By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
State Sen. Randy Gardner’s dedication is unquestionable. Some may be critical of his politics – but many of those will confide that Gardner’s commitment is indisputable.
During his 33 years in the Ohio House and Senate, he has never missed a vote. Since 1985, he has logged 10,423 consecutive roll call votes on bills, amendments and resolutions in his self-described “second home.”
And as Senate Majority Leader, he was beginning his 20th year in service to elected leadership positions in the General Assembly – more than any other Republican in Ohio history.
Come Monday, Gardner’s voting streak will end. But his service to Ohioans will continue as he is sworn in as the next chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education.
The decision to switch roles was made after great deliberation, Gardner said on Thursday afternoon.
“I have not had a job change since I’ve left the classroom at Otsego High School,” where he taught history.
“It’s been a privilege of a lifetime serving the people of northern Ohio,” he said.
But with term limits, Gardner faced just two years left as State Senator.
“I still have a great passion for serving,” he said.
“I looked at my opportunities to make a difference in the state,” he said. “It’s not because I’m rejecting what I’m doing now. I’ve enjoyed being Wood County’s voice at the Statehouse for more than 33 years.”
And the chancellor position pairs Gardner’s passions for education and public service. He has served as chairman of the higher education subcommittee in the House and Senate for the last eight years.
“That’s at least one strength I bring to the job,” he said.
Gardner’s move may unleash a flurry of interest in the Senate seat left vacant. The opening will be filled by the majority caucus in the Ohio Senate – for the remainder of the two years left on his term.
The Senate district covers all of Wood, Ottawa and Erie counties, plus portions of Lucas and Fulton counties.
Gardner leaves office with the hope that work he left unfinished will be completed in his stead.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve been increasingly concerned about school bus safety,” he said. “I’m hopeful that will be worked on in the next General Assembly.”
Then there’s his work on cleaning up Lake Erie, with water advocates, business, agriculture and local government leaders.
“To bring everyone to the table – that wasn’t done before,” Gardner said. The work resulted in plans for a bond issue supporting Lake Erie.
“I’m certain that will be part of the agenda in next year,” he said. “Obviously, I still have a lot of interest in a lot of issues.”
Gardner has a reputation for doing his homework and completing projects once he’s begun. During public meetings, he has been praised for being a friend to public education and services for people with disabilities. He has been a defender of funding for public libraries and higher education.
In Wood County, Gardner has helped secure large capital budget amounts for the Cocoon, the Wood County Senior Center and the Wood County Historical Center.
He is prompted to respond to issues after hearing from large crowds – or sometimes from one voice. The recently passed Sierah’s Law is an example of one family’s pain being transformed into legislation for a statewide violent offender database. In another case, a conversation with one BGSU employee led to an amendment allowing the sharing of sick time for university employees.
Gardner is at home in settings that some elected officials find uncomfortable.
He hosts town hall meetings – where the public input can be unexpected.
“I’ve always believed being accessible and listening to constituents to be among my most important responsibilities,” Gardner said. “Even when there is disagreement, citizens deserve to be heard.”
His answers to questions aren’t popular with some citizens – but he gets kudos from citizens for at least showing up and listening.
During a meeting of higher ranking GOP leaders in 2017 at the Stone Ridge Golf Club in Bowling Green, most politicians sped past the group of protesters lined up on sidewalks outside the club parking lot.
Though the protesters were trying to get the attention of national Republican leaders, it was Gardner who pulled over, got out and talked with the protesters for several minutes.
“He came up, shook hands and chatted,” one of the sign-holding protesters said. “Randy actually parked his car and got out.”
Last summer, Gardner joined BGSU President Rodney Rogers and OSU President Michael Drake for a public conversation about the lasting value of higher education.
“Higher education is a value to young people, a value to our communities, a value to our state,” Gardner said.
Both Rogers and Drake called Gardner a strong advocate for higher education. But state budgeting continues to be a big issue for universities. In the 1980s, state funding made up 60 percent of university budgets. That number is now closer to 23 percent.
“We seem to almost write budgets by anecdotes,” Gardner said. Legislators hear of someone’s child earning a four-year diploma then having to take a job as a janitor. They hear stories of too many people going into higher education, and degrees being worthless.
“People say that, but the statistics don’t yield that,” he said.
Higher education must show that it is relevant. “That’s what universities need to be evermore,” Gardner said.
Gardner believes in the “all of the above” education strategy for the state – with emphasis on the trades, community colleges, bachelor, master and doctorate programs.
“Whatever students and families want,” should be available in Ohio, he said. “We should open their eyes earlier to all the options open to them.”
Gardner is equally at ease with his younger constituents. He sometimes hosts the Constitution Day Jeopardy game for fifth graders at the Wood County District Public Library.
Once he finished quizzing the students, he allowed them to put him in the hot seat. The students posed question after question.
Has he ever wanted to be president? No, Gardner said, “I think that’s such a tough job.” The most difficult part would be as chief of the military and sending troops to war.
How can he stay in politics so long? “That’s what a lot of people are asking,” Gardner said, smiling. But he talked about his commitment to public service. “I love what I’m doing.”
What year did he start in politics? The answer of 1985 brought out a chorus of “oooohhs,” from the young audience. “Yes, Ohio was a state then. We were not a territory,” Gardner emphasized.
Gardner is not apologetic for his profession – as he explained to local citizens attending a “Civics 101” class held at a church last year.
“I know people are cynical about politics,” Gardner told the crowd. But individuals can make a difference in government. And despite what many people think, it’s not about the money for many politicians, he said.
“That’s not true for most,” Gardner said.
It’s about the chance meeting with a physician at a Kiwanis pancake breakfast about the need for children to carry their asthma inhalers at school, or an emotional plea from a mom about the need for children to have comprehensive eye exams.
“Sometimes it’s just one person” who starts the ball rolling on new legislation, Gardner said.
Local constituents are politicians’ bosses – based purely on their residency, not on their donations.
“Regardless of your politics – you are my boss,” Gardner said.
Gardner told of a talk he gave to Conneaut students. He informed them that they were his boss. Days later, he received a colorful thank you card from one of the students, signed “Your boss, Savannah.”
Local leaders have also appreciated Gardner’s willingness to listen to concerns during his three decades in the Statehouse.
“Working with Randy has always been a joy,” said Bowling Green Mayor Dick Edwards. Gardner is always accessible and responsive to local concerns, he said.
As a former university administrator, Edwards is pleased to see Gardner moving in that direction.
“It speaks to the confidence that Governor-Elect DeWine has in his ability,” Edwards said. “I think it bodes well for BGSU. I just know that Randy will work well with the colleges and universities, and the inter-university council.”
Bowling Green City Schools Superintendent Francis Scruci appreciates how Gardner understands education’s far-reaching impact to communities.
“The one thing you can count on with Randy Gardner is he’s a public education supporter,” Scruci said. “We always knew he was going to advocate as much as he could for schools.”
In recent years, Scruci had enlisted Gardner’s support for bus safety measures, school building safety, and state testing changes.
“He always makes himself available,” Scruci said. “For those of us in the trenches every day, it’s nice to have someone there willing to listen.”
Wood County Commissioner Doris Herringshaw echoed those sentiments.
“I would say that he is very fair. He’s willing to listen. And he really does his homework,” Herringshaw said. “With his love for education, this will be a good move for education and for him.”
“He’s not only respected in Wood County. He’s respected across the state,” she said.
As a Republican county commissioner, Herringshaw’s name is one that has surfaced as a possible replacement for Gardner.
“I’m leaving options open,” she said Thursday evening.
Also on the list of possible replacements in State Rep. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green.
“I’ve received a lot of calls today from people across the district,” asking her to consider, Gavarone said Thursday evening. “It will be something seriously considered.”
Gavarone has worked closely with Gardner on several issues affecting Wood County.
“He’s done an incredible job for the people here,” she said. “He’s been a great mentor to me.”
Gardner’s move to the chancellor position will be “great for him and great for Ohio,” Gavarone said.