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Teachings From My Father at the Ohio Protest

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I remember well the day when a vote to extend some small benefit to the Ohio National Guard came to the floor. The vote was 98 to 1, with dad voting against the measure. When we walked together back to our office I said, "Ok pop, what was that about?" He said, "In 1937 your grandfather stood on a strike line and was roughed up by some guardsman. I waited a long time to pay them back." I just wish he would have told me before the vote.
- Bob Hagan

On Tuesday at the Ohio Statehouse, the battle over collective bargaining rights in Ohio gave my father and I the chance to conduct a "take each other to work" day. But this wasn't the first time he navigated the Capitol building as father and son. In 1986 -- Bob Hagan's first term in the Ohio House of Representatives -- he and his dad, Robert E. Hagan, became the first father-son duo to serve in the Ohio legislature at the same time.

A locomotive engineer for more than 30 years, my dad worked as a union leader in the 80s before running for public office. With a passion for the people around him and a deep-rooted belief in the potential for progressive change, he embodies the antithesis of a millennial like me. However, the protests over Ohio's Senate Bill 5 -- a piece of legislation that would limit state worker's rights to collective bargaining among a host of other infringements -- reconnected me to the complex workings of a radical 25-year legislator.

By 1:00 that afternoon, the hordes of workers and students that had descended on Columbus gathered outside the third street entrance to the Capitol building. A sea of protesters clad in union jackets shout, "Kill the bill" to the faint tunes of faraway bagpipes.

The State Highway patrol placed strict limitations on the number of people allowed to access the building, but my dad dragged me in anyway. He had just managed to negotiate the entry of 500 more, he said excitedly.

Inside, a sizable group camped out in the atrium. Soon, we join Ted Strickland, the former governor of Ohio, and Tim Ryan, the current congressman from Youngstown, in an elevator. My dad tried to convince Strickland to speak from a balcony in the atrium overlooking the rally below. From this podium, the deposed head of state could deliver an address befitting a monarch. The only problem -- no one is allowed up.

Ever the statesmen, Congressman Ryan advised caution, saying, "Hold up a second. We have to be careful." My dad enthusiastically reminded everyone, "There's no one up here to stop us." For a few moments in the hallway, they all pause. Strickland is shorter than I remember as governor. He seems nervous, unsure if challenging the supposed ban on the balcony would prompt an embarrassing expulsion by the Highway Patrol. The crowd, chanting, "Ted, Ted, Ted," ultimately make the decision.

As the former governor steps slowly into view, the room erupts. In the style of any classic opposition figure, Strickland speaks swiftly and throws the force of his body into his flailing arms. As he descends and crosses through the crowd, a mustachioed 35-year teacher and Ohio Education Association member named Adrian Smith grabs him by the arm and looks him square in the eyes. "You're the real governor," he said.

Still ablaze with excitement, I interviewed the political phoenix. Yet, to tell the truth, my racing thoughts made it impossible to listen. He discussed something about how Senate Bill 5 has "huge implications for higher education," and that "students need to become engaged and mobilized." He added, as if sensing I needed more, "this is more important than football and happy hour." Reminded that a scotch could calm my quivering hands, I agree.

To my father, who never went to college, my experiences at Oberlin are shared. Like many of the laborers squeezed in the Capitol, he worked to provide not just the status and knowledge of college, but that happy hour also.

My dad wasted no time rallying the multitudes stranded in the cold. He burst out the door, jumped up on the colonnade -- right in between two unfluted neoclassical columns -- and exclaimed, "Who wants respect? They don't think we deserve it." He moves with the patient elegance of a train driver. The snow embellishes a light dusting of dandruff on his shoulders, the bronze statues around him fade into oblivion. Damn, he's good at this.

Negotiations between Democratic representatives and the State Highway Patrol to grant further access to the building hit a snag when the crowd pushed one protester into the locked doors, injuring her and forcing brief, but distracting, attention. No more people are coming through that door.

Minutes later, Democratic senators and representatives perform a wonderfully orchestrated press conference. Claiming that an unidentified "they" is barring entry into "their own house," Senate minority leader Armond Budish held up hundreds of denied witness slips requesting to testify in committee. Budish declared they had already filed an injunction demanding that the entrances open.

After the mysterious powers that be cave in, the halls quickly swelled, cold faces find comfort in union chants and senatorial aids caught glimpses of Congressman Dennis Kucinich lurking in the wings. Vivaldi seeps from the speakers in the rotunda. The Capitol is like a jungle gym. My father bounds up the steps, two at a time. You can't wipe the smile off his face. He decides we're all taking the elevator -- for fun. "When I first got here," he chuckles, "They used to say, 'Here comes Hagan to camp Statehouse.'"

As we leave, my dad and I pass through a parking deck and into a glossy new building basement. The walls and floor are made of a cheap turquoise plastic concoction. My father points to an empty corner, "That's where your grandpa and I would get our shoes shined." I want to ask if it cost him a nickel back then, but I bit my tongue. Instead, I wonder if any other living soul ever thinks about that corner.

As we march down the corridor, I can understand him better. He knows that he ran for office to protect his friends and fellow workers. He knows that collective bargaining is the central way to oppose the powers of oppression. He knows he is morally right. He knows he's having fun. He knows so much. I just hope he lets me in on his secret before it's my time to vote.