January 2010 Issue
Life of Service
Ohio Magazine catches up with John J. Gilligan, former Congressman, educator and Governor of Ohio.
John Gilligan was probably starting to think people had forgotten him.
He’d been lying low, after all — living in Cincinnati with his wife, Susan, far from the political limelight he once occupied. They were working on an addition to their house, were off to Pilates exercise classes a couple of times a week, and he was taking plenty of time to read while she attended to her medical practice.
At age 88, Gilligan is more than three decades from the toss and tumble of the Ohio Statehouse, and even news and politics junkies may well have wondered what ever happened to the dynamic, liberal governor who reshaped state government and made history as the man whose term was bookended by James Rhodes, the Republican who served four, four-year terms as governor.
About a year ago, Gilligan popped back onto the scene — thanks to his daughter.
In February 2009, President Barack Obama tapped Gilligan’s daughter, Kathleen Sebelius, 61, to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services. Before that, she was governor of Kansas, making her and Gilligan the only father-daughter gubernatorial duo in American history — something of interest mostly to Wikipedians and Politico.com readers. Until the HHS appointment, that is, when her father’s phone started ringing again as reporters from Ohio and around the
nation wanted to know what he’d passed along to Sebelius.
“The only advice I ever gave her was to change her name and move to a different state,” he said recently. “She did both, and it worked for her pretty well.”
He’s chuckling drily as he says it, joking at his own political fortunes — which saw him serve single terms in Congress and the governor’s chair. His record of accomplishment was considerable nonetheless.
Gilligan is more than happy to spend a few hours looking back over those accomplishments as Ohio’s 62nd chief executive. He recently whiled away a relaxed weekend afternoon in the warm, tidy, northern Cincinnati apartment he and Susan are occupying while an elevator is installed in their 1920 Clifton home so that Gilligan, now in occasional need of a walker, can get around better.
The living room is decorated with books, political memorabilia and framed photos of family, including one of the entire Gilligan clan — all suited up and smiling at the White House for Sebelius’ swearing-in. Susan and Jack, as she and his friends call him, happily recall meeting the president. “He’s very cool,” Susan says with a smile, and then takes a cell-phone call from a patient. A family physician with a practice in Loveland, she seems perpetually busy.
Gilligan concurs with a crisp nod. The president is “one of the more remarkable people I’ve met in politics,” he says, keeping an eye on the TV, where his beloved University of Cincinnati Bearcats are at that moment stomping Fresno State.
He sits in a beige recliner, the walker in reach if needed. At his side are stacks of magazines — The New Yorker
, The Nation
, The New York Review of Books
— and hardbacks that range across history, public policy and Catholic theology and activism. Any fiction? “Not so much,” he shrugs, as Cincinnati pulls off another smart play. Who’d have time for fiction, anyway, when one’s lived the sort of life John J. Gilligan has led?
He came to politics gradually. Gilligan was born in Cincinnati in 1921, the son of a third-generation, Roman Catholic funeral director who was interested in politics, “but never ran, though he ... taught us to become involved.” Young Gilligan went to college at Notre Dame and graduated in 1943, enlisting in the Navy and “spending three and a half years on a destroyer” in both the Atlantic and Pacific. He won the Silver Star for valor, risking his life to hose down flames near the ammo dump on his ship, the USS Rodman, when it took a kamikaze strike near Okinawa in 1945.
Post-war, he taught English literature at Xavier University from 1948 to 1953,
“and my first impulse wasn’t to seek public office but to study political activity,” he recalls. “Things were changing in government in the United States following World War II and there were enormous shake-ups in the international arena, all of which I found enormously interesting.”
Interesting enough, finally, to make the leap — inspired by Adlai Stevenson’s re-energizing of liberal Democratic politics. Gilligan ran for Cincinnati City Council in 1953, winning as a Democrat in a very Republican town. He spent 10 years on Council, then ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964 and became the first Democrat to win Hamilton County’s 1st District in more than two decades.
He found life in Congress to be bracing — for the two years he served. Despite Democratic gains around Ohio, the GOP still controlled the Statehouse, and Gilligan says the General Assembly redrew the 1st to knock him out of it — making it that much easier for another big name from Cincinnati, Robert Taft Jr., to prevent his re-election. “I got gerrymandered out,” he says, “one of four Democrats it happened to.” He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1968, beating former Gov. Frank Lausche, the sitting senator, in the primary, but losing to Republican William Saxbe.
In 1970, Jim Rhodes had run up against term limits, making the gubernatorial election an open field. The GOP put up Roger Cloud, a state representative from Logan County; Gilligan carried the Democratic banner. As he recalls things today, the pall cast upon the state by the May 4, 1970, National Guard shootings that killed four students at Kent State University — which occurred on Rhodes’ watch — was a factor in his campaign. “It woke a lot of people up to aspects of life in Ohio that they hadn’t considered up to that time,” he says.
He beat Cloud and came to Columbus with a full, ambitious plate. “We had a serious array of goals and objectives,” he recalls. “And the crazy thing was, we accomplished a lot of it.” Surprising especially because the state was in a deep fiscal hole.
To get out of it, Gilligan pushed the state’s first income tax. He got it through the General Assembly pretty quickly, and the tax even survived a repeal attempt by a group of Republicans and was reapproved by voters. “By then it had been argued pretty thoroughly in every corner of the state,” Gilligan recalls.
Once the tax was in place, other initiatives followed. In the emergent environmental spirit of the day, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency was created, as were state departments to help people with mental-health issues and disabilities. The voting age was reduced to 18, again in keeping with the times. The Ohio Lottery was created, though against Gilligan’s wishes — he agreed to it in a political tradeoff with Cleveland-area politicians whose support he’d needed for the income tax.
He’s remembered today as intelligent, thoughtful on policy, a good speaker and an elegant, slightly patrician figure. Tall, red-haired and handsome, he cut an imposing, memorable public presence.
But his bid for a second term did not go well. Jim Rhodes sought a comeback, and pulled off an 11,000-vote upset. “It was really close,” says Thomas Suddes, longtime Statehouse reporter for The Plain Dealer
of Cleveland, who now teaches journalism at Ohio University. “It’s a famous story that Rhodes went to bed thinking he’d lost.”
Some speculate that his appointment of Howard Metzenbaum in 1973 to the U.S. Senate over the popular John Glenn cost Gilligan votes. Suddes suggests Gilligan was hurt politically by never having held an Ohio state office or served in the legislature. Others say the income tax hurt him. “I think he could’ve survived that,” says Brad Tillson, former editor and publisher of the Dayton Daily News
, who covered Gilligan as a young Statehouse reporter. “Jack didn’t run a great campaign; I think he and the people around him were a little bit complacent.”
Says Suddes, “He did an awful lot in four years; Ohioans talk about wanting change, but don’t always want it when they get it.”
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter
offered Gilligan the directorship of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He served until 1979, becoming director of the Institute for Public Policy, and then taught at Notre Dame and UC. “I really enjoyed the international stuff,” he says now. “I found that job extremely interesting.”
Politics was still in the wings, it turned out: Resettled at home, he ran in 1999 for the Cincinnati school board, and won. He stayed until 2007.
And now, he enjoys being retired, getting together monthly for lunch with old friends from his days of Cincinnati politics and keeping up on his reading within sight of those family photos. In addition to Sebelius, son Donald is an environmental consultant in Boston, son John is a Columbus attorney and daughter Ellen is a foundation executive in Cincinnati. There are eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild.
He met Susan Fremont, now 57, several years after his first wife, Mary Catherine Dixon, died in 1996. They’ve been married nine years, and Susan has become cheerfully adept at filling in the blanks as Gilligan recounts his history, having heard it so often. “She’s just nosy,” her husband says with a smile.
After all this, and with his daughter’s career carrying forward his legacy of liberal Democratic beliefs, Gilligan seems perfectly content, and convinced that he did what he could.
“He reset the state’s compass,” Suddes says. “On his watch, the state passed an income tax that had been authorized in the Constitution since 1912, and finally got the resources to do some things it needed to do for an awful long time ... The state government we have today is essentially the government we got during the Gilligan administration.”
Gilligan, always charming, is more understated: “I think when I got into the actual practice of politics ... my experience more or less convinced me that the ideas I started with were right.”
We should all be so lucky, perhaps, to get so far along feeling that way.