"It's been such an honor and a privilege to serve the citizens of Tuscarawas County over all these 31 years." — Tuscarawas County Commissioner Kerry Metzger
NEW PHILADELPHIA — Outgoing Tuscarawas County Commissioner Kerry Metzger said he picked up a great piece of advice from one of his mentors when he served in the Ohio General Assembly — pay attention to your "moral compass."
"Every person has a moral compass in them," Metzger said. "If you feel something is not right in your gut, that's your moral compass telling you that you've got to be wary of that. When that would kick in, the moral compass, then you need to follow that. That has kept me out of trouble quite a few times, because when something just didn't feel right, then I wasn't going to support whatever that was."
Metzger, 66, a New Philadelphia dentist turned politician, has spent the last 31 years in office, first as a New Philadelphia city council member, then as lawmaker in the Ohio House of Representatives and the past 16 years as a Tuscarawas County commissioner.
He will be calling it quits at the end of the year when his term of office expires.
"It's been such an honor and a privilege to serve the citizens of Tuscarawas County over all these 31 years," the Republican said. "I always took their faith in me — I always kept that very close in mind — and wanted to make sure I did the best job that I could. I did the best I could with the skills that I had, but I'm just extremely grateful and appreciative for them to give me the honor and the privilege to serve them at three different levels of government here in the state of Ohio, and will always remember them for that."
The Pennsylvania native has always had an interest in politics.
He recalls that when he was 8 years old, he asked his mother and father if he could stay up late to watch the returns on TV from the 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Following his graduation from the dental school program at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1978, he and his wife, Karen, moved to Tuscarawas County to work with John Hawk in his dental practice. Metzger eventually established his own practice in New Philadelphia, which he closed in 2005 because of the time demands of his political career.
He credits the local Jaycees with helping prepare him for his political career. He learned a great deal about community service there.
"I used to have an extreme fear of public speaking, and the Jaycees would have a thing at the end of the meeting called the Public Speaks, where they would determine a topic and you had to speak on it for three minutes," he said. "I was so petrified by that, I would leave the meeting early so I didn't have to participate. But eventually I came around and started participating in that."
Once Metzger left the Jaycees, he started looking for another way to serve the community.
"I was out raking leaves on an October day out in front of my house," he said. "A lady approached me and the lady was handing out literature because it was coming up on a general election. We started a conversation and she was of the same political persuasion that I was."
He told her he had some free time and wanted to give some time to the Republican Party. She took his name and number and said she would get back in contact with him. About two weeks later, he was invited to a party meeting at the YMCA in Dover.
It turned out that the meeting was a candidate recruitment night. He was asked to run for an open seat on New Philadelphia City Council in Ward Two.
Metzger talked it over with his wife and agreed to run.
"I had no clue how to run a campaign," he said. "So what I did was, I went down to the public library and got two or three books on how to run an election. I read through the books. I put together a plan and I followed that plan. I walked the ward twice, and on election night, lo and behold I won the seat for Ward Two councilman."
He was first elected in 1986. He ran for reelection and won, and then went on to serve as council president.
He noted that he had two great mentors who helped him learn the process — Council President Jimmy Eichel, a Republican, and Pat Finley, a Democrat who was chair of the finance committee.
"I was very fortunate to have two two mentors who really taught me the basics of local government," Metzger said.
In 1994, a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives opened up. He was approached by several Republicans at the state level to run for office. "So I thought, in politics if the door opens, you're either going to kick it in and walk through it or you're going to let it shut."
He won the election and served the next eight years in the General Assembly.
Metzger listed as his highlights in office as sponsoring a bill for a complete restructuring of foster care in Ohio and helping to shepherd a jobs bill through the House when George Voinovich was governor.
In 2002, he was prohibited from running for reelection because of term limits. He thought about running for state Senate, but the district at that time was not one that a Republican could win. So he decided to run for county commissioner.
He said some of the highlights of his career as commissioner were working on economic development, helping to connect individual workers with businesses and crafting county budgets. "I've had the opportunity to work through a number of budgets now. I feel that I'm leaving with the county in a good fiscal spot."
The toughest decision of his political career was closing Colonial Manor — the county home — in 2009 during the Great Recession.
"We knew that by closing the county home we were going to be displacing people," he said. "Our employees and their families were going to be effected by that closure. So you have the personal side of that, and that was extremely tough. But there's also the financial side of it. At the time, I think there were more employees than there were residents out there.
"Fiscally, we had to do it because it was eating into our general fund by about a million dollars. We did that and we didn't raise taxes. We managed our way through that financial crisis and now we're in a better place."
Metzger said politics in the United States has changed greatly since he first took office.
"Unfortunately, we're in an era where we're so politicized on either side and there's no compromise," he said. "Politics is the art of compromise and we don't have that anymore. If you want a functioning government, you have to compromise. You have to find ways to compromise with the other side in order to get things accomplished.
"I'm very proud of the fact that over the years I've served with individuals in the county commissioners office — especially Chris Abbuhl, who I've served with for 14 years, Jim Seldenright and of course Commissioner Joe Sciarretti — who understand the nature of compromise."
What's next for Metzger?
He says he won't be spending a lot of time sitting in front of the TV set channel surfing. He plans to spend more time working with the county Anti-Drug Coalition, which he chairs, to educate young people about issues surrounding the use of drugs.
He also wants to try and help people with Lyme disease, an issue that's close to him. His wife and his younger son, Ryan, have the chronic form of the disease.
"I see on a daily basis the impact that disease has on their health, so I have a passion to try to find ways for education and public awareness, but also to make some policy changes at the state level and the federal level," Metzger said.
In addition, he plans on putting together a program on one of his favorite topics, the Revolutionary War, and speaking to groups in Tuscarawas and surrounding counties.
Most of all, he plans on spending more time with his 4-year-old granddaughter, Tessa Grace, who lives in Weirton, W.Va., with his oldest son, Robert.
"She calls me pappy, and I'm going to up my pappy time with her and enjoy her, especially while she is young," he said.
Reach Jon at 330-364-8415 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.