When Ohio’s state Senate voted 17-16 Wednesday to approve S.B. 5, Frank LaRose became a target in the latest battle over government-employee unions. Not that LaRose is a stranger to battles — the 31-year-old is a former Army sergeant and decorated Iraq War veteran. But the fight over S.B. 5, which would limit the power of public-sector unions in Ohio, gave the freshman Republican state senator a baptism by fire into the world of political combat. After he voted in favor of the bill, once of the fiercest salvos was fired in a message posted Wednesday on LaRose’s Facebook page.
“Funny thing about cops, they hold a grudge,” said the message from Mike Piotrowski. That caught the eye of a group of College Republicans from the University of Akron who had supported LaRose in last year’s election, which the GOP candidate won by a decisive 57%-43% margin. The students quickly discovered that Piotrowski is a lawyer for the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, and complained that his message could be seen as a threat toward LaRose. Piotrowski denied intending to threaten the senator, but in a reply to one of the students, the lawyer snarled: “You don’t know what you are talking about. When Republicans talk about ‘Union Thugs’ they may as well be calling people the n-word.”
This was the latest provocation in the increasingly bitter confrontation between public-sector unions and Republican state officials. While the battle in Ohio hasn’t gotten as much attention as the massive union-led protests in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker, the same dynamic is at work. And conservatives, who in January were accused of fostering a “climate of hate” that led to the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, are tired of “civility” lectures from liberals who don’t seem to notice the uncivil outbursts of their labor-union allies.
“In the last few weeks, example after example of incivility and even outright violence have been ignored, minimized, and diminished by the press,” conservative blogger Melissa Clouthier wrote in reaction to Piotrowski’s comments. “So, here’s another example, recorded as evidence that demonstrates that the true violent rhetoric and climate of hate is being fostered and encouraged by the left.”
Be that as it may, the seeming threat from the Ohio police union lawyer highlights a key difference between the GOP’s battles with public-section unions in Wisconsin and Ohio. The legislation that would limit collective-bargaining rights of government employees in Wisconsin exempts police, firefighters and other emergency personnel, whereas the bill that passed the Ohio Senate this week does not.
Taking on police unions presents a particularly troubling dilemma for conservatives, who naturally support police as upholders of the law and certainly don’t think of themselves as “anti-cop.” Indeed, many conservatives of a certain age will recall a time when it seemed police were the only institution in society that could prevent America from descending into anarchy.
During the 1960s and early ’70s, campuses erupted in anti-war protests, cities were burning in riots of the “long hot summers,” street crime was rapidly escalating, and daily newspaper headlines told of violent terrorism perpetrated by radical groups like the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and the Symbionese Liberation Army. It was during that stormy era that the John Birch Society promoted a bumper sticker with a simple four-word slogan: “Support Your Local Police.”
If you couldn’t trust anyone else to resist the subversive tide, the Bircher slogan suggested, at least you could trust the cops.
The recent struggle over public-sector unions threatens to undermine that trust. Fraternal Order of Police has never been part of the AFL-CIO and indeed, from its inception, the FOP has tried to avoid the “union” label. Yet FOP acts as a collective bargaining agent between police and the communities that employ them, and that’s what brought the FOP into the controversy over Ohio’s S.B. 5.
Like many other labor groups in Ohio, the FOP clearly felt betrayed by LaRose’s support for the legislation. Last year, the Republican’s campaign website boasted that LaRose had “been endorsed by the Ohio and Vicinity Regional Council of Carpenters; the International Longshoremen’s Association; the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 18; United Food & Commercial Workers, Local 880; and the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio.”
In a statement Thursday, LaRose said he “agonized over this decision” to vote for S.B. 5 and explained: “The people of our community sent me to Columbus to stand up for them and make tough decisions based on what’s in the best interest of all Ohioans.… I am duty bound to do what’s best for Ohio, even when it may be unpopular.”
And in what was obviously a response to harsh remarks from Piotrowski and others, LaRose added: “I sincerely value and respect the position of those who oppose my vote.It is however intolerable and unproductive to resort to mean-spirited personal attacks and senseless threats. Those who engage in such behavior degrade the necessary public discourse and demean their own cause as well. The citizens of our state deserve better.”