The Dedicated Budgeteer

Even in a Republican year like 2010, unseating an incumbent Democratic U.S. representative by a 52%-to-40% margin is extraordinary.

So how, I asked Republican Rep.-elect Jim Renacci, did he manage to unseat Democratic Rep. John Boccieri that resoundingly in Ohio’s 16th District tin November?

“I guess because I got 12% more of the vote than he did!” said Renacci with a laugh.

There were, of course, many factors involved in that victory by small businessman Renacci, a former mayor of Wadsworth, Ohio. Even with the national Republican trend, GOPers in the Buckeye State did have a particularly mighty sweep. John Kasich won the governorship and Rob Portman a U.S. Senate seat and Republicans romped to victory in contests for every statewide office. They also took control of both houses of the state legislature and unseated five Democratic U.S. House members.

There was also the nature of the 16th District. With the exception of the city of Canton, the district is strongly Republican. For 58 unbroken years, the 16th sent a Republican to Congress: conservative Frank T. Bow from 1950-72 and then the more moderate Ralph Regula from 1972-2008. When Regula retired two years ago, the combination of a divisive GOP primary and Barack Obama’s strong showing in Ohio were key to Boccieri’s winning the seat.

In contrast, the 52-year-old Renacci (who is more like Bow than Regula) unified fellow Republicans after winning the three-candidate primary and was promptly targeted as a heavyweight contender by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“But please don’t attribute [the results] to a changed political climate,” Renacci told me. “From my campaigning, I realize that people felt they were not represented in Congress. I felt the same way and that’s one reason I ran. I felt people needed a congressman who will listen to them.”

Renacci cited the fact that Boccieri, like a number of Democratic incumbents, held no town hall meetings in person except for what he billed as “teleconferences.” In contrast, the newly minted Republican congressman plans “a string of town hall meetings throughout the district during the first year—starting with one in January, a week after I’m sworn in. And constituents can ask and talk about any issue they choose.”

‘Cut Out Donuts’

Balancing budgets, cutting waste and turn in a profit or surplus have been a way of life for Jim Renacci. A graduate of Indiana University in Indiana, Pa. (“That’s Jimmy Stewart’s hometown!”), the young Renacci worked briefly for the Grant-Thornton accounting firm (“In the ‘Big Eight,’ we were ‘Number Nine’”) and, at 24, went out on his own. He owned and operated assisted-care facilities, eventually building up to a chain of 23 with 2000 employees. Renacci sold the chain, then launched his own CPA firm. Along with this firm, the young entrepreneur oversaw 40 businesses ranging from a Chevrolet dealership to the Lancaster Jethawks minor league baseball team.

Following stints on the local Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals and then the City Council in Wadsworth, Renacci became mayor of the town of 25,000. From 2004-08, he applied his business acumen to his town’s $80 million budget.

“And we not only cut spending, we came up with a surplus without a single tax increase,” he proudly told me, “and that’s what I want to do in Washington.”

Soon-to-be Rep. Renacci is “thrilled” to win assignment to the House Budget Committee. Recalling his days of making ends meet in one of his businesses, the Ohioan noted that “we cut out donuts in the office. Now you may think that’s nothing important, but when you deal with little things, you show that you are serious about your business. And that’s what I want to do: Look at every government program carefully, cut out as much waste as we can, and make it run efficiently. And, yes, that includes entitlements.

“Listen, it’s the only way our government will survive.”

Would cutting waste from programs include those dealing with the military? Without hesitation, Renacci replied: “I strongly believe in the military, but I also believe the military has to operate efficiently. That means dealing with wasteful spending there as well as on the domestic front.”

Renacci also said he would never have voted for government bailouts “for businesses that should have known better” and was “happy that the tax cuts of ’01 and ’03 survived for two more years, but disappointed they weren’t made permanent. Anything that gives business certainty and helps creates jobs ought to be permanent.”

As certain as he is about so much on the spending front, Jim Renacci hesitated when I asked whether or not he would vote to raise the debt ceiling when it came up in Congress later this year: “I don’t like running up debts, but I also don’t know yet what the ramifications would be if we don’t do this. But I’m sure going to learn all I can about it. You see, in business, you
always try to become the most knowledgeable to make the right decision.”

So as a freshman congressman, Ohio’s Jim Renacci will be studying, reading, asking questions and learning. In the process, it seems very likely as well he will be teaching his colleagues some things they didn’t know.