WHEELING - Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald believes Gov. John Kasich "mishandled" the situation leading to the closing of the Ormet Aluminum Plant in Hannibal, and that Kasich should have met with workers there to hear their concerns.
FitzGerald - a Democrat challenging Kasich for the seat - spoke of Ormet during a visit to the offices of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register in Wheeling on Sunday. Ormet laid off 700 workers and stopped operations at the plant in October.
"I don't pretend there's an easy fix or solution," FitzGerald said of the company's financial struggles. "It's not as if there's a 30-second solution. But here's where I would start: I would go back to where the conversations were with the governor's economic development team that went down there in the first place."
Former JobsOhio president Mark Kvamme met with Ormet officials prior to his departure in late 2012, and advised both labor and management nothing could be achieved unless the union was agreeable to making concessions and the company would look into cutting costs, FitzGerald said.
Kvamme told both sides after they both did this, the state might lobby with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and assist Ormet in other ways through JobsOhio.
The union did take wage cuts, and Ormet officials did reduce operation costs, but the state never took any further action, FitzGerald said.
"Mark Kvamme had already left by then," he said. "The new team at JobsOhio apparently didn't feel bound by what he said or committed. For me, the real potential is not just to keep the doors open, but they were going to build a stand-alone generator that would have been a major investment and generated several hundred construction jobs and some permanent jobs and made it energy self-sufficient. I think there's a role JobsOhio could have played in that."
FitzGerald said Kasich has some leverage over the PUCO that could have been used to help Ormet.
"The governor has said the PUCO is an independent body and he has no influence over it, but that just isn't true," he said. "It is an independent body, but he has influence over it, and he has exercised that influence before. He appoints the members ... and I think he could have advocated more."
An attorney and former FBI agent in Chicago, FitzGerald is the county executive for Cuyahoga County, and he previously served as mayor of Lakewood, Ohio. He said what resonated with him most about the Ormet situation is that employees collected about 10,000 signatures on petitions just to draw the notice of Kasich.
"Number one, I don't think workers should have to collect signatures to get the attention of the governor," Fitzgerald said. "I've been a mayor and I've been a county executive. If I had a major business close in my territory, and the workers wanted to meet, I would say, 'sure,' and that has happened. I've done it before. Even if I can't give them good news, that's just part of being an elected official. That's just your job. ... I think (Kasich) mishandled that."
Chris Schrimpf, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party, disputed the notion that Kasich should exert influence over PUCO decisions.
"FitzGerald's lack of private sector experience and inexperience in state government is clear," he said. "The state has given the company over $300 million. What FitzGerald has been proposing is for the governor to take over an independent regulator. It would make Ohio perhaps the only state in the nation to politicize such an entity. To do so would be bad for democracy and bad for ratepayers across the state.
"Governor Kasich has been working hard to create a positive environment for job creation, and overall it is paying off. Over 230,000 private sector jobs have been created after the state lost 350,000 jobs under the last Democratic governor (Ted Strickland). What FitzGerald doesn't tell you is that he would take Ohio back to the policies of the last Democratic administration and raise taxes to grow government - hurting the small businesses that are growing our economy," Schrimpf continued.