WASHINGTON, D.C. — We were passing one another in a sprawling convention hotel, where Sen. Rob Portman was addressing a group of conservative college Republicans and I was covering a different event. As we said hello, the senator asked if he could talk with me privately for a minute, so we walked over to the side. He wanted to let me know he disagreed with something I had written.
He was direct, looking me straight in the eye with apparent sincerity — something Portman does well — and not mincing words. Neither of us budged, and I don’t even remember what story had upset him. I covered Portman as part of my job at the time and had written countless stories about him, mostly politically or policy-based and a few personal. What I remember, however, was how he handled his complaint: directly. There was no tweet, no social media kvetching, and although this was relatively early in the era in which politicians routinely cried “fake news,” Portman didn’t play that card.
Portman, who on Monday announced he will retire from the Senate next year, is a bit of a throwback in today’s politics, with a gentlemanly bearing, an intellect he doesn’t flaunt and an inability to play the showman. His tweets, whether his own or ghost-written by staff, are downright boring. This has made it difficult for the public to know who he really is and how he operates – and he has used that to his own benefit, masking or muddling positions that might have been more controversial otherwise.
Name the things that Portman stood for, if you can.
His agenda lacked fire or front-page-worthy headlines, however important: workforce training, fiscally prudent and technologically safe government procurement, and enough commissions and bipartisan, bicameral working groups to thrill any wonk in Washington.
To his credit, Portman recognized earlier than others the opioid addiction scourge, particularly in hard-pressed Ohio River working towns, and was smart to make his fight to curtail the epidemic a focus of his 2016 reelection campaign. More recently, he used his chairmanship of an investigative panel on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to clamp down on a sexual-services website, Backpage.com, which he and law enforcement authorities said facilitated human trafficking.
But what of hot-button social issues?
This is where those paying close attention could see how Portman threaded the needle.
He is upfront about his opposition to abortion. On gun rights, however, he has claimed he wants to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, yet found no shortage of excuses in the aftermath of Sandy Hook and other massacres to vote against bills that would clamp down on firearms purchases. One excuse: A proposed ban on unregulated sales by private sellers at gun shows or via the internet could hinder transfer of a hunting rifle to a second cousin – not a first cousin, niece or nephew, mind you, but a second cousin.
Said Portman: “I have a lot of second cousins.”
Better yet is his handling of the gay marriage issue. Two years before the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the right to marry is fundamental, Portman announced he no longer opposed gay marriage, a decision he arrived at after one of his sons came out of the closet. Lost on many was the fact that Portman was clear when questioned: He still hoped to leave it up to states rather than the courts to decide, saying a decision by voters would resolve the issue without the lingering division likely to result from a court edict.
There is no crystal ball that can say when that would have happened in all 50 states had the Supreme Court not ruled as it did in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case involving Ohio’s refusal to recognize the marital rights of a Cincinnati gay couple who wed in Maryland. But had it not been for the courts – in other words, had things played out state by state as Portman wished – gay couples in some states probably still would be banned from marrying.
The next hot-button issue facing the Senate is the impeachment of former President Donald Trump. Portman has not said if he will vote to convict, but his decision not to seek reelection should free him from worry over a political challenge from the right, should he vote with the almost certain Democratic majority, however unlikely. He will think things through thoroughly. He will know the issue inside and out. If his service to date is any indication, he will answer with nuance, which he champions – because not everything in life is totally clear – and at which he is so good. Democrats who have watched him have another way of describing it: bobbing and weaving.
Call it what you will, it has served him well, until now. But this is 2021. Portman is right, then, for lawmakers with his inclinations. As he said in making his announcement Monday, “This is a tough time to be in public service.”
Stephen Koff, a native of Cincinnati, spent 26 years with The Plain Dealer, including two decades as its Washington, D.C. bureau chief, before stepping down in 2018. Now retired, he lives in Virginia.