Explaining how Ohio ‘really works’

Columnist Thomas Suddes works in the political "lab" that is the Buckeye State

During the somewhat less frantic months of the presidential campaign season—between the primaries and the nominating conventions—the Swing States Project will feature occasional profiles of people we’re calling, for lack of a better phrase, discourse leaders. These are people in the press—TV or radio hosts, newspaper columnists, people with important online presences—in battleground states who in one way or another help to lead substantive and civil political conversation.

Below, T.C. Brown, the Swing State Project’s Ohio correspondent, writes about a “sharp voice” in his state.

OHIO — Thomas Suddes has a long, distinguished journalistic history. But during a recent discussion about the state of politics, he mentioned a term he picked up from a student at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, where Suddes is an adjunct professor—optic.

“The appearance or style of the candidate or campaign is becoming more important because we are a more visual culture,” said Suddes, 64. “The press is looking for a slip up or for them to say something dumb, as opposed to how that person is performing or how they performed in the past.

“I think it detracts away from coverage of the candidate or their set of policies. Too often we don’t look at how things might affect an actual person,” he continued. “Our mission is to cover government fundamentally, to explain how things really work, not how they say things should work.”

Explaining “how things really work” is one of the things Suddes does best—as in a recent column for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland describing how state lawmakers in both parties here play games with the budget to reward their benefactors.

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Suddes worked stints at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Des Moines Register and Tribune, Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, NH, and the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, MI, before joining the PD in 1982. A year later, he transferred to the paper’s Columbus bureau, where he covered the Ohio General Assembly and politics for 17 years and served as bureau chief. (Disclosure: Suddes and I were long-time colleagues at the PD’s Statehouse Bureau.)

While serving as president of the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association, Suddes was instrumental in preserving reporters’ access to the floors of the Ohio House and Senate and also in expanding the Statehouse pressroom.

He left the news business in 2000 to pursue graduate study at Ohio University. He graduated in 2009 with a Ph.D. in mass communication, and has been teaching and writing ever since. A member of the Plain Dealer’s editorial board, Suddes now writes weekly political columns that appear in the PD, The Columbus Dispatch, the Dayton Daily News and the Springfield News-Sun, and also tackles political topics for Columbus Monthly magazine.

So while Suddes most often writes about Ohio politics, he’s well-equipped to explain what’s happening as the Buckeye State becomes a teeming hive of national political activity. Third-party interest groups are pouring millions of ad dollars into the state, as the Dispatch reported last week, and President Obama and Mitt Romney, each of whom have been targets of recent Suddes columns, are all but applying for temporary resident status.

“Ohio is a great place; we are such a lab politically,” Suddes said. He exhorted the press to step up its coverage, though he acknowledged ordinary voters are not yet tuned in to the campaign: “People are not going to pay much attention until after the World Series and the kids are back in school, unless something horrible happens.” (For these voters, he says, the barrage of early ads is “like Muzak on an elevator.”)

As the political activity ratchets up, Suddes’s voice—and his “encyclopedic” knowledge of the state’s political history—is one that the candidates, and the public, should heed, said Elizabeth Sullivan, the PD’s editorial page editor.

“You can’t win Ohio without understanding Ohio, and to understand Ohio you have to read Suddes’s column,” Sullivan said.

“He’s a voracious reader and researcher and he knows these facts about Ohio that some think are trivial, but they illuminate how the state functions as a political animal,” she added. “Sometimes you think he has been around a couple of hundred years.”

Suddes delivers those age-old insights with a sharp, acerbic wit that makes you laugh as you shake your head in agreement (or wince, if you’re the target). His columns aim less to “host the discourse” than to shape it—an approach that can ruffle some feathers.

“Every so often someone stops me and asks ‘Are you the guy who wrote something in the paper?’” he said. “I say yes, but also look to see if they are carrying a bludgeon.”

But even as he colorfully attacks lawmakers for self-dealing or explains how term limits make it harder to hold legislators accountable, Suddes argues eloquently for more reasoned political debate. He often critiques a political and media culture that penalizes elected officials simply for going off-script. And in a column last December, he wrote about why Ohioans, and Americans, need to be able to disagree without being destructive:

At the Statehouse, no, they shouldn’t “all get along.” People “all get along” only when forced to, in such hellholes as North Korea. Democracy is arguments and competing interests. But democracy also aims at solving common problems. And that will never happen if every public officeholder’s destiny is failure.

As for how the media is faring in this campaign, Suddes said he pays little attention to political blogs. But he thinks the additional scrutiny of candidates and campaigns today is a good thing on balance.

“Things are getting incrementally better this time. There are more people looking for fresh angles, although a lot of it has to do with the optics, or packaging or choreography (of campaigns),” he said. “It’s not radically better, but it’s not worse.”

The press does, however, obsess too much over the “undecided voter,” Suddes said.

“I’m not sure there are a huge number of undecided voters that go back and forth between elections,” he said. “It’s a fantasy to think that people walk into the voter’s booth as if they are a blank slate.”

In terms of national coverage, Suddes is surprised that there is so little dialogue about the war in Afghanistan, America’s overseas commitments, and international trade—a perennial issue of concern here in Ohio.

Wherever the campaign goes over the coming months, Suddes will be on hand to help readers make sense of it, and to understand where today’s politics falls short and how it could be better. As the Free Times of Cleveland wrote in 2002, when it named him the area’s top local journalist: “Tom Suddes: He’s a consistent, sharp voice about what’s going on in Columbus, and one of the only reporters who understands why Ohio is governed by a group of bozos.”

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.