Historic Quote: “The only way I could get the President out here was to promise he could meet (basketball great) Jerry Lucas, and it’s going to be arranged, too — just as soon as Jerry finds time to fit him into his schedule.” Ohio Governor Mike DiSalle on John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ohio.
The Dapper DiSalle. Mike DiSalle, the Ohio Governor whose impeccable taste in clothing should be evident just by viewing plain photos, is a footnote to history in a major way. He was the first big-state Governor to get behind John F. Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic nomination before the nominating season had even begun. It was a bold move but it would succeed in increasing JFK’s credibility in a key state.
Closer to home, DiSalle was the first Italian-American Governor of his state. But in comparison to past Governors (Frank Lausche owned just two suits at the time of his election), DiSalle was among the nation’s best dressed.
A native New Yorker, politics was what DiSalle wanted to pursue early. After receiving his law degree from Georgetown, DiSalle returned to Toledo where he was elected to the Ohio House in 1936 at 28. Two years later, he tried to move up to the Senate but was defeated. But he would immerse himself in Toledo government, and would eventually serve as Mayor (in between serving as Harry Truman’s Director of Price Stabilization).
Elimination of the debt was a major accomplishment for which his colleagues immediately recognized. They made him chairperson of the Advisory Board of the United States Conference of Mayors.
DiSalle pursued a few losing endeavors, including for Senate in 1952 and Governor in ‘56, but they gave him valuable statewide exposure. So did his placing in nomination the name of Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee for the vice-presidency at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Just two years after his lopsided gubernatorial loss to William O’Neill, DiSalle sought a rematch. He had to make it past a crowded primary field, and took just 37%. But the Democratic farm team he beast was impressive: Cleveland Mayor Anthony Calabrese Sr and Youngstown Mayor Maynard Sensenbrenner.
O’Neill, who had suffered a minor heart attack early in the year, was held to 64% in the primary by Charlie Taft, the Mayor of Cincinnati and youngest son of the President. He very nearly lost Columbus, where he lived. DiSalle by contrast had won 75 of 88 counties. There was a recession and Democrats outvoting Republicans in the primary — a rarity, was seen as a negative harbinger for the GOP.
By that time, the political environment had turned strongly against the Republicans. The Right-to-Work ballot initiative would prove an Achilles heel for O’Neill and many other Republicans, including longtime Senator John Bricker. O’Neill initially hedged on the initiative, then came out for it strongly. But he had other problems, most notably squabbles with state workers.
DiSalle vowed to be a man of the people and attacked his foes for being otherwise.” The coddling of contributors permits special privilege to win over the best interest of the whole public.” He won 57%.
Supporters and foes of the measure knew unions would be galvanized, but were left breathless as to the magnitude. DiSalle won a convincing victory, 57%, over O’Neill, and, under the revised state Constitution, would be the first Chief Executive entitled to serve a four year term. Reflecting on his previous losses, DiSalle said, “My wife and children, after many heartaches, sacrifices, and hard-work, are able to smile. And of course, that adds to the happiness.”
DiSalle’s first year in office was dominated by tax increases (cigarettes, beer, gasoline, corporate, etc), but it’s purpose was to address falling revenues and aid social programs, including some not before addressed (programs for the gifted, community colleges, etc). DiSalle faced a heavy Republican legislature. But the 1960 campaign was right around the corner and DiSalle wanted Ohio to play a key role.
DiSalle’s biographer Michael Zimmerman in Just Call Me Mike, breaks down the machinations of how Ohio came to be in Kennedy’s corner, and it is fascinating.
At home, DiSalle was among the many Governors who mounted “favorite-son” candidacies for President. Many did so to consolidate their state’s influence come convention time. DiSalle did just the opposite: he wanted everyone to know that he was for Kennedy, and that a vote for him in the May primary was a vote for JFK at the convention.
The alliance was not automatic. His rapport with the Kennedys, particularly Bobby was strained. DiSalle was still a Truman loyalist and initially felt compelled to back his choice, Missouri Senator Stu Symington. But Symington proved uninspiring. And DiSalle had wondered whether JFK’s Catholicism (he was also Catholic), would hinder him. Zimmerman points out that on at least one occasion, Bobby tried to “strong-arm” DiSalle into giving that endorsement.
The Ohio Democratic Party, after years of being out of power was incohesive (longtime Governor Frank Lausche, now in the Senate, was notoriously not a party guy). Every influential state Democrat, including DiSalle, worried that a Kennedy/Humphrey feud would divide the party. Were that to be the case, DiSalle said, Ohio would be as influential as “the little group from Puerto Rico.”
This prompted Democratic Chair William Coleman to nominate DiSalle as a favorite son-candidate. Coleman did not make to DiSalle aware of this and the Governor said “if I had known about it in advance I would have said no, because I think there are more important things to do in Ohio. I doubt anyone in this room could name the Ohio favorite son at the last five conventions. It’s that unimportant.” That was in mid-December. Weeks later, Kennedy would make a five day tour of the state and seek out DiSalle.
A two hour meeting was held between JFK and DiSalle. Kennedy called the meeting useful; DiSalle would call it “constructive.” Zimmerman said both were “political code words meaning little if anything was resolved. There was further drama involving Cuyahoga Chair Ray Miller, whom DiSalle had accused of “Millerism,” who was threatening to run his own pro-Kennnedy slate, undermining unity. That changed when Kennedy referred to DiSalle as the man in Ohio. But DiSalle decided to take the plunge and endorsed Kennedy the day before his birthday. In response, Kennedy forces told their team they were “going to Wisconsin,” meaning, as Zimmerman interpreted it, “to stay out of Ohio.”
Zimmerman would write “by coming out so strongly for Mr. Kennedy, he has given the front-running Democrat such powerful support that he may be hard to overtake. In which case, Mr. DiSalle will be sitting pretty. But if Mr. Kennedy falls short of the nomination, Mr. DiSalle will still have one of the biggest blocs of votes at the convention under his control. In which case, he will still be sitting very pretty.”
That wasn’t the way Bobby Kennedy presented it. Through intermediaries, he presented DiSalle data showing that in an uncommitted favorite son contest, DiSalle would get crushed in his own backyard. It wasn’t longer after that DiSalle declared for Kennedy. Not everyone, particularly Senator Frank Lausche was pleased but DiSalle said, “What can I say. Those Kennedy’s play rough.”
New Jersey Governor Bob Meyner, another favorite-son candidate, repeated that he was told that only two people were promised any position they desired for their support of Kennedy: Abe Ribicoff and DiSalle. The DiSalle slate won the primary with 60%.
For the general election, DiSalle pressed for Kennedy as if it were his own race. When a Methodist minister from rural Ohio gave sermons against Kennedy’s Catholicism, DiSalle confronted him. In the end, Kennedy lost the state by 73,000 votes out of nearly 4 million cast (at his post-election meeting with Nixon, JFK would famously quip, “I asked him how he took Ohio”).
Ultimately, DiSalle did not seek out a position with the administration even though a former aide would later say he was “griping at the mouth to take it…and could have had it,” because he felt the need to serve the full term and because “I was not particularly strong on the qualifications that (LG Mike) Donahey had to be Governor.” And a full two years before his term would expire, he was encountering trouble on the horizon. His budget called for a $150,000,000 increase for infrastructure, including education and mental institutions. The legislature also balked at his request to grant unemployment compensation as an “emergency.” When funding for roads was left out of the budget, DiSalle took the unprecedented vetoed the entire package.
By 1962, DiSalle had enough. He shocked many by announced that would not seek re-election. But amid calls for him to reconsider, he changed his mind in January 1962. But Attorney General Mark McElroy was unwilling to clear the field fir the incumbent. The two clashed angrily. McElroy said DiSalle would raise more taxes, while DiSalle called McElroy “the last angry man,” saying his “gutter-sniping is below the dignity of this office.” DiSalle held just 50 45%, a margin of 32,000 votes out of 630,000 cast.
The general election was tougher. DiSalle’s campaign was one of exuberance, as he hit 62 counties before September, including Republican areas. There, Congressional Quarterly said he tried to lay the blame with the GOP legislature. But Jim Rhodes, the Ohio State Auditor, was also surprising folks with his somewhat refrained campaign style.
DiSalle’s chances were further eroded in late September by newspaper reports surfaced that the President of the Waterfront and Frazier Distilling Company of Chicago had to “pay ‘influence peddlers’ so he could do business in Ohio.” DiSalle had already faced questions from Republican legislators, one of whom compared him to “Morgan’s Raiders or a member of the Jesse James gang” for taking money from the liquor fund for other purposes.
DiSalle remarked that trying to campaign against Rhodes “is like trying to play Ping-Pong on a Pogo stick.” He challenged reporters to go after Rhodes on the “$54,000 question.” That he had “borrowed” $36,000 in campaign money and used an additional $18,000 for personal use. Rhodes said DiSalle was “attacking me with globs of slime and fiction,” but as “Ohio Politics” pointed out, “there was no denial in the statement that he had diverted campaign funds in other years to his personal use.” Rhodes would respond to most of his own critics by calling DiSalle’s “sole solution to public problems…spend and spend and tax and tax.”
DiSalle also faced problems on the issue of capital punishment. He opposed it. A majority of the state voters backed it. His opposition was so deep that he’d meet with many of the inmates on death row (he often hired murderers to work at the Governor’s mansion) though he allowed six executions to go forward. He once said, “I found that the men in death row had one thing in common. All were penniless.” After leaving office, DiSalle would write a book, The Power of Life or Death.
Rhodes unseated DiSalle 59-41%, a margin of 600,000 votes. He told reporters on a phone call the next day “Ohio is a better state from when I assumed office.” Out of office, he returned to practicing law, but led a draft movement for Ted Kennedy in 1968 (he’d serve as his honorary chair in ‘80). He’d die of a heart attack while visiting Italy in 1981 at age 73. A major bridge in Toledo bears his name.
In promoting his book, Zimmerman would say DiSalle’s “good heart and decent mind were not complemented by focus and discipline…he generated ideas faster than Lyndon Johnson in his prime: worked with seemingly boundless energy, and tried gallantly to interest the citizens in deplorable conditions of the state’s mental facilities and crusades against the electric chair.”
So Mike DiSalle was an enigma to some. But his contributions to history, both state and nationally, are in no way disputed.