Ted Strickland, former Ohio governor, and candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016, speaks during the annual Athens County Democratic Party spring dinner. County party chair Alan Trout, seated.

Ted Strickland, former Ohio governor, and candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016, speaks during the annual Athens County Democratic Party spring dinner. County party chair Alan Trout, seated.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland told fellow Democrats in Athens County Saturday night that they are living through an unprecedented and challenging time in American politics.

Strickland was full of fire for these Democrats in the foothills of Appalachia during their annual spring party dinner at the the local American Legion Hall. He called on party members to stand up for what they believe in and to stand against an extremist Republican Party.

“We have a Republican Party that in my judgment has been taken over by such extreme thinkers they don’t believe in compromise,” Strickland said. “They are slash and burn in their attitudes. If they can’t have their way, they want this government to go down.”

Strickland’s been taking a strong populist, progressive tone in the early days of his 2016 campaign for U.S. Senate. He faces a Democratic Primary challenge from Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld. The winner of the primary will go on to face U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who was first elected in the Republican wave of 2010.

“We are facing challenges, I think, in America today that are very, very unusual,” Strickland said Saturday.

He pointed to the 16-day government shutdown of October 2013 and various threats of the same both before and since, and what Strickland called “incredible intransigence” toward President Barack Obama.

“From the time he was elected until the present moment, many of the leaders of the Republican Party have been determined above all else to see that he cannot succeed,” he said. “But the good news is, in spite of their efforts, he and we as a party have seen success.”

He cited the Affordable Care Act bringing health insurance to millions of people who previously did not have it or could not obtain it because of pre-existing conditions.

Strickland has roots in Athens, having represented the area in the U.S. Congress for years before going on to be elected governor in 2006. For the past several years, he’s been at the Center for American Progress.

Dressed in a blue blazer, grey slacks and a white button-down, Strickland arrived Saturday with his longtime friend and former chief of staff John Haseley, who now lives again in Athens County. Strickland was relaxed, confident, and charming, waiting around after the event to greet friends old and new, and pose for photographs.

During his keynote address, Strickland talked about the importance of protecting what he called “our most precious right,” the right to vote.

He said he’s proud of his vote against the war in Iraq, which, he maintained, led directly to the tumultuous current situation in that region of the world with the extremist group widely known as ISIS (whom I prefer to call “Daesh,” because it’s as insulting to them as they are to human decency).

“It was a tragic decision that still has this country bogged down,” Strickland said, slamming the George W. Bush administration and others who called for the war. He said he is not a pacifist but that “we cannot maintain a constant state of war against the rest of world.”

Strickland also criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the doorway it opened to massive campaign donations by corporate interests, pointing specifically to major Republican Party donors David and Charles Koch.

“We are in danger of having our country bought and sold,” Strickland said.

He said that Democrats need to stand up for what they believe in, including equal pay for equal work, equal marriage rights, a fair minimum wage that provides a livable income, and a strong and diplomatic foreign policy.

“I’m a progressive Democrat,” Strickland declared, “and I’m getting more progressive by the day.”

Also that night, state Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, of Ohio’s 30th Senate District, recalled his grandfather’s emigration from Italy in search of the American dream. He called Strickland his political mentor.

“Gov. Strickland is running for U.S. Senate to give the people of this state the same opportunities that my grandfather sought for his family: The American dream – the ability to work hard, to play by the rules, to get ahead and provide for your family,” Gentile said. “His candidacy is so important to our state and our region. Ted Strickland is the embodiment of a child of Appalachia.”

And state Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, of Ohio’s 94th House district, talked about the challenges she’s seen at the Ohio Statehouse as they’ve struggled to shape Ohio’s next budget.

“I believe budgets are moral documents. They show what our priorities are. They show what our values are,” she said. The budget proposed by Gov. Kasich, she said, will hurt people. “What we were given by Gov. Kasich to work with is unconscionable.”

Retired Athens County Common Pleas Judge L. Alan Goldsberry, a longtime party member, also spoke about his concerns over the changes he’s seen in the Republican Party.

“I believe our opponents are more vicious and less responsible than I have seen them,” he said. He called on Democrats to circle the wagons and “challenge idiocy.” He said they need to learn to be fearless but fair, and to focus on recruitment efforts.

“We have to do our part. We have to start here. We have to be a tight-knit group that cares about each other and cares about our country,” he said.

At the end of the evening, I waited around for Gov. Strickland as he politely greeted dozens of Athenians. When I got the opportunity, I reintroduced myself, as it has been several years since I last had the opportunity to speak with him in person.

“Plunderbund!” he exclaimed as I mentioned my affiliation with this great and noble website, and he told me all about his work with the CAP’s ThinkProgress blog, an essential daily stop on the information superhighway for yrs. truly.

The former governor seemed to me as strong as ever, and as ready as ever for the good fight that lies ahead. I’m happy to see him back on the trail throwing some punches.

David DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure 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.