Ohio’s Zack Space: The Accidental Congressman?

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Rep. Zack Space meets with hospital officials in Nelsonville, OH. Space represents the 18th congressional district.(Photo: Photo: Sam Hendren)
Rep. Zack Space meets with hospital officials in Nelsonville, OH. Space represents the 18th congressional district.(Photo: Photo: Sam Hendren)

First term Rep. Zack Space is back home in Ohio’s 18th District making the rounds while Congress is in summer recess. Some critics call him ‘the accidental congressman.’ Space, a Democrat, is the first to admit he would not be in office today had it not been for the downfall of his predecessor, Republican Bob Ney. Even though the next election is more than a year away, Space is already campaigning. And so is the opposition.

Space spent a recent afternoon at the Muskingum County Fair in Zanesville. For more than an hour he was in the hog arena updating a handful of farm families on the new farm bill making its way through Congress.”Can you hear me,” asked Space. “Would it be better if I talk through the mic? That’s regrettable, I hate these things.”

The 18th district is rural and poor where people are only half as likely to get a college degree than the national average. It’s also been a conservative district politically. 57% of voters cast ballots for President Bush in 2004. But Democrat Space was the surprise winner last year when Republican Bob Ney became embroiled in the Abramoff corruption scandal and withdrew from the race.

“Bob Ney was very popular,” Space says. “There was no way that Zach Space was going to beat Bob Ney in 2004 and 2002. And when he did what he did, he betrayed everyone in this district. He continued to deny, deny, deny. And when this house of cards collapsed, there was this utter sense of betrayal.”

Space describes himself as a Blue Dog Democrat, who often bucks the Democratic leadership in Congress. While he supports embryonic stem cell research and taxing the wealthiest Americans to help pay toward health care for the uninsured, he also supports the right to own a firearm. He decries the power special interests wield on Capitol Hill at the expense of working families. He wants to fix the immigration crisis but not before amending the trade policies that he says encourage the influx of illegals. He says he doesn’t think that puts him at odds with the people in the district.

“It’s not that difficult to make that connection anymore with these folks,” Space says. “When you talk about foreclosures, bankruptcies, plants shutting down, they can identify with it. If they haven’t, they have a relative who has been.”

Space has been reaching out to voters all across the district during the summer recess, traveling to public events seven days a week. He’s touring all of the district’s hospitals – more than 20 – before lawmakers reconvene September 4th.

His opponents are also hard at work. Several Republicans have announced they’ll run in the primary for the chance to unseat Space in the next election. The biggest name candidate is former state agriculture director Fred Dailey. But there are others.

“My name is Jeannette Moll and I am a Republican Candidate for the 18th US Congressional District. I’m running as an outsider, to quote Ronald Reagan, I’m an outsider and not the status quo, I’m a choice not an echo, and I’m running on a platform of ethics and integrity.”

Moll and another republican were politicking at the fair the day Zack Space was there. Candidate Mike Carey says Space’s election had more to do with the public’s dissatisfaction with Congress.

“As a Republican I clearly believe that we have the ideas to move this country forward,” Carey says. “If you truly look at this as a mandate on Democratic ideas, it was not. It was voters wanting change. And when you look at Congress right now with a 17% approval rating, I would say that any Democrat running in a seat that had been Republican better really watch how they’re voting and better watch what they’re saying.

Congressman Space says he’s already doing that — voting judiciously in a way that’s calculated to benefit his constituents. He says he’ll leave the rest up to the voters in Southeast Ohio.

“If I get sent packing I’ll know I did everything I could to be the best member of Congress I could be,” Space says. And if I win I’ll continue to work very hard and be mindful of why I’m there.”