All Politics Isn't Just Local — It's Personal

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Campaign contributions aren't bribes. They are relationship-builders. As The New York Times' front-page look at Ohio Gov. John Kasich once again makes clear, who politicians know is often a dominant predictor of what they'll do in office.

Trip Gabriel's profile of Kasich highlights an unexpected side to the staunchly conservative politician.

He embodies conventional Republican fiscal priorities — balancing the budget by cutting aid to local governments and education — but he defies many conservatives in believing government should ensure a strong social safety net. In his three years as governor, he has expanded programs for the mentally ill, fought the nursing home lobby to bring down Medicaid costs and backed Cleveland’s Democratic mayor, Frank Jackson, in raising local taxes to improve schools.

Medicaid is at the center of the Times' interest in Kasich. Ohio is one of five states that has implemented the Medicaid expansion component of Obamacare while not establishing a state insurance exchange. (The other four: Arizona, Delaware, New Jersey, and North Dakota.) The former decision allows more poor people to enroll in the existing federal health insurance program; the latter forces Ohioans to rely on the stumbling federal insurance system for coverage. Neither was popular with the state's largely Republican legislature, but Kasich used a procedural back door to ensure that the Medicaid expansion went through.

Why? In part, the Times notes, because of his Christian values. But also, in part, because Kasich's brother is mentally ill.

That relationship has repeatedly gotten Kasich involved in mental-health-related issues. He encouraged passage of two bills that would expand treatment access. When a campaign donor was found to have contributed illegally, Kasich donated the donations to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The director of that organization spoke to the Times: "It’s been an astonishing thing to watch. Since he’s become governor we’ve received more for mental health care than any time in the past 20 years."

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Kasich's focus on mental health derives from his personal experience with the issue. It echoes another Ohio politician, Sen. Rob Portman, who earlier this year came out in support of same sex marriage, after his son told him that he was gay. As our Richard Lawson wrote following Portman's announcement, "None of the studies, the rallies, the protests, the legal victories, the testimonials, the documentaries, articles, books, plays, movies, television shows or anything could sway him, if we're to take what we learned today at face value." It took his relationship with his son.

This is why donors contribute to political campaigns. There's a shorthand in critique of campaign funding that suggests that donors "buy" members of Congress or residents of statehouses. That's a facile interpretation — one that's been proven to be the case in the past, but not one representing how such relationships usually work. Donors don't buy politicians, they buy time. They buy the ability to build relationships. To get meetings. To get known. ExxonMobil gives money to members of Congress so that ExxonMobil's lobbyists can meet with the members of Congress and make their points. ExxonMobil builds relationships with members of Congress; the members of Congress become familiar with ExxonMobil's issues. It's not a family bond, but it often works the same way.

On other issues, like tax reform and coal, Kasich also hews more closely to the Republican Party line. As the Times notes, he advocated for tax cuts on top wage-earners in the state, even as taxes go up a tiny amount on the bottom 20 percent of state residents. Who do you think is more likely to have a close relationship with Kasich, to attend his fundraisers and events: wealthy people who could help the governor raise $2.6 million for the first six months of 2013, or the working poor?

Or, for that matter, who's more likely to get meetings and dinners with members of Congress? If you can't be family to a politician to get your issues addressed, the next best thing is to become a politician's best friend.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.