Kerry Metzger posed for a photo with fellow Tuscarawas County Commissioner Chris Abbuhl and former Commissioner Jim Seldenright during an event held recently at the Tuscarawas County Courthouse Annex. (Submitted photo)
New Philadelphia, Ohio - A longtime community leader is looking back on more than three decades of public service.
Kerry Metzger began his retirement this week after 16 years as a Tuscarawas County Commissioner and a total of 31 years in public office. He began his political career in 1987 as a New Philadelphia councilman and later council president before turning his sights to the Ohio House in 1994. He served two terms as the State Representative for the 97th District.
Surprisingly, Metzger says he never had any intention of running for political office. That changed when he was asked to attend an informational meeting for the Tuscarawas County Republican Party that ended up being a candidate recruitment meeting.
We sat down with Metzger recently to talk about his career, his plans for retirement and his advice to others who may be considering running for an elected office.
Where did your political aspirations stem from?
"I think a lot of it is the notion that I always had an interest, for whatever reason, in politics and civics in high school, that sort of thing. My earliest recollection is when I was like 8 years old during the Kennedy/Nixon campaign, and election night I remember asking my parents if I could stay up. They let me stay up until about 2 in the morning but I had school the next day. For whatever reason, I just enjoyed watching the returns come in. Of course, it’s totally different now. Nowadays, half a precinct comes in and they can predict the whole race. But back then, it wasn’t until the next day."
Did you continue to explore those interests as you got older?
"I enjoyed history in high school and civics. I enjoyed that and did well in that. I went to college, majored in biology but took courses in political science and history, so I kept my finger in that part of it but never had any intention of that point of even considering running for a political office. Got my bachelor’s degree in biology in 1974 and was accepted into Temple University School of Dentistry that year, and I graduated in 1978 and got my DDS degree from that."
What was it that changed your mind?
"I was out raking leaves, and it was in the fall. The general election was coming up. A lady came up to the house and was passing out campaign literature, and I struck up a conversation with her and said, ‘You know, I’ve always had an interest in politics, and I might be interested in giving some time to the party.’ I figured it was helping out with campaigns, dropping off literature door-to-door, those types of things, things that she was doing. She took my name and number and said, ‘I’ll be back in contact with you.’ About two weeks later I got a phone call, and the lady she would like me to attend a meeting that the Republican Party was holding, and maybe from that I might be able to find some things to help the party out. Little did I know that the person I was talking to was a person by the name of Maxine Mitchell, and she was the Republican Central Committee chairwoman at the time, and the meeting she wanted me to attend was a candidate recruitment night. Low and behold, I showed up, and they asked me to run for an open seat in Ward 2 of city council. That’s really how I fell into considering running for a political office."
What was it like to run for election for the first time?
"I had no clue as to how to run for an office. I had no clue at all, so I went down to the public library here in New Phila, took out two or three books on how to run a local campaign, put together a plan and followed the plan, and low and behold, on election night I ended up winning the open seat."
What made you decide to run for state office?
"I was approached once again by, once again, another lady who eventually became Speaker of the House, Jo Ann Davidson. When we met, I was president of city council at the time. The Republican House Caucus called up and said they’d like to meet with me about the possibility of running for a House seat. We met down at the old Perkins, which is no longer there… and Joann and several other members from the Caucus talked to me about the potential of running. I’ve always held the philosophy that with political opportunities when the door opens, you have two choices: You either let it shut or you decide you’re going to kick it in and see if it’s possible. I thought, ‘Well, that’s intriguing.’ The only issue with that was the fact I knew that by doing that it was going to affect my dental practice. Karen and I again sat down and had long discussions as to whether or not that was something we wanted to do. We made the decision that, yeah, let’s throw our hat in the ring, so I kicked the door open at that point. Again, low and behold, I ended up winning that House seat."
How did you end up running for commissioner?
"At the end of 2002, my term limit kicked in, and I couldn’t serve in the House anymore after that, although you can sit out for two terms and then go back, but that’s not easy to do… I thought, ok, I still enjoy the public service side of things, so I considered running for county commissioner. The nice thing about county commissioner is that is was a four-year term and I would be able to stay at home. I wouldn’t have to stay down in Columbus. I was still interested in public service. I was still interested in policy and the like, so I decided to put my hat in the ring for county commissioner, and that was a much more difficult race because I had to unseat an incumbent to be able to do that."
What was one of the biggest challenges you came up against as a commissioner and how were you able to overcome it?
"When I was in there, of course, we went through the Great Recession and, of course, that was a huge issue at the time. County finances because of the recession and because some of the issues with the state taking away local government funds and the like really pushed counties into a very poor financial position to try to stave off financial decline within the county itself. We were able to manage through that. It took a lot of soul-searching and discussions but the group together, which would have been me and Chris Abbuhl and Jim Seldenright, we were able to manage through that and stave off the recession but during that time we had to make the most difficult decision that I’ve had to make in the 31 years I served, and that was the closure of the county home. The county home financially was costing the county about a million dollars a year out of the general fund, and at the depth of the recession, we just couldn’t sustain it."
What has been the most rewarding moment in your career?
"One thing that I’m most proud of is that in my final term in the Ohio House of Representatives, I had the opportunity to sponsor and marshal through the reorganization of foster care throughout the state of Ohio. I’ve always had a passion for kids, and that was something that ended up being a very good situation, and I enjoyed that immensely. The thing within that marshaling was there was the creation of what’s called Child Fatality Review Teams. Before that time, when a child died there was not a data clearinghouse for that information to come in and the ability to review the data as to why the child passed away or died. With that data, they could come up with solutions to try to prevent child deaths throughout the state of Ohio."
What are you planning on doing during your retirement?
"I’m not going to be surfing the channels on TV. I’m going to continue my work in community service. One place where I’m going to increase my volunteerism is for the Tuscarawas County Anti-Drug Coalition… I want to focus my efforts on education and awareness of drugs to our youth. This is something that has to be a generational change, and we have to find a way to change the attitudes that our youth have towards drug use.
"The second thing I really want to focus on, too, is that both my wife and younger son have chronic Lyme disease, and so I’ve seen the devastating effects health-wise and the like that it has, just in my own experience with Karen and Ryan... What I want to do is potentially create a foundation that would bring education, and awareness of Lyme disease, how to prevent it. With that 31 years of political experience that I have, I want to take that developed experience and try to make changes for the positive for people who are suffering from Lyme disease and chronic Lyme disease, whether it’s through a change in the laws or a change in the rules. We'll just see what pathway that goes down."
Is there anything else you'd like to do with your free time?
"I’ve got a 4-year-old granddaughter, Tessa, and she calls me “Pappy.” I’m going to increase my “Pappy time” with my granddaughter. She’s the only grandchild that I have so I’m going to spend a lot more time there. They live over in Weirton so it’s not that far away but my duties as commissioner prevented me from spending more time. This will free me up to be able to enjoy Tessa growing up over time.
"The other thing, on a personal side, is my interest in history. Before I got involved in politics back in the 80s I put together slide presentations on the Civil War… I would give those presentations to community service groups, not only just in Tuscarawas County, but I remember giving one presentation to a regional Civil War group. Over the years, my interests have changed. I still enjoy the Civil War period but I’ve really got more of a passion right now with the revolution and the Revolutionary War...
"We’re going to do a little traveling, and a lot of my traveling is going to be done around the history part. I want to visit sites and that sort of stuff. I think Karen and I, probably while we’re younger here the next couple of years, we’ll probably do a little traveling. We’re not huge travel people but we’ll probably do a little bit while our health is still intact."
What’s your advice for people considering running for public office?
"If they’re interested in going into it, they should go into it with an attitude that I’m going to be a problem solver, and to do that, you have to go in with an attitude of compromise. Because what is politics? If you look it up in the dictionary, politics is the art of compromise, and we don’t have that anymore. What we have is we have people in public office who tend to be idealogues versus people that are willing to compromise to try to come up with solutions to move issues forward and get things done and solve problems."