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At Final Cabinet Gathering, John Kasich Reflects

Ohio Gov. John Kasich sits for an interview with The Associated Press at the Ohio Governor's Residence and Heritage Garden, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Columbus.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
Ohio Gov. John Kasich sits for an interview with The Associated Press at the Ohio Governor's Residence and Heritage Garden, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Columbus.

It was classic John Kasich.

At a wide-ranging final meeting with top advisers, the outspoken governor of Ohio reveled in big accomplishments, lamented defeats, recounted challenges, ribbed staff, castigated fellow Republicans and ordered at least one more program begun: "You got 24 hours. Do it."

Kasich granted The Associated Press exclusive access to the last Cabinet meeting, held Monday, a four-hour gathering of 22 agency heads, key aides and a spiritual adviser in his ceremonial Statehouse office.

He shared behind-the-scenes accounts of many of the biggest news events of the past eight years, including the state's deadliest school shooting, threats of a dam failure, an Ebola scare and a battle with fellow Republicans in the Legislature over Medicaid expansion.

Cabinet members got their own chance to recall brusque or pointed job interviews with a governor criticized eight years ago for being brash and often insensitive, including the male interviewee who helped Kasich push his wife's car into the garage, only to be told the governor was thinking the job best suited a woman.

The two-time presidential contender ends his eight-year tenure Sunday, due to term limits. He's weighing another White House bid or a return to cable television.

The meeting's prevailing theme was victory over cumbersome bureaucracies, special interests and old-style thinking, a mindset Kasich characterized as "all about change."

"Every single thing we're talking about is knocking down the traditional barriers that have stood in the way of change," he told the group. "So, wherever you go in life, it's worth being a change agent. That's how you're youthful, exciting and looking forward."

Kasich and his advisers reviewed the 24/7 nature of handling crisis. He was at a well-lubricated New Year's Eve party in 2011 when informed there'd been an earthquake near an injection well in Youngstown, and at the gym when he was informed of Ohio's deadliest school shooting .

He said he wanted to visit Chardon High School that day, but without disrupting emergency operations. He had a state trooper drive him there.

"I told the trooper, I said drive the car around to the back. I don't want anybody to know we're here," he said. Kasich said he got a personal briefing from school officials and worked to mobilize state help.

The governor also recalled going back and forth with then-Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins during an overnight phone call over how to handle a crisis involving the safety of the city's drinking water in summer 2014.

"I said, 'Mayor, I wouldn't drink that water if it was the last water left in Ohio," Kasich told the Cabinet.

Aides also recounted "a little incident with the CDC" — when Centers for Disease Control experts were apparently unable to get to Ohio quickly enough during a 2014 Ebola scare and a Kasich staffer put a $16,000 chartered plane on a state credit card. The CDC confirmed the story.

"We should have put the Reaganomics on that credit card," Kasich joked.

Kasich confessed to advisers that he was "very, very concerned" for his well-being after he granted condemned child killer Ronald Phillips' request to delay his execution. The family of Phillips' victim was livid after Kasich agreed to a delay Phillips said related to wanting to donate a kidney to his mother.

"I thought, look, this guy is going to be executed and he wanted to do something good, for his mother, let's let him do it," Kasich recalled. "There were a number of people in the room who thought it was a con job. Well, guess what? It was. There was no match, there was no nothing."

Kasich called the family of Phillips' victim and "got a blast through the phone." He said he learned from the experience and the next time he reprieved a killer, he met personally with the family. It was still a tense meeting, but he said he shared the story of his parents' death at the hands of a drunk driver and his "evolution about forgiveness" and it seemed to calm tensions in the room.

The 66-year-old Kasich, one of his party's most vocal detractors of President Donald Trump, said he leaves office with his share of disappointments, including failing to entirely eliminate Ohio's income tax and failing to implement a more aggressive approachto regulating the persistent algae blooms in Lake Erie.

"One of the things I wish we'd done was the business up there with Lake Erie," he told advisers. "And that's one where the special interests won, and they distort it and all that other nonsense. But you can't win 'em all."