When the late George Voinovich entered the state and national political arena, he whimsically referred to his ethnic heritage by acknowledging that many people wanted to know whether he spoke English. He was, after all, a working class Collinwood Clevelander – a town where ethnicity was forever regarded as a loyalty oath. At any given moment, more than 10 nationality papers were circulating in the Old World east side neighborhoods with church steeples reflecting the identities of the worshippers. Voinovich – “Voino” to those who couldn’t quite pronounce it downstate – was very much nurtured by his Serbian Slovenian culture.

Jim Rhodes, seeking his fourth term as a sly sit-whittle-and-spit Republican from Coalton, Oh., was not oblivious to Voinovich’s strength in precincts loaded with hard- to- pronounce voters’ names. Rhodes chose him to run as lieutenant governor, a thankless role but utilitarian in places like Karlin Hall, the social center in a Polish-Slovenian Cleveland enclave. It was a place where you could let your hair down and join in homespun fun and old women could burst up to the Republican governor and demand that he join her in a polka.

Nonplussed, Rhodes thanked her but pointed to his ankle, explaining that he physically – at that moment! – could not dance. She nodded and said she hoped it got better. It was another Rhodes ruse, but like most things in his long political career, it worked.

Political narratives were so much different in 1978. Voinovich, with Rhodes at his side, referred to Democratic rival Richard Celeste, as a “Brooks Brothers ethnic” , which seemed to be the only issue the crowd cared about. Celeste later responded that he was an Italian and had never been inside a Brooks Brothers store. Suffice it to remind everyone that Rhodes was elected with a helping hand from ethnics.

Those words in the Karlin Hall set off a series of questions and rebuttals. Steve Kovacik, a Clevelander who managed John Glenn’s outreach to nationality groups, exploded that his own parents had come to America with hopes to “put me in a Brooks Brothers suit”. Dennis Kucinich swore that Perk wore $300 suits, which led the livid mayor to go around exposing the label on his coat that disproved Kucinich’s unthinkable insults.

All of this may sound a bit of a stretch these days when the Republicans will likely have a candidate who not-so-cryptically refers to the president as a traitor. But in the heyday of Cleveland politics that produced Sen. Frank Lausche, a very conservative Democrat who fancied there were a lot of
Communists in Congress, a hyperkinetic Kucinich and a pompous Ralph Perk, ethnicity counted.

With Voinovich, .whether if be ideology, religion or lifestyle, it was possible to fiercely disagree with him on some points and still walk away with good feelings that he was an honorable man. Pragmatic, ready to grow in the jobs of mayor, senator, governor, but deeply wedded to his own personal beliefs about his obligation to human beings with the deepest feelings about the times that he had failed in that mission. The obits will tell you that he was frugal, that he once fished a penny from a urinal, that he often defied GOP protocol to raise taxes to meet critical needs and defied the gospel of Ronald
Reagan on occasion. He also slipped to negatives against Howard Metzenblum that left us questioning his political judgment. But overall, the scale balanced in his favor on other matters.

Frugal? When I visited him at his East Side home near Lake Erie, I was surprised to find a quite modest place that did not reflect the trappings of a senator or governor. His private home life with his wife Janet was lived without pretense as he did as a workday politician. A few days after the visit, I got a letter from him signed “Your Ethnic Friend”. With George, it was a mark of sincerity, not politics as usual. But he would have trouble surviving a party primary now, no matter the label on his suit.