The Hyatt Regency ballroom in Columbus is packed. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister is blasting amid the revelry. Two teachers and a firefighter are surrounded by dozens of working people—folks who rarely find themselves standing on a stage in front of thousands of supporters—to announce the once unthinkable: Ohio Senate Bill 5 is dead.

With 61 percent of the vote, Ohioans overwhelmingly supported their everyday heroes, rejecting a law that curtailed collective bargaining rights for state workers.

A year after a national GOP landslide that saw the emergence of Republican governors and Republican legislative majorities in Ohio and elsewhere, this result was a stinging rebuke to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and to a Republican-led state legislature that was hell-bent on trying to trounce the rights of Ohio workers.      

The crushing defeat of Senate Bill 5 was not happenstance. It was the result of a well-calculated campaign plan, which hinged on using earned media to put the faces and voices of real middle class Ohioans front and center. The fight for the middle class had started months earlier, but on Election night the core themes remained the same: rights, safety, jobs, community, and fairness. From May until November, We Are Ohio held more than 520 news conferences in every region of the state, consistently hammering home the underlying message that S.B. 5 was unfair, unsafe and would hurt the state’s local communities.

We decided early on that we’d win this battle with the very people who were being attacked—the public employees themselves. We would feature their stories, their faces, and their voices. Our opponents wanted to paint public employees as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts with a target on their backs. We countered by portraying them as three-dimensional: they delivered vital public services, they were friends, family, neighbors, volunteers and fellow churchgoers; and they spent their wages in their communities as customers helping to drive local economic engines.

For all the national media attention heaped on this initiative, understand that to win big in Ohio it is just as important to be on the front page of the Marietta Times as it is to be on the front page of the New York Times. New tools emerge every day to help campaigns drive their message, but nothing replaces good old fashioned hard work and strong relationships with the media when it comes to winning the message battle. That was our starting point.

Cold February Days

The eyes of the nation were largely on Wisconsin in February 2011 when extreme politicians in Ohio began their own quest to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public employees. But unlike Wisconsin, Ohio’s legislation went further and included firefighters and police officers. It also included provisions which made it illegal for them to bargain over safe staffing levels. Thousands marched, packed protests and sat in the Ohio Statehouse to show their disdain for the legislation and the flawed legislative process. 

In Wisconsin, legislators fled the state in an attempt to stop GOP lawmakers from moving forward with legislation to roll back collective bargaining rights. Talk of individual recall elections began. While the focus in Wisconsin remained on the massive protests taking place at the state capitol, we made a conscious decision to move away from the statehouse in Ohio, knowing that defeating S.B. 5 wasn’t likely. Ohio doesn’t have a recall option for public officials. We rightly figured that Ohioans would be left with only one path: a referendum, which we dubbed a citizen’s veto of S.B. 5 to empower our supporters. And so we went to work preparing for the eventual fight long before S.B. 5 won passage.    

To win a citizen’s veto through a referendum we would need to win in all corners of the state—not just Columbus. To have a real chance, we knew it was time to start pushing out the message to all 88 counties. Democratic members of the House and Senate began holding town hall meetings and rallies in an effort to allow their constituents the opportunity to speak since they were being literally locked out of their statehouse. In near blizzard conditions, hundreds of people crowded into small meeting spaces all across Ohio. Local newspapers and television and radio stations covered every meeting and rally. Opponents of the bill were already dominating media coverage.

The task to stop a law in Ohio is no small one. It takes serious manpower, a strong communications, field and outreach infrastructure; sophisticated technology and sheer determination. The building blocks were in place and when Kasich signed S.B. 5 into law in late March, we had just 90 days to collect 231,149 valid signatures to get this on the ballot.