It’s difficult to think of anyone I admire more, professionally and personally, than Mike Curtin.
Thoughtful, respectful, honest, even-handed, humble and really, really smart, Curtin is a kid from the West Side who became, in the view of Plain Dealer columnist Brent Larkin, Ohio’s “most powerful journalist.”
As editor of The Dispatch in 1999, Curtin hired me to cover Ohio politics, a beat he dominated for three decades as the state’s best political reporter. An expert on the Ohio Constitution, Curtin arguably is the state’s premier political historian, author of the invaluable Ohio Politics Almanac.
Curtin rose to become this newspaper’s associate publisher and his counsel was sought by business and political leaders far and wide. His pragmatic and honest advice helped advance this city.
Then, at age 60 in 2012, Curtin did something unexpected: He retired and declared his candidacy for state representative, saying his highest political aspiration is to help people on the West Side where he has spent his entire life.
Once everyone who knows Curtin got past the shock, they asked the same question: Is he a Republican or a Democrat? It was never apparent. He had always registered to vote as a nonpartisan and his political views were a smorgasbord of the best ideas and ideals from both parties.
“I’m a centrist,” he told Larkin in an interview. “I’m a ticket-splitter. I’m a pragmatist. But I definitely consider myself much more of a Democrat than Republican. Over the long sweep of history, I think the Democratic Party has stood for ideals that are in my bones.”
Since he joined the House, countless have been the times I’ve resisted calling Curtin for his take on events. Sufficient time had not elapsed since we were colleagues. But last week, with Congress on the verge of bringing down our economy, I picked up the phone.
Curtin was palpably frustrated. Gerrymandering, he said, had empowered a relatively small band of tea party Republicans to shut down the government and threaten to take the country over a fiscal cliff by defaulting on the national debt. And what disheartened him most is that responsible Republicans like Reps. Pat Tiberi of Genoa Township and Steve Stivers of Upper Arlington were letting it happen.
“The timidity among people who used to be reasonable, rational Republicans is huge,” Curtin said. “These guys who are friends of mine — Pat Tiberi and Steve Stivers — where are they? Why aren’t they standing up to these radicals?”
Under prodding from House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, Republicans controlling the state legislature redrew 12 of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts into can’t-lose GOP turf. Last year, Tiberi won re-election by 27 percentage points and Stivers won by 23 points. Realistically, the only way they can lose their seats in these safe districts is from a tea-party primary election challenge, and even that is highly unlikely. But neither wants the test.
As a result, Curtin said, “Pat and Steve are captains, just like Boehner is a captain, for the right-wing extremists. They’re timid, and at some point you’ve got to stand up and say our party is not going over the cliff. There is risk, but at some point, you’ve just got to do it, and stand up to the bullies on the playground.”
By gerrymandering House districts across the country, Boehner “has made himself a hostage” to the radicals in his party, Curtin said.
Not so long ago, Tiberi and Stivers sought Mike Curtin’s advice.
Now they have it. Will they heed it?