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Ohio Has Had One Woman Governor. She Served For 11 Days

The portrait of former Gov. Nancy Hollister, who served in that role for only 11 days, hangs in The Ladies' Gallery at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Artists often put oil to canvas at this time of year to render official portraits of a governor or legislative leader who's coming or going from office.
Kantele Franko
The portrait of former Gov. Nancy Hollister, who served in that role for only 11 days, hangs in The Ladies' Gallery at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Artists often put oil to canvas at this time of year to render official portraits of a governor or legislative leader who's coming or going from office.

Nancy Hollister of Marietta is someone who truly deserves to be remembered in the annals of Ohio history.

Why, you ask?

Because most Ohioans – even those who were adults at the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999 – are completely unaware that Hollister was, in fact, the one and only woman to serve as Ohio's governor.

Ohio has been around as a state since 1803, admitted that year as the 17th state of the union.

That's about 80,000 days of statehood.

Ohio has had a woman governor for 11 of them.

There has never yet been a woman elected governor. Some people in Ohio look down their noses at Kentucky, but the Commonwealth elected its first and only woman governor, Martha Layne Collins, in 1982.

There is a chance this year for Ohio to have its first female elected governor in the person of former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley – if she wins the Democratic primary and the November general election. Lots of ifs there.

But a portrait of Hollister, Ohio's 66th governor, hangs in the Ohio Statehouse, even though she was never elected to the job and served for only 11 days.

It’s too bad, too, that she didn't have more time, because Nancy Hollister – the descendant of Rufus Putnam, a pioneering founder of the Northwest Territory, from which Ohio was carved – was a smart, funny, personable politician whom people immediately liked. I've always thought she would have made a great and very popular governor if she had only had the chance for a full four-year term.

But all she got was 11 days; and she has former Gov. George Voinovich to thank for those days.

Susan Walsh

Here's how it happened:

Hollister had served as a council member and mayor of her beloved city of Marietta (where she now lives in retirement from politics) when Voinovich recruited her in 1991 as his director of the Office of Appalachian Affairs. That made her the principle voice for 29 Appalachian counties that line the Ohio River from Clermont in the west to Belmont in the east.

"I think I'm where I am because I understand what people in small towns and rural counties want," Hollister told me one time, when I was covering politics for the Cincinnati Enquirer. "What they want is to be heard."

Voinovich was a big-city politician, a Republican politician who made his bones as a very popular mayor of Cleveland, overseeing that city's return from the brink of financial disaster.

Appalachia was not his strong suit, despite having gone to college at Ohio University in Athens, deep in the heart of the Appalachian foothills.

So, when Voinovich ran for re-election in 1994, he turned to Hollister to be his running mate for lieutenant governor. She was a good choice for two reasons: she was well-known to voters in southeast Ohio and because she was the first woman to be on an Ohio major party gubernatorial ticket, albeit as the second banana.

In reality, Voinovich didn't need much help getting re-elected.

He had a successful first term as governor, erasing a $1.5 billion deficit, reforming the welfare system, getting rid of unfunded mandates, among other things. And people liked him.

The Ohio Democratic Party did him a favor by running an incredibly weak candidate for governor – Rob Burch of the small town of Dover in Tuscarawas County. Burch was a state senator from eastern Ohio at the time; but virtually unknown outside the statehouse or his Senate district.

He had plenty of moxie and campaigned hard, but he had very little money, while Voinovich had the money bags – an $8 million campaign fund.

Burch ended up with only 25% of the vote – dangerously close to the 20% threshold to qualify the Ohio Democratic Party as a major political party under Ohio law.

And so, Nancy Hollister became Ohio's lieutenant governor.

In 1998, when Voinovich was term-limited and couldn't run for governor again, he jumped into the U.S. Senate race. He won that office easily; and on Dec. 31, a few days before he was to become a member of the U.S. Senate, he called Hollister into his office, with reporters and photographers in tow, and signed a resignation letter, which made Hollister governor.

She showed up for work every day, signed a few bills into law, appointed a few judges, but her days as governor were numbered. Republican Bob Taft of Cincinnati was elected governor in November and was sworn into office on January 11, ending Hollister's brief stint as governor.

Back in 1994, Voinovich's choice of Hollister as his running mate raised a lot of eyebrows among conservatives in the GOP, and particularly among the Right-to-Life activists who had backed Voinovich in the past. Hollister was a pro-choice Republican woman and not in the least bit hesitant to talk about it.

"The governor and I talked about it and I understand and respect his beliefs,'' Hollister told me on a 1994 campaign trip through southern Ohio. "I differ with him. I support parental notification, a 24-hour waiting period, but I believe a woman should have the right to choose.

"I disagree with him, but the fact is, he is the governor."

It wasn't the last time that Hollister stood in opposition to the most conservative wing of Ohio Republican politics.

In 1999, after her short time as governor, she was appointed to a southeast Ohio seat in the Ohio House. She won election in 2000 and 2002 with ease.

But 2004 posed a big problem for Hollister – a problem not of her own making.

That was the year a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriages was on the ballot in Ohio. It drove up turnout among conservative voters, particularly among Ohio's evangelicals. The ban was approved. It had the side effect of helping George W. Bush win a narrow victory over Democrat John Kerry in the presidential race – thus giving Bush a second term in the White House.

Hollister opposed the same sex marriage ban – not a popular position in the Republican Party in those days. It allowed a conservative Democrat, Jennifer Garrison, who supported the ban, to defeat Hollister in the general election.

She was not a politician who took a stand on tough issues by sticking her finger up in the air to see which way the wind was blowing.

And, after 47 years of covering politics, I can say she was one of the most delightful candidates I have ever covered.

"Delightful" and "candidate" are words I don't often use in the same sentence, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent around Nancy Hollister – smart, funny, didn't take herself so seriously and wasn’t scared of her own shadow. And someone politics writers could appreciate because she said what she meant and meant what she said.

I remember in particular a 1994 campaign swing through Clermont, Brown and Adams counties – part of her territory as Voinovich's Appalachian policy czar. I tagged along with the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor for the whole tour; and I remember it as a really good day.

She was still something of an oddity as the first woman on a major party gubernatorial ticket. But, wherever we went – small towns and farm country – the women we met looked at her with admiration. I think they had been waiting for a Nancy Hollister to come along in Ohio politics.

"Believe me, I understand the historical significance," Hollister told me. "But I am running not as a woman, but as a qualified individual."

She knew what her job was for the Voinovich campaign – to work the 75 of Ohio's 88 counties that are not urban centers. Particularly the Appalachian counties, where she was well-known to folks.

"Some people thought I was shot out of a cannon; that I suddenly appeared out of nowhere," Hollister told me. "But I've been around."

It was her familiarity with the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio that, on a crisp, sunny October day, landed us in West Union, Ohio, the county seat of Adams County. It is a county of great natural beauty and home to some of the most extreme poverty and chronic joblessness in Ohio.

Don Kirker, then the mayor of West Union, helped organize her campaign visit to the Adams County seat. He was delighted she was running with Voinovich.

"It would be great to have someone with some small town background in there,'' Kirker said. "A voice for rural communities."

We toured the Adams County Courthouse, a lovely piece of Georgian architecture that sits in the middle of the town square and has housed most of the county government since the early 20th century.

The candidate talked quilting with the county extension agent; compared notes on senior services with the senior center director; and nodded appreciatively as county employees pointed out the massive buck deer head mounted over the courthouse door.

"The third largest buck ever recorded in Ohio," said a county employee, puffing out his chest.

"Quite a buck head," Hollister said. "Never seen one that big." The employees were impressed – this politician knew her buck heads.

At the noon hour we ambled over to the 125 Café across the street from the courthouse, a once-popular lunch spot that, sadly, no longer exists. The old brick building was razed some years ago.

But on that October day in 1994, the 125 Café was hopping.

After putting in an order for a cheeseburger and fries, and a slice of chocolate pie made by the owner's wife, she worked the room like a pro – shaking hands with the farmers in bib overalls and local shopkeepers and their help, making small talk with folks about their families and their farms, and generally charming everyone in sight.

Finally, she sat down in a booth with me, the mayor and a campaign staffer to get a few bites of her cheeseburger and sample some of the apple crumb pie I was having.

"Mmmm… that's even better than the chocolate pie," she said. "I think I'll get that next time. Are you going to eat all of that?"

"Indeed I am," I said. "You keep your mitts off my apple pie."

She laughed.

As we left the diner, she made a promise to the lunch crowd.

"We're not just going to come here to West Union at election time," She said. "You'll see me again."

As always, Nancy Hollister was as good as her word.

She really did deserve more than 11 days as Ohio's governor.

Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.