John Kasich isn’t a moderate: Racial justice

As the primary cycle tears our two parties into unrecognizable shreds, John Kasich often seems like a refreshing breath of stale, middling air. While the other candidates of his party rant and rave about whatever their least favorite kind of immigrant is this week, the Ohio governor lulls us to sleep with once-familiar GOP sound bites about job growth, infrastructure and Jesus.

It seems as though this nostalgia for the duller days of conservatism may have seduced the New York Times, judging from its endorsement of Kasich last Saturday. Acknowledging that the candidate is “no moderate,” the Times cites Kasich’s experience in Congress and his positions on immigration and government responsibility as reasons to hope for a Republican platform that is as reasonable, rational and charisma-free as it was in 2008.

But given their reception of this editorial board’s last missive, Republican voters are less likely to heed the Timescall for reasoned thought than they are to literally shoot holes in it. It’s unclear what the endorsement is really meant to achieve politically, but if it’s to exert whatever minuscule influence it can over the GOP primary, it should be aware that the problems with Kasich’s record extend well beyond charter schools and anti-union work.

John Kasich, via Marc Nozell / Flickr

John Kasich, via Marc Nozell / Flickr

Governor Kasich, who has the stooped posture and chipper demeanor of your racist high school principle, has a record on racial justice that pundits usually either ignore or faintly praise. Kasich’s tenure as governor got off to a rocky start right from the get-go, when all 23 people he appointed to his first cabinet were white, and all but five were men. When Nina Turner, a black state senator from Cleveland, offered to help, Kasich responded by saying, “I don’t need your people.” Kasich claimed that he meant Democrats, not black people, which isn’t all that much better. It’s been mostly downhill from there.

Nevertheless, publications based in his own state refer to him with evident pride as the “not-Trump.” Even the famously acerbic Jeb Lund references the task force formed by Kasich to tackle criminal justice reform with mild approval.

But Ohio’s own James Neimeister, irritating as it is to admit, knew better. James pointed out that Kasich didn’t so much rise to the challenge of dismantling the clear institutional racism prevalent in his states much as he did reply “maybe” to the invitation while making other plans.

“Kasich hasn’t received half the flack over police brutality that Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (deservedly) has,” wrote James, “but that’s probably because he’s kept his mouth shut and hasn’t sent tanks through downtown Cleveland.” And now that we know that the grand jury that decided not to indict the police officers who shot twelve year-old Tamir Rice within seconds of seeing him didn’t actually vote on any criminal charges, it’s probably safe to say that Kasich’s Committee to Clean Things Up Around Here has missed a few spots.

Then there’s the beautifully intricate web of red tape that Kasich has draped over the state’s food stamp program, a system that Mother Jones reported was having a disproportionately negative impact on black families last September. Then-Congressman John Kasich sponsored a bill that put an expiration date on Ohio’s food stamps so that recipients could only use them for a maximum of three months within any three-year period. When Democrats in the state complained, the magnanimous Kasich inserted a provision that made it possible for those districts most in need of government assistance to extend their benefits.

Yet, since Kasich has become governor, it’s become clear that those he feels are “most in need” are those who live in predominantly white areas. In order for a district to qualify, the governor’s administration must apply for these waivers on its behalf. The entire state had qualified for and received waivers since 2007, due to the especially harsh effects of the recession on Ohio’s economy, yet in 2014, Kasich denied them in all but 16 of Ohio’s 88 counties, in all but 17 the next year.  Most of those counties populations were rural and almost exclusively white — as Mother Jones continued, “the six counties with the highest rate of terminating food stamps for able-bodied, childless adults were all counties populated mostly by minorities.”

The piece goes on to report that the most poverty-stricken members of these counties are not driven into decent-paying jobs and self-sufficiency, but are instead driven to food pantries and panhandling. And where there’s desperation, dependence and a welfare-gutting Republican in the governor’s office, there’s usually a rising incarceration rate. As a whole, Ohio ranks 26th on the list of states with the highest rates of incarceration per 100,000 adults. But those districts in the state with the highest black populations tend to deal with a disproportionate amount of inmates.

A report commissioned in 2006 by the Vera Institute of Justice on Hamilton County, which has a population that is 26% black, found it had “the highest incarceration rate of those examined in Ohio, and is second only to Marion County (Indianapolis) of all jails compared in the region.” Under Governor Kasich, these rising jail populations have reached absurd levels. Inmates at Hamilton County jail wait long hours in waiting rooms and even sleep on the floor while awaiting an open cell, as private prison companies take bids from one another on who gets to own and operate the sleek, expensive new prison that will accommodate this overflow.

Much like in Hamilton, Kasich’s approach to the problem of rising prison population across the state — it has become the seventh largest in the country during his tenure — is privatization. While he failed in his efforts to further privatize the state’s current prison infrastructure, he successfully hired embattled contractor Aramark to provide its prisons’ food. Beyond being known for serving food infested with maggots, the company has also weathered several controversies and lawsuits over the past two decades as a result of alleged racism, both in the prisons themselves and at the executive level.

If members of the New York Times’s editorial board were being held at gunpoint, John Kasich is exactly the candidate they should have endorsed in the GOP primary. Donald Trump would appear to be the gun, in this situation — in a decision emblematic of this entire election year, two thirds of this particularly expensive Manhattan real estate is donated to Trump free of charge. And given the fact that Kasich talks like Mr. Rogers and looks like Bill DeBlasio with cigarette face, the board might be forgiven its instinctual warmth for him.

And as the threat of a racist demagogue in the White House grows more pressing, it’s understandable that the Times may have felt the moral duty to endorse John Kasich. But given the chances that Kasich will seriously take on either Trump or the racist legacy he perpetuates, the best endorsement this election year might be no endorsement at all.

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