Gilligan’s Island of Good Governing

By Nick Watts, Guest Writer

Aug. 26 marked 10 years since the death of former Ohio Governor John Joyce “Jack” Gilligan. To mark the anniversary, I think it would be appropriate to briefly delve into a crucial moment in his career to remind ourselves of what genuine and selfless public service can look like. 

Recently, I came across the title of his biography, John J. Gilligan: The Politics of Principle by Mark Bernstein. I discovered a man who was raised in my hometown of Cincinnati and went on to become the 62nd Governor of Ohio, only to have his governorship undone by what I believe to be a truly selfless act of political courage. 

The selfless act in question was establishing the state income tax of Ohio. Elected governor in 1970, Gilligan campaigned on a bold vision calling for the creation of the new income tax in contrast to a sales or property tax that he believed had a disproportionately negative impact on low-income and elderly Ohioans. 

On March 1, 1971, Gilligan went before both Republican-controlled bodies of the Ohio Legislature to lay out his detailed vision for the state income tax. He called for increased funding for schools, citing the fact that 13 Ohio school districts had been forced to shut down within the previous three years. He also voiced support for reforming the mental institutions of Ohio. They “would rather see their children dead than placed in an Ohio institution,” two mothers of mentally ill patients said. 

Next, he addressed the issue of the environment, asserting that Ohio needed to stand up in defense of its natural beauty. Indeed, Ohio’s environmental plight was dire. It had been only nine months earlier that the Cuyahoga River had caught fire. “If we do want these things, and I believe we do, then we must face the fact that we must pay for them,” he said. 

To finance the improvements Ohio desperately required, Gilligan stood unwaveringly by his commitment to introduce an income tax in the state. 

Amid chaotic negotiations between Gilligan and the Republican-majority legislature, he wasn’t making many friends. Even the Democratic State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Calabrese told reporters that Gilligan, his fellow Democrat, was a “son of a b*tch.” Regardless, he pressed onward. 

Left with few methods of persuading the legislators to act, he implemented the wildly unpopular austerity program in which hundreds of state employees were fired, funding to some state services was halted or reduced and many large state parks closed. The backlash was swift and severe. Angry citizens of Clermont County went as far as to burn the governor in effigy at Stonelick State Park. 

“The plain and simple fact is that we have not been able to find a majority of votes on either side of the aisle who are willing to stand up — who have the courage to stand up — and say this is what Ohio needs,” Gilligan said. 

No matter how grim the outlook at any one point, Gilligan never gave up the fight for what he believed in, and Ohioans are better off today because of it. Not only did the income tax finally pass after months of delay, but it significantly alleviated the funding crisis facing Ohio’s schools, mental institutions and the environment, helping and saving the lives of many. Ohio continues to benefit from the income tax to this day, including the $10.8 billion it brought in for state services in the fiscal year 2021. 

“Gilligan’s defeat is a more tragic loss for the state than for himself. Gilligan had the courage to challenge the state to meet its responsibilities. He did things for the people that most politicians only talk about,” the Lorain Journal said about his 1974 gubernatorial loss.

It is because of his undaunted courage in the face of such fierce political backlash that our 62nd Governor of Ohio John Joyce Gilligan will forever serve as a venerable inspiration and reminder to me that public service can still be among the noblest of callings.