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Bellwether Broil
Ohio’s 2006 Verdict On America

Ohio's political tea leaves

Rolling Stone’s most recent issue published a well written account of the political battle in Ohio. I refer readers to that article (not yet available online), but I thought the readers of this site might appreciate a little more background on the upcoming and critical election in the state that gave George W. Bush a second term in office.

John Kenneth Blackwell earned national fame, or infamy, as Ohio Secretary of State during that 2004 election, in which there were both statistical anomalies and the appearance of dirty tricks on the ground. [Robert Kennedy Jr.’s “Was the 2004 Election Stolen” in the June 1 Rolling Stone documents the anomalies.] First of all, as Greg Palast explains in Armed Madhouse, the final results in Ohio turned the science of exit polling on its head. While the exit polls showed a victory for Kerry, and CNN report exit polls showing a clear majority for Kerry by both men and women, the final tally came in at a head-scratching 51-48 in favor of Bush. At this point there is no definitive proof that the election results were tampered with, but the Diebold machines widely used in Ohio, and in which Blackwell was recently discovered to have a substantial personal investment, have been proven to have a back door, allowing undetected tampering to occur. There has also been documentation of urban, Kerry-leaning precincts in Columbus having been short of voting machines, leading to long lines. I remember hearing the story of Kenyon College in Gambier, a small liberal arts college that would be expected to tilt for Kerry, having long lines due to a shortage of machines; meanwhile down the road a small conservative Christian college was well stocked, and experienced no lines. Finally, right down the road from me in quaint Lebanon, Ohio (famous for being the soundstage for that great oeuvre Harper Valley PTA), the Board of Elections shut down illegally to count ballots because of—excuse me?—a terrorist threat. (Apparently some lactofascist cows were threatening to occupy Main Street if Bush won, or something.)

Stories like these could easily be blamed on the incompetence of local officials were it not for a series of partisan decisions by Blackwell clearly intended to hamper liberal voter registration groups. For example, Blackwell determined at one point that he would only accept new voter registrations on card stock of a certain weight. The public outcry on that decision forced Blackwell to relent, but it was clear that he was not an honest broker in the election. Since 2004, Blackwell has made a number of outrageous moves—since they are well chronicled in the RS article I will not repeat them here. Suffice to say that the Democratic party in Ohio, and Blackwell’s opponent Ted Strickland, have demanded that Blackwell recuse himself from overseeing his own gubernatorial election, and he has refused.

Blackwell has run an odd, divisive campaign that may account for his 20 point deficit in the polls. He attacked his primary opponent, the moderate Jim Petro, relentlessly, in a way that alienated many mainstream Republicans like those quoted in the RS article who see Blackwell as opportunistic and self serving. He put a major effort into a TEL, or Tax Expenditure Limitation initiative, which would have limited growth of a local government’s budget by a rate not to exceed that of inflation. Such measures have been tried and repealed in Colorado, where they hampered local governments. The issue didn’t poll well in Ohio, where local control of school budgets is critical. Once it became clear that the ballot initiative would be a drag for the Republicans, the GOP-led legislature passed a softer version of the bill in order to take it off the November ballot. Blackwell was able to maintain his support for the measure without having it hurt him in the election.

Similar political calculations have played into his handling of the abortion battle. Ohio House Bill 228 was drawn up prior to the nomination of Samuel Alito by Ohio conservatives as an abortion test case on the lines of South Dakota’s abortion ban. The Ohio measure would not only ban abortion, but would make it illegal to transport a woman across state lines for the purpose of having an abortion. The speaker of the house, Jon Husted (more on him in a moment), vowed that the bill would not get out of committee this year, trying to play it down as a political issue, knowing most likely that it would be a losing issue for the party this year. Blackwell’s running mate, Tom Raga, is my representative to the Ohio House, and my frequent calls to him asking him to clarify the position have been met repeatedly with a simple statement that he is committed to a culture of life. However, he won’t comment, at least not to me, on what kind of abortion ban he supports, and the penalties that would ensue, for mothers, doctors, and in Ohio, drivers. These seem to be critical issues which an honest politician would discuss prior to the election, not after it. Nevertheless the Republicans seem content in this election to keep abortion in the background, winking to the party’s religious base while avoiding the wider public discussion that might disaffect more moderate voters.

Then there is the whole issue of corruption. Ohio has become a hotbed of political corruption, much of it widely publicized. At this point, Tom Noe, GOP hotshot, Bush pioneer, and coordinator of the state’s investment in his rare coins enterprise (which fell flat on its face when several coins devalued, and other simply disappeared) has finally pled guilty on corruption charges. Blackwell cynically used Petro’s connection to Noe in his primary bid, which only served to remind voters how corrupt the GOP has become with the absolute power it wields. But there have been other less well publicized incidents as well. The House speaker, Jon Husted, a young opportunist from Kettering in the Dayton area, was nailed by the Cleveland and Dayton papers for repeatedly accepting free flights and trips from his lobbyist pals. While Husted’s office denied at the time that the lobbyists were engaging in politics, I looked up their firms’ websites. One site proudly proclaimed that they could create personal relationships with legislators on behalf of their clients! Of course Husted’s office had no comment (as you can see when I get mad I make phone calls that turn out to be a waste of time) and the Ohio press, in spite of their occasional good reporting, seems inadequate to hold politicians accountable, especially considering that television news in Ohio does virtually no political reporting. Only Governor Bob Taft, who pled guilty to accepting gifts, has been held accountable in any serious way. Taft has been a governor in name only, with approval ratings in the teens and with a legislature that keeps him on a very short leash. Essentially, the Republicans, without serious challenge from Democrats in some time, have had their way with the state budgets.

Their control over state budgets has been a disaster for public education. Tuition at public universities has risen at near double-digits rates for several years running. Republicans have demagogued the tuition issue, trying to blame universities for tuition rates, when in fact the universities are trying to make up for lost state revenue. As a result, college affordability in Ohio now ranks near the bottom nationally. I corresponded on this issue with Tom Raga several years ago, before he became a statewide figure, and his responses bordered on the idiotic. Once, in response to my questions about tuition increases, he sent me list of all of the colleges and universities in the state, and a list of all of the medical schools. When I told him that had nothing to do with my initial question, he accused me of being disrespectful, and sent me some more statistics that had nothing to do with how much tuition was rising.

Blackwell and Raga have been playing politics with education throughout the campaign. In addition to the TEL initiative, which would have been horrible for schools, he has also proposed a 65% rule under which 65% of a school’s funding would have to be spent directly on instruction. Even Rod Paige, Bush’s first Secretary of Education, has criticized this proposal, but it draws traction among Blackwell’s evangelical and tax-hating base. Raga’s claim to fame is a law he wrote that would require school districts to report questionable conduct by teachers to the state Board of Education. While it sounds reasonable and laudable on the surface, the law is essentially unenforceable, and has some serious practical implications; still, it is the perfect Republican education bill: it tackles a problem that doesn’t really exist, it costs nothing, and it sounds moral and holy. Meanwhile Republican policy of tax-cutting has had the effect of simply passing the buck to local taxpayers. Ohio now has one of the highest rates of local funding for schools in the nation.

Another ludicrous Blackwell proposal has been to privatize the state’s turnpikes. Ted Strickland has effectively attacked this proposal, and as the RS article points out, it appeals to the radical free enterprise crowd to whom Blackwell is beholden. What’s most frightening about Blackwell and Raga is that they are part of a religious ascendancy in Ohio that is organized and growing. Blackwell has taken up with a group of politically savvy pastors in the state who hope to create Ohio’s own version of the Moral Majority. His friendliness with right wing zealots seems to be backfiring so far, especially since the Methodist minister Strickland has deflected much of Blackwell’s “values” shtick. In fact, the GOP operative who accused Strickland of being gay simply succeeded in making the Blackwell campaign ridiculous and desperate. Finally, Blackwell has not done himself any favors by refusing to release his tax returns, something nearly every major political contender does these days. Strickland has attacked him repeatedly for this, yet Blackwell persists in not releasing them.

In the U.S. Senate race, the moderate and bland Republican two-term incumbent, Mike Dewine, is running slightly behind Sherrod Brown, a popular seven-term congressman from Ohio’s 13 th District. DeWine has worked quietly and effectively on a wide range of issues, such as foster care, but is being dragged down by Ohio’s culture of corruption and his own fealty to Bush. He is a moderate Republican who doesn’t grandstand like Kansas’ Sam Brownback or Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, but who nonetheless has been compliant with the wishes of the religious right on most issues. DeWine’s first big campaign buy showed the influence of Karl Rove in the election. By using 9/11 footage, DeWine hoped to appeal to the fear vote as Bush did in 04. However, when it was revealed that the footage was doctored, DeWine’s attempt came across as crass and insensitive, which he obviously was.

In spite of his dustup with grassroots hero Paul Hackett, Brown has run an effective campaign to date. He has focused on economic issues and has worked hard to advocate mainstream Democratic positions on the war and foreign policy. He has shored up union base, as has Strickland. He has the support of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which should help him to roll out TV ads over the next two months. That will be critical as the Republicans begin major spending to hold on to this Senate seat. And since it’s Ohio, no lead in the polls is safe.

In Ohio, I think moderate voters will reject the increasing polarization of the Republican Party and its ineffectiveness in running the state’s schools and addressing the funding crisis, the staggering rise in tuition, and the disastrous policies of the Bush administration. But you get the sense in Ohio that the Republicans haven’t started their campaign in earnest yet, and the outcome of the election may be determined by how Brown and Strickland respond to what is thrown at them over then next couple of months. The stakes are high, and Ohio needs desperately to reverse the course the Republicans have charted over the last two decades.

Ohdave blogs at Into My Own.

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