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Blackwell drifting from defining principles

Blackwell drifting from defining principles

First published May 25, 2006 by ThisWeek Newspapers

By Michael J. Maurer

Well, that didn’t last long.

For two glorious weeks, Ken Blackwell appeared to have taken over the Ohio Republican Party.

Now the Ohio Republican Party is attempting to run Ken Blackwell. That’s good news for Ohio Democrats.

Blackwell had done something extraordinary. Over the intense — and explicit — opposition of the establishment Ohio Republicans, he simply took the party away from them.

The most important moment of primary election night, May 2, was really something to see. Just before 11 p.m., Auditor Betty Montgomery spoke to supporters of the losing establishment candidate, Attorney General Jim Petro, preparing them for his concession speech. Accompanying her were two other powerful Ohio Republicans, national party committee co-chair Jo Ann Davidson and U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine.

Ten minutes later, this influential trio materialized a block-and-a-half away, at the other end of the Statehouse square, to congratulate the victorious Blackwell. He didn’t come to them; they came to him.

It’s difficult to overstate how impressive Blackwell’s feat was. Ordinarily, a politician who loses the support of his party is finished. Accumulating political power is a complex effort that requires widespread enterprise, something that is almost always beyond the ability of anyone outside the two major parties. For him to have done this — not merely without their support, but against their active opposition — was impressive.

The establishment Ohio Republicans have turned from Blackwell for most of his career, and they didn’t do much to hide it, either before the governor’s race or during it. They wrote newspaper columns against him; they criticized him openly and privately; and, even though he was the dominant frontrunner, they nonetheless threw their best people, Montgomery included, against him. And none of it mattered. He took the nomination anyway.

Their complaints were comical. One party leader after another accused Blackwell of looking out for himself, of shifting with the moment. Really, you don’t know what humor is until you hear one politician accusing another of being opportunistic.

What they really meant, of course, is that every time they were opportunistic, every time they abandoned their principles for tawdry politics, Blackwell called them on it. Nothing stings like the truth, and elected Ohio Republicans hated Blackwell for telling it.

Voters, though, loved it. In a world where ordinary people are seething at being held in such obvious contempt by elected officials who so palpably see themselves as the voters’ betters, Blackwell was fresh air.

No sooner had he won, though, than all the same party machinery that had worked so hard against him, along with all of the state’s major media, intensified opposition to his signature policy — the TEL, or tax expenditure limitation.

Fresh from his astounding victory, Blackwell succumbed.

One’s criticism of Blackwell should be tempered. He stood — literally, alone — and you don’t know how difficult that is until you yourself are in such a position. If it took extraordinary strength of character for Blackwell to stare down his party, it would have taken superhuman character for him to stare down not only his party but the Democrats, the media and nearly every university, school district and local government in the state.

On the TEL, no one supported Blackwell except the voters. Because the only voice the voters have is Blackwell himself, he couldn’t hear it.

But politics isn’t beanbag, and neither is leadership. If all Blackwell wanted was to be admitted to the Ohio Republican country club, then Gov. Bob Taft is an even worse politician than I thought. They could have cut that deal a long time ago, and Betty Montgomery would be the gubernatorial nominee today.

Blackwell was Blackwell exactly because of the TEL, which is to say, his willingness to stick his finger in the eyes of the party leaders.

Blackwell’s victory, with the TEL, set up the fall elections better than anyone understood, apparently including Blackwell himself. Blackwell’s nationally funded, small-donor-funded commercials would have been fun to watch.

“All I ask,” Blackwell would have said, “is that voters approve their taxes. Why are our governments afraid of that? I know why, and I think you do, too. Come to the polls the first Tuesday in November and help me show it.”

Why do you suppose it is that there was unanimous opposition to the TEL? Which proposition is more likely: that every single governing entity in the state opposed the TEL because of unselfish regard for the public interest, or that Blackwell was exactly right — that they all had their fingers in the till and the TEL would kick them out of it?

It would have been enjoyable for conservatives to watch, yet again, the tax-and-spend liberals — Sherrod Brown? Ted Strickland? Are the Democrats serious? — shuffling to the right. It would have been satisfying, as it has not been for 20 years, to watch a true conservative candidate campaigning.

Now, though, Blackwell has given up the one thing that defined him. Possibly, this won’t hurt him with the religious vote, but don’t bet on it. Those voters know sincerity when they see it; that would have been Blackwell’s big advantage over the obvious pandering of Strickland. Now, though, ought they not reasonably doubt whether they’re simply being given the choice of two panderers?

The Republicans, Blackwell included, will say a “statutory” TEL is as good as the real thing, which is to say, a constitutional amendment, and the same Democrat interest groups will fight it, but no voter should be fooled. A statutory TEL is so obviously meaningless that voters should presume any politician who promotes it or votes for it holds them in outright contempt. It binds no one to anything because when it comes right down to it, men and women like “Half Penny Bill” Harris will always be there to tell you why, “this time only,” they had to exceed spending limits.

Not sure who Half Penny Bill is? He’s president of the Ohio Senate, part of the Ohio Republican leadership that promised Ohioans a “temporary” 1-cent increase in the sales tax, replaced it with a permanent half-cent increase and then wanted credit for giving everyone a half-cent tax cut. He is, in other words, everything Ken Blackwell was not — for two whole weeks.

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