovich had been listed as a second choice for Ohio delegates committed to Gov. John Kasich in this year’s presidential race — a sign of respect for one of the most successful politicians in state history.

Voinovich, a lawyer and one-time assistant state attorney general who spent more than four decades in politics, was credited with restoring financial health to Cleveland after the city went into default under his mayoral predecessor. A plainspoken man with a disarming grin and support from the city’s business establishment, he helped ignite the downtown building boom of the 1980s that would give Cleveland the moniker “Comeback City.”

As governor, he balanced another difficult set of books by making choices that pleased neither his critics on the left — for cuts in child day care and flat spending on school busing for desegregation — and on the right, for advocating tax increases.

He displayed signs of compassion in his conservatism long before the phrase “compassionate conservative” became a political slogan, shedding tears while cutting the state’s general assistance program for out-of-work adults. “I’m doing the best I can with what we got,” Voinovich said, his comments and tears replayed on CNN. “I really do love my fellow man.”

A devout Catholic who attended Mass several times a week, Voinovich said he used prayer to help guide him in difficult or painful decisions. His goal, he had said, was “to witness and to make people feel good.”

A moderate Republican, he went to the U.S. Senate as a self-described budget hawk. That proved to be a tough balancing act after President George W. Bush was elected two years later. Voinovich had to walk a political tightrope — supporting Bush’s tax cuts and spending on the war in Iraq on the one hand, yet decrying the rising deficits that resulted.

Ohio’s junior senator until his friend and one-time lieutenant governor, Mike DeWine, left the Senate after a 2006 election defeat, Voinovich insisted it was not inconsistent to support tax cuts and war spending while complaining about deficits. Tax cuts, he said, would put money in Americans’ pockets and ultimately stimulate the economy.

He largely held to that belief, saying that the other side of the ledger —government spending —also was out of whack. Voinovich’s warnings about out-of-control federal spending grew more urgent in time, becoming a primary focus after he announced in early 2009 that he would retire at the end of 2010. He wanted to spend time with his wife, Janet and his grandchildren, he said, and serve people in a more direct way, as his mother did as a volunteer school librarian after her retirement.

“I have had a philosophy: It’s God, family, and country or community,” Voinovich said when announcing his retirement in the U.S. Capitol. “And I have to say to you that it’s a little bit out of kilter.” He told reporters he would “like to work in a soup line. I’d like to touch people. I’d like to . . .” He paused, choking up. “What happens is you get kind of removed.”

Meantime in the Senate, he said that with so little time left to serve, he didn’t want to waste time on inconsequential matters. He had “legacy” issues to deal with, including the debt he feared the federal government would leave for his children and grandchildren.

Voinovich’s passions included fishing for walleye, bass, yellow perch and steelhead trout in Lake Erie. His political interests ran toward the arcane. He could wax eloquent on municipal governance, delighting during his first term in giving then-District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams friendly advice on running the city. A Washington Post reporter covering the District once remarked that Voinovich, though a United States senator, seemed to like playing the role of mayor.

He’d talk to anyone who would listen about how the federal government needed to shore up its workforce because impending retirements were going to rob it of a lot of talent. Reporters for Ohio newspapers knew that when his handlers tried to shield him from questions, they merely needed to approach him in a Capitol Hill corridor and ask about any policy action he took or opposed —because Voinovich could not resist expounding on policy. Hardly the stereotype of a veteran lawmaker, he appeared incapable even when dressed to the nines of blow-dried blarney. While few considered him exciting, he had a demeanor and traits that many considered the mark of decency.

Voinovich was a man of seeming contradictions: a penny-pincher who once reached in a urinal to take a coin someone had left there, yet a millionaire —albeit one with a deeply conservative investment bent. Although he had a Florida condominium for vacations, he and Janet still lived in the Cleveland home they bought in 1972. “We don’t have fine and fancy furniture,” Voinovich said in early 2009. “I’m still driving a 2005 Ford Taurus station wagon.”

He had a just-folks, Midwest persona, lacking all pretense and wearing Save the Children neckties. Former Ohio Republican Chairman Robert Bennett once said, “There is no phoniness about him.”

Yet he kept a kitchen cabinet of savvy political operators and fund-raisers, and a campaign list of big-ticket contributors who included gambling interests —even though he opposed legalized gambling in Ohio —and Ohio’s wealthiest and most influential business executives.

Voinovich was born to parents of Serbian and Slovenian heritage in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood, a working-class enclave with deep ethnic become a U.S. senator, was Voinovich’s first lieutenant governor.

Voinovich was an overwhelmingly popular governor, with job approval ratings between 60 percent and 70 percent. He managed to maintain an aura of control during a deadly prison riot at Lucasville in 1993 by not grandstanding for the cameras and won reelection in 1994 with a stunning 72 percent of the vote.

When he moved into the governor’s mansion, the state was facing massive debt; by the time he left, it had nearly $1 billion in its “rainy day” fund and the Ohio Turnpike was undergoing a major expansion. His mantra was “Work harder and smarter and do more with less,” and he held budget growth to its lowest in three decades.

His fiscal methods weren’t uniformly popular. He promoted a one-cent sales tax for schools and property tax relief, which failed at the polls. The Wall Street Journal editorial board labeled him “the nation’s premier tax-and-spend governor,” and urged Bob Dole, running for president in 1996, not to pick the Ohioan for a running mate. Even as a GOP mayor in the early 1980s, he opposed President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, proposing higher taxes to pay for domestic programs. Voinovich was regularly mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick, but he never made it onto a presidential ticket.

His gubernatorial measure to reform the workers compensation system pitted him against organized labor and also lost.

His friends included formerBrowns owner Art Modell, who during Voinovich’s second term as governor moved Cleveland’s beloved football team to Baltimore, changing its name to the Ravens. Asked why he didn’t do more to stop Modell, Voinovich said that Cleveland had an able leader running the Save-Our-Browns campaign —Mayor Mike White, who succeeded Voinovich at City Hall —and the effort didn’t need two quarterbacks.

The state cut welfare rolls and Medicaid expenditures to save money under Voinovich. But it also boosted spending on Head Start and children’s programs, earning praise for the governor from the Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio.

Voinovich made Ohio a leader in getting waivers from federal education spending requirements, successfully arguing that the state knew how touse the money better than bureaucrats hundreds of miles away in Washington. When he was criticized for flat spending on school busing, his administration said it made more sense to put money in classrooms rather than buses.

But the governor also advocated putting some public money into private schools, becoming an early proponent of school vouchers. At a time when the state’s school funding method was being criticized by the Ohio Supreme Court as unfair and unconstitutional, Voinovich helped Ohio become the nation’s leader in state support for private education. He described vouchers as a way to give low-income parents choice and a way to goad public schools into improving. Teachers unions and parent-teacher associations contended the governor was using public money to shore up private school finances.

Beneath Voinovich’s easy-going demeanor was a temper that could flare in public occasionally. It was captured on audiotape one day in 1995 when he wanted to leave Columbus on a state-owned plane. His pilot was ordered not to take off because President Clinton was in town and the Secret Service did not want air traffic in the area. Voinovich told him to fly anyway.

“If they shoot us down, they can,” Voinovich told an air traffic controller. “I’m going to tell them to go screw themselves.”

He was fined $1,500 for violating the no-fly order. “I should have exercised more restraint, not lost my temper, and remained at the airport until this confusing situation was cleared up,” he wrote in a letter settling the matter with the FAA.

His service as governor was touched by the strong whiff of scandal when a former chief of staff and fund-raiser, Paul Misfud, went to jail on misdemeanor charges of trying to cover up free home remodeling work performed by a state contractor. A former state Insurance Department deputy director was convicted of felony bribery in 1998. And amid questions of state contracts being awarded to Voinovich contributors, there were the troubles of his younger brother, Paul, who ran a prison design and construction firm. Paul Voinovich, who died in 2002, was dogged by suggestions that he improperly tried to use his influence to get public contracts and state money. George Voinovich said his brother’s operations had nothing to do with him.

He then won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1998, running after John Glenn announced he was retiring from politics. Voinovich outspent opponent Mary Boyle, a former Cuyahoga County commissioner, three to one. His first days in Washington were miserable.

He fell ill with the flu, his office in the basement of a Capitol Hill building flooded, and Congress was in the throes of impeachment against President Clinton, lending unmasked vitriol and scorched-earth politics to Republican-Democrat relations. It was like moving into a household embroiled in a divorce and being sick at the same time.

Voinovich soon enough fell into a routine, however, taking a Capitol Hill apartment with his wife and longtime confidante, Janet, and frequently strolling with her before work. He became a leading Senate voice on the conflict in the Balkans. While he refused to visit Serbia as long as strongman Slobodan Milosevic was in charge, he opposed the U.S.-led NATO war in Yugoslavia on the grounds that it was destroying the country and turning Europeans against this country. Voinovich appeared deeply hurt over the war and Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, condemning Milosevic but urging diplomacy rather than bloodshed. Voinovich frequently served as an intermediary between Yugoslav leaders and the United States government.

He became a thorn in the side of colleagues who wanted to pass big spending bills, and of the White House when President Bush wanted a big tax cut. Voinovich insisted the nation could not afford it in 2003, and though he ultimately acceded to helping the president, he first forced a compromise and a smaller tax cut.

The senator, who easily won reelection in 2004, was a champion of nuclear power as a clean and efficient source of electricity, and a strong advocate for Ohio’s coal industry. He sponsored legislation to let utilities upgrade their coal-burning plants without automatically facing Clinton-era environmental penalties he characterized as ambiguous and subjective. He supported legislation to offer incentives for building more nuclear plants. He said that Democrats’ goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions were not only unrealistic, but they would hurt Ohioans by requiring a switch from inexpensive coal to expensive alternative fuels and natural gas.

Voinovich contended a balanced energy approach was necessary, and in his second term a number of Democrats from coal states started to agree with him. Although environmentalists labeled him a “villain,” saying he was trying to roll back clean-air protections, the label didn’t stick, partly because Voinovich was a strong champion of cleaning up the Great Lakes.

A study of his votes by Congressional Quarterly showed that while he was hardly a liberal, he was more moderate than some of his critics acknowledged. He bucked the GOP when, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he opposed Bush’s choice for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, because of concerns about Bolton’s temperament. After Bolton filled the post on a temporary basis, Voinovich said he had gained confidence in the man.

Voinovich in early 2009 opposed President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan, saying it spread money across too many areas that did not warrant a government handout. But several months earlier, he tried unsuccessfully to forge a bipartisan compromise on an auto industry bailout after Congress and the White House could not come to an agreement.

Voinovich and his wife, Janet, married in 1962, had three adult children: George, Betsy and Peter. Their daughter Molly died in 1979 when Voinovich was running for mayor. She was 9 and in the fourth grade, returning to Oliver Hazard Perry Elementary School from lunch when a van ran a red light and struck her. Each year, Voinovich and Janet visited the Cleveland school to present a donation and honor their daughter’s memory.

One of the last Senator George Voinovich speech was at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Slovenian Independence in the Rotuda of Cleveland City Hall. Senator Voinovich spoke about the struggle for independence (introduced by Slovenian Consul General Andrej Gregor Rode).

Source: Cleveland.com | Written by Stephen Koff with contributions by cleveland.com political reporter Henry J. Gomez.

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