Bloomberg News

Great-Grandmother Is Object of Dispute in Ohio’s Union Fight

October 19, 2011

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Before the fight over Ohio’s restrictions on state workers’ collective bargaining, 78-year- old Marlene Quinn was never involved in politics -- just the Girl Scouts and PTA.

Now each side contesting a Nov. 8 referendum on the law has produced commercials featuring Quinn, a Cincinnati mother of three, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of 23 with No. 24 on the way.

Quinn initially appeared in an ad for We Are Ohio, the coalition seeking to repeal the measure. She said firefighters who saved her son and 3-year-old great-granddaughter in November wouldn’t be able to negotiate for safe staffing levels. Then, the group backing the law ran an ad with the same footage to argue that if governments are unable to control costs, the emergency workers would be fired anyway.

“They stole my words and used me, really, for their benefit,” Quinn said in a telephone interview. “They think I’m a little old lady that can’t do or say anything. Wrong. They are so wrong.”

Quinn is demanding an apology, while Building a Better Ohio, the group supporting the law, said it did nothing wrong. Each campaign is using the controversy to raise money and sway voters on the so-called Issue 2, which both sides say is the nation’s most important referendum this year.

Governors Versus Unions

In March, Governor John Kasich signed the law that restricts bargaining for almost 360,000 employees to wages, hours and working conditions and requires them to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care insurance premiums and 10 percent toward pensions. The law, similar to one backed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker that triggered weeks of protests in Madison, is on hold pending the Nov. 8 vote.

Quinn, who turns 79 on Oct. 23, said she never imagined she would become embroiled in such a fight. A Cincinnati native, she is retired after jobs that included office work at 3M Co., assembly for NuTone Inc. and part-time security at a nursing home’s front desk. None was unionized, she said.

On the day of the fire, she arrived home to learn that her son, Jann, and great-granddaughter No. 15, Zoey, were hospitalized. They were unconscious and “snatched from death,” Paul Weber, a Cincinnati district fire chief who was there, said in a telephone interview.

“If it wasn’t for God and our fighters, they wouldn’t be with me today,” Quinn said.

Limp Kid

About 25 firefighters attended Zoey’s fourth birthday party in July, Quinn said. When they had to leave before getting cake, Quinn had one sent to the firehouse, she said.

When We Are Ohio approached her about a commercial, she was eager, Quinn said. In the ad, which shows a photo of a limp Zoey being carried down a ladder by a firefighter, Quinn says the law “makes it illegal to negotiate for enough firefighters to do their job” and “fewer fighters can mean the difference between life or death.”

The subsequent ad from Building a Better Ohio uses some of the same footage of Quinn and says, “She’s right.”

“Without Issue 2, communities will need to lay off hard- working firefighters to pay for the excessive benefits of other government employees,” the ad says. “Issue 2 protects our communities from losing those who protect us.”

Appropriating an Image

Whether the First Amendment protects the re-use of the footage isn’t clear, said Daniel P. Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and associate director of the university’s Election Law @ Moritz center.

“I don’t think this campaign ad is false,” Tokaji said in a telephone interview. “The real question is whether it’s misleading, and that’s a question on which I think reasonable minds might differ.”

Quinn and We Are Ohio said Building a Better Ohio used Quinn’s words without permission and twisted them to make it appear that she supported the law. The campaign’s attorney sent a letter to television stations demanding they pull the ad, calling it “false, misleading and deceptive.”

“They made me look like a goof,” Quinn said. “I’m saying ‘No,’ and then they got me on this thing that says, ‘Yes.’ What, am I senile or something, that I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Building Better Ohio had a right to use the footage because it was in the public domain, and her comments make a key point in favor of the law, said Jason Mauk, a spokesman.

“She chose to inject herself into the public discourse by participating in political ad,” Mauk said by phone. “We just believe that the reforms of Issue 2 are a better solution to her concerns than the position she’s advocating.”

Going to Bat

Quinn is now appearing in another We Are Ohio ad and at events including an Oct. 17 debate in Cleveland. She has motivated firefighters to work harder on the campaign, said Mark Sanders, a Cincinnati fire lieutenant and president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters.

“Every firefighter and police officer who saw our grandmother step up there and go to bat for us has now been attacked,” Sanders said at a press conference in Columbus last week.

Quinn said she hopes her experience makes a difference.

“I’m not used to being in the spotlight,” she said. “I feel kind of funny. People recognize me.”

--Editors: Stephen Merelman, Mark Schoifet

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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