Ohio governor’s science-based COVID-19 response wins bipartisan praise

Why We Wrote This

Mike DeWine’s early, decisive action on the virus likely saved lives, say experts – and catapulted the low-key, career politician onto the national stage. Voters cite his reliance on experts, and his willingness to admit unknowns.

Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch/AP
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (center), and Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, walk to the stateroom before a news conference on Ohio's response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on April 6, 2020, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.

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Before a single case of COVID-19 had been reported in his state, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine began imposing sweeping restrictions. The mild-mannered Republican banned spectators from large-scale sporting events, and was the first governor in the nation to close public schools.

Now, as Ohio begins to gradually reopen, public health experts say the governor’s swift actions likely helped the state avoid the fate of its northern neighbor, Michigan, or that of many East Coast hot spots.

At a time when responses to the virus seem increasingly marked by partisanship, Governor DeWine’s apolitical, fact-based approach has earned him plaudits from both sides of the aisle. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that 86% of Ohio voters approve of the way Mr. DeWine has dealt with the coronavirus – the highest rating of any governor. To many, the Ohio governor’s decidedly non-flashy style of leadership – a competence shaped by decades of experience – seems to be what’s needed at this moment of crisis.

Governor DeWine himself is quick to stress that given the stakes, politics are beside the point.

“We’re dealing with people’s lives,” he says in an interview. “These are the most important decisions I will ever make in my life.”

Before a single case of COVID-19 had been reported in his state, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine began imposing sweeping restrictions. The mild-mannered Republican banned spectators from large-scale sporting events. He recommended that colleges suspend in-person classes. He was the first governor in the nation to close his state’s public schools, and he fought to postpone Ohio’s primary election.

The moves may have seemed radical at the time, but as Ohio now begins to gradually reopen, having recorded just under 2,000 deaths so far, public health experts say the governor’s swift actions likely helped the state avoid the fate of its northern neighbor, Michigan, or that of many East Coast hot spots.

At a time when responses to the virus seem increasingly marked by partisanship, Governor DeWine’s apolitical, fact-based approach has earned him plaudits from the media and sky-high approval ratings from voters on both sides of the aisle. To many, the Ohio governor’s decidedly non-flashy style of leadership – a steady competence, shaped by decades of experience – is exactly what’s needed at this moment of crisis.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“The way I’ve approached this is to get all the information, to rely on the best science that’s available,” says Governor DeWine, in an interview with the Monitor that took place in mid-May. “Forty years of doing politics and government, the mistakes I’ve made is because I didn’t get enough facts ... and I didn’t trust my gut instinct. And my gut instinct throughout this has been we needed to move faster.”

The longtime Ohio politician, who has variously served as a United States senator, a congressman, and his state’s attorney general, has often been labeled “nerdy” or “boring” due to his subdued manner and scandal-free career. But that low-key image masks the roll-up-your-sleeves attitude of someone who just comes in and gets the work done, says Joe Hallett, a retired political journalist who wrote for several Ohio newspapers.

“Experience matters,” says Mr. Hallett. “DeWine has been inside government and knows what levers to pull and push. He’s not someone given to stunts.”

Mr. Hallett witnessed that tenacity firsthand in 1994. While covering Mr. DeWine’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, the reporter found the then-lieutenant governor lying in the back seat of a car, trying to pass a kidney stone. He was in pain, but refused to cancel that evening’s event.

“He struggles out of the car and goes in, there’s about 100 to 150 people in there for dinner, and DeWine winces his way through the door and instantly his demeanor changes,” says Mr. Hallett. “He goes from table to table and shakes every single hand, suffering on the inside but nobody was the wiser.”

Nearly 30 years later, Mr. DeWine harnessed this quiet, steely resolve again to slow the spread of COVID-19.

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll released May 12 found that 86% of Ohio voters approve of the way Mr. DeWine has dealt with the coronavirus – the highest rating any governor received in its poll, and solidly bipartisan (Democrats actually rated his job slightly higher than Republicans). By contrast, 45% of voters approved of President Donald Trump’s efforts.

The governor himself is quick to dismiss those numbers, recognizing that they’re likely to come back down as the challenge moves into new phases. And he stresses that given the stakes, politics are beside the point.

“Those poll numbers are nice, but that’s not where they’re going to stay – and that’s OK,” he says. “We’re dealing with people’s lives. These are the most important decisions I will ever make in my life.”

Early on, daily press briefings with the governor and his team of public health experts quickly became prime-time viewing for thousands of Ohioans eager for information about the virus’s spread and the state’s lockdown orders.

“[They] were so good at presenting ideas and giving people the opportunity to digest them and process them before they were implemented,” says Deborah Hellmuth Bosner, who runs an optometry practice in the Columbus area. “It’s about setting expectations. I was always able to start preparing as a [business] what shutdown procedures would look like, where we might need to go.”

In the beginning of the crisis, before much data had been collected, Mr. DeWine would often emphasize the lack of information and uncertainty to the public. For Greg Laux, a trial lawyer in Cincinnati, it was refreshing to hear a politician be so candid, or admit to not knowing something. He says the briefings also demonstrated the trust Mr. DeWine places in Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton and other scientific experts.  

“In a crisis, I think people look for confidence, someone who is knowledgeable, an expert, and competent,” says Mr. Laux, who started a Facebook fan group for Mr. DeWine. “Mike DeWine is one of the best political leaders of my lifetime.” 

Still, not all Ohioans have agreed with the governor’s decisions. Protesters marched in front of the Statehouse throughout April and May, imploring the governor to reopen the state. He partially relented on April 28, reversing an order that required retail customers to wear masks.

But the Republican governor has remained adamant that wearing a mask is a matter of public health and is “not about politics” – a stark contrast with fellow Republican President Trump, who has conspicuously avoided wearing a mask in public. 

To some, it’s striking that the Ohio governor – an establishment Republican for his entire political career – would take such a markedly different approach from his party’s current leader. But during his 12 years in the U.S. Senate, Mr. DeWine was generally regarded as a moderate Republican, one who was at times willing to buck the party line and work with Democrats.

Mike Curtin, a former reporter and editor at The Columbus Dispatch who covered the governor extensively over the course of his career, adds that at this stage in his career, the governor is a “free man.” 

“The difference between Governor DeWine and Mike DeWine in his previous political iterations is that he understood that this was his final stop,” he says. “If this were a Mike DeWine 25 years younger than he is, he probably would not be quite as independent as he’s been.”

Mr. Curtin – who had a partial stake in a minor league baseball team owned by Governor DeWine’s son until he sold it in 2019 – says that freedom has helped the governor remain data-driven throughout this crisis, heeding his public health experts’ advice. 

“It allows him to follow the science, to be true to his heart,” he says. “People tend to appreciate that, and that’s why he’s getting the virtual standing O’s – he’s being his authentic self.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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