Robert F. Hagan wants to lead an Ohio Democratic Party that stands up for and represents the interests of working Ohioans.
Hagan is a 27-year veteran of the Ohio General Assembly from Youngstown, having served in the Ohio House from 1987 to 1997 and from 2007 to today, and in the Ohio Senate from 1997 to 2006. In November, he was elected to represent District 8 on the State of Ohio School Board.
He grew up with 13 brothers and sisters, with his parents marching in the Civil Rights movement and himself marching against the war in Vietnam. Hagan has worked in steel mills and factories in northeast Ohio.
Before becoming an elected official, Hagan worked for 15 years as a locomotive engineer for CSX Transportation, and is still involved with it to this day, nearing 44 years.
“I think a party that has been devastated at the polls, not only in results but turnout, has to change direction,” Hagan said in an interview this week. “We need to regroup. We need to re-energize Democrats and independents to get them to respect what we are doing, and to make sure that we show that we’re different from Republicans. This Republican-light stuff that we’ve been going over for too many years is just not working.”
Hagan said it is incumbent upon party leaders such as those running for party chair, including himself, to redirect and make necessary adjustments.
“Those adjustments have a lot to do with our messaging. The message is not reaching out to working families. It’s not reaching out to the working class, those people that are seeing their taxes rise to pay for corporate tax breaks,” he said.
Hagan said the working people are struggling to make ends meet while watching large companies get all the tax breaks, not only in Ohio but across the country.
“So their wages are flatlined, their benefits are being taken away, their health care benefits are being drained, and they need a party that goes back to square one and represents them,” he said. “That’s where I’d like to take this party.”
This message of standing up for working families has to resonate and ring true through the party’s actions in the legislature.
“We are the party that represents the working class, the middle class and the poor, and we have to start talking about economic fairness,” Hagan said. “You’re not getting economic fairness when you’re doing something the results of which turn people off and turn them away from government and voting.”
The party needs to display to Democrats and independent voters that the government is here to serve the people, represent their interests and work for them, Hagan said. Fighting for an increase in the minimum wage, better benefits, and for workers who are being left out by large companies who fail to pay living wages and end up subsidized by taxpayers.
“Those are Democratic issues. Those are issues that make us what we are,” he said. “I’ve said this for years, you can’t let the Republicans drive a wedge between those of us working people and the poor. We need to make the poor our allies and bring them up. They don’t want to be on welfare. We have to fight for jobs and economic justice. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
On another core Democratic Party issue, Hagan said Ohioans have seen Republicans in the legislature undermine public education and slash vital services for many years.
“They’ve drifted away from the true spirit of making sure all Ohioans get a fair and equitable education,” he said. “They don’t care about that. They care more about creating charter schools that do nothing but award their friends and create a boomerang effect of being awarded by those same friends with campaign contributions.”
Turning to how the party can better work with county-level chairs, Hagan said that Democrats have made a mistake by continuously saying there are only ten or 12 counties that deliver Democratic votes.
“We have to also engage these other counties in some way,” he said, adding that precinct committee members need to be engaged and energized, walking their neighborhoods and getting the message out. Precinct people have to engage in the process to win elections, Hagan said, not simply just show up to vote.
“Some of those smaller counties need to re-engage. Some of the smaller counties need to understand they have the responsibility as well. They can’t just sit by and complain. They have to raise awareness. They have to raise some money. And they have to raise the bar, saying ‘We’re going to win these things whether it’s in Republican-controlled Noble County or Democrat-controlled Lucas County.'”
People need to feel involved and engaged and part of the process to help build the momentum toward success, Hagan said.
“You have to speak with passion and you have to speak the least,” he said. “Democrats can’t sit back and be shy about how they feel on these issues. They have to be emphatic. They have to show that they care about others and they care about working people. You can’t be shy about those kinds of issues.”
Turning to fundraising, raising awareness raises money, Hagan said.
“You need to show people that you stand for something. You can’t continuously walk in the middle of the road. Eventually, you’re going to get hit,” he said. “It’s important that we start talking about the issues that resonate and that people identify with.”
Hagan said that he believes raising awareness can compete with the enormous amount of money corporations are able to raise to try to undermine working people.
“To me, you certainly don’t walk away from the fact that you have to raise money. And you don’t walk away from the fact that some people have money and they’re Democrats, and they want to contribute,” he said. “But in the end, when you stand for something, people feel more comfortable they know where you are on a particular issue that they are with someone who vacillates.”
Hagan said that working people care that their kids are educated better than they were. They care that their families are healthy, and that they have enough money to take a simple family vacation.
“We all know that we’ll never be billionaires, but we also want to be treated fairly,” he said. “The Democratic Party really has to identify with that group of individuals, people working, working hard, and not getting the same fair treatment from the government that I think they should.”
Economic justice, Hagan reiterated, is the one issue that covers it all.
David DeWitt is a journalist and universal minister based out of Athens, Ohio. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He can be found on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.