COLUMBUS, Ohio — The world has turned upside down since March 5, 2019, the only time Ohio first-term Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has delivered a State of the State address.
The veteran politician twice canceled the speech due to the coronavirus pandemic, but still became the most viewed governor in state history by giving dozens of televised daily news conferences documenting Ohio’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
On Wednesday, DeWine returns to the Statehouse for the last State of the State address of his first term. His speech comes at a political crossroads as he faces a four-way GOP primary May 3 amid conservative dissatisfaction with the pandemic steps he took.
The past two years have been filled with significant, career-defining moments for the governor:
DeWine moved quickly in March 2020 even before Ohio had a confirmed COVID-19 case, limiting attendance at a sports festival in Columbus and becoming the first governor to close schools.
Praised initially, the governor came under fire from fellow Republicans who felt he went too far. A year ago, GOP legislators overrode a DeWine veto for the first time, on legislation weakening the state’s ability to respond to public health emergencies.
Conservative anger spread into the gubernatorial campaign, with DeWine now facing three far-right challenges in the primary. DeWine has said he has no regrets about his handling of the pandemic.
“Do something!” crowds chanted at DeWine at a vigil following the Aug. 4, 2019, Dayton mass shooting that killed nine. His subsequent response to address gun violence failed to find traction among GOP lawmakers, despite modest elements that included boosting penalties for felons committing new crimes with guns.
In the face of that rejection, DeWine signed other measures loosening gun control such as eliminating the duty to retreat and ending the requirement for a concealed weapons permit earlier this month.
Since that first State of the State, DeWine has followed through on his stance against abortion and signed a number of bills restricting the procedure into law.
Those include banning abortions after a detectable heartbeat, requiring fetal remains from surgical abortions to be cremated or buried, and banning the use of telemedicine for medication abortions.
Judges have placed all those laws on hold pending constitutional challenges.
A federal probe into a $60 million bribery scheme involving FirstEnergy Corp. and the bailout of two nuclear power plants has swirled around the edge of DeWine’s administration since the summer of 2020.
While none of those charged in the investigation worked for the governor, Dan McCarthy, DeWine’s top lobbyist, resigned last September after three years on the job. McCarthy is a former FirstEnergy lobbyist who was president of one of the dark money groups implicated in the alleged scheme. McCarthy said his actions were legal and DeWine’s office said it has no indication McCarthy is a target of the ongoing probe.
DeWine also has faced questions over appointing Samuel Randazzo as the state’s top utility regulator, despite warnings from environmentalists and a group of fellow Republicans. Randazzo, who also has not been charged in the bribery scheme, resigned after FBI agents searched his home. FirstEnergy, in an agreement reached with the U.S. Department of Justice, said Randazzo helped write the 2019 energy bill — signed by DeWine — at the heart of the scandal.
The voter-created Ohio Redistricting Commission, of which DeWine is a member, has failed after three attempts to draw constitutionally sound legislative maps, according to the state Supreme Court which has rejected them each time.
The May 3 primary is now in doubt, as state elections chief Frank LaRose — also a member of the commission — is pausing certain primary preparations following the Supreme Court’s last ruling.
DeWine has had hits and misses on the jobs front. He faced fierce conservative criticism for the economic impact of his COVID-19 shut-down orders.
Ohio’s unemployment rate this past January was slightly lower than what it was when the pandemic struck in March 2020. But the state workforce also has shrunk by about 190,000 workers since the pandemic, and many companies are still struggling to find workers.
The governor scored a major win early this year when Intel announced it was investing $20 billion in two semiconductor factories near Columbus. But the state was dealt a blow just weeks later when Peloton canceled its plan to open its first U.S. factory, which would have employed 2,000 workers in Ohio, because of a dramatic drop in demand for its interactive bikes and treadmills.