Commentary: Romney Could Learn From Ohio’s Millionnaire Pols

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GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets a voter.(Photo:
GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets a voter.(Photo:

Poor Mitt Romney.

Excuse me. That’s a bad choice of words. Romney, of course, is not poor. He’s rich, very rich. Forbes magazine this year put his wealth at $230 million.

Wealth’s not a disqualifier in politics. Romney, however, wears his wealth like a badge of superiority. Too often he comes across as the rich guy you met in college who thought he could say whatever he wanted, wherever he was.

It’s hard for voters to relate to people who need elevators for their cars and casually offer to make a $10,000 bet, as Romney did with Texas Gov. Rick Perry during the Republican primaries. Then there was the matter of fact way Romney insulted the Brits about their preparations for the London Olympics. He can’t seem to understand why people wonder how much he’s paid in income taxes over the years.

With the Republican convention coming up soon, Romney’s working hard to close the likeability gap with President Barack Obama, who’s ahead on that warm and fuzzy indicator despite an economy that’s still at least partly in the tank.

Romney must win Ohio to become president and the state offers plenty of examples of millionaires who didn’t let fat pocketbooks interfere with appealing to voters.

The Democrats, those self-proclaimed men and women of the people, provided Ohioans with a golden age of millionaire winners from 1977 to 1995.

That’s when John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum served together in the U.S. Senate.

Glenn, from a modest background, made his money through wise investments after a career of self-sacrifice as a Marine fighter pilot in two wars and the first American to orbit the earth. At 91, he’s still self-effacing and has built up so much good will that he probably could make a political comeback.

Metzenbaum, who died at 90 in 2008, was never self-effacing and earned the title “Headline Howard.” He was born poor but shoved his way to wealth with hard work and good ideas such as developing airport parking lots. Metzenbaum was never ashamed to be called a liberal even if other rich guys labeled him a “traitor to his class.” He wore wing tips, not flip flops. Metzenbaum loved to peel back the veneer of country-club civility to reveal policies that he thought hurt the consumers, minorities and working men and women.

Democrats don’t have a monopoly on vote-getting millionaires.

Republicans Mike DeWine, the Ohio attorney general, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman both come from wealthy families but that hasn’t stopped them from winning elections.  DeWine, whose family ran a seed business, has been around Ohio politics for nearly 40 years. In 2006, when DeWine still was a U.S. senator, his net worth was between $14 million and $59 million, according to OpenSecrets.

He’s won often and lost a time or two. He’s always good, old Mike, tie slightly disheveled and maybe a scuff on his shoes. DeWine’s signature campaign event is an ice cream social at his home near Cedarville. No DeWine campaign is complete until spouse Fran passes out her famous cookbooks.

There’s nothing disheveled about Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who’s worth between $7 million and $20 million, according to the Columbus Dispatch. His wealth includes a share of the company that owns the historic Golden Lamb restaurant in Lebanon. He’s as spit and polished as Romney, with a crease in his jeans. Had Romney picked Portman for his running mate, the ticket would have set a good-grooming standard.

There’s grit in Portman’s cheery smile, however. When he was a college student, he learned how the non-rich live when he ground old paint off worn-out trucks and did other grimy summer jobs at the family forklift business in Cincinnati. “Rob didn’t come to drink coffee. He came in to get the job done,” Portman’s boss told me.

Time’s short for Romney. It’s too late to become a national hero like Glenn. The “give-em-hell” Howard approach would be one flip flop too many. Portman’s family sold the fork lift business, so no temporary blue collar job is available.

DeWine and Romney so far have had chilly relations. The attorney general and his wife are loyal Republicans, however. They’d probably be glad to put on an ice cream social and pass out cookbooks.

DeWine could even loosen Mitt’s tie.