Sunday, December 21, 2003

Gilligan ready to go back to school

At 82, John Gilligan, the former governor and Cincinnati city councilman is still squarely in the political spotlight

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

AVONDALE - Shortly after Gov. John Gilligan lost his bid for a second term in 1974 - by a scant 11,488 votes out of nearly 3 million cast - he wrote a note to some of his downhearted campaign volunteers.

Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan shakes hands with then-outgoing Gov. James A. Rhodes after receiving the scroll of office during the inaugural ceremonies in 1971.
(File photo)
"Because all of us worked together, thousands of Ohioans - especially the weak and the helpless, the poor, the ill, the elderly and the handicapped - will live a little better life.

"No one can call that a defeat."

That's vintage "Jack'' Gilligan, friends and acquaintances say, always resolute, always adhering to his belief that government can and should improve the lot of the least fortunate.

Today, nearly 20 years later, Gilligan still commands the political spotlight, albeit much smaller as a recently re-elected member of the Cincinnati Board of Education.

And he's still championing the causes of the poor, but with a more mellow style.

At 82, the former governor and Cincinnati city councilman isn't about to slow down, he said.

Gilligan is spearheading an initiative to convert nearly all of Cincinnati's public schools into community learning centers.

As the district builds and renovates 64 of its schools, the buildings are being designed to stay open past 3 p.m. and to house agencies and clinics that help families, the elderly and neighborhoods six days a week.

Gilligan is the point person on the project.

"You look at proficiency scores and what jumps off the page is there are two worlds: A suburban world where children have all the comforts and resources they could have - soccer leagues and trips to the zoo - to support their education.

"You come to the inner city, and you've got kids living right on the edge, with no resources. You have single parents or no parents."

Gilligan brings clout to the job.

He is the only sitting school board member who is also a former governor, according to the National School Boards Association.

During the 1970s, Gilligan was considered a possible presidential candidate, before his narrow loss to Gov. James Rhodes. His daughter, Kathleen Sebelius, carries on Gilligan's legacy as governor of Kansas.

Before he was governor, Gilligan was a six-time Cincinnati city councilman. After his term as governor, he was a President Carter appointee to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

More recently he lectured at University of Cincinnati's College of Law, before he was elected to the CPS board in 1999.

He was re-elected Nov. 4, winning the most votes of the seven candidates. Nearly one in four voters picked him.

"At this point in his life, he could relax knowing that he has been a true public servant to this community and to this state," said Carolyn N. Turner, executive director of Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools.

"Yet he is tackling educational issues with as much enthusiasm, initiative, creativity and commitment as any of us," she said.

David Crowley, a Cincinnati city councilman and Gilligan protege, works with him via city council's joint committee with the school board.

"I'm 18 years younger than Jack and that man continues to wear me out," Crowley said. "He's always thinking ahead of everybody else. Not radical ideas, but doable, practical ideas."

Gilligan admits that initially, some school board members and staff weren't enthusiastic about learning centers.

"They already had so much on their plate," he said.

And there were turf issues. It's hard to make a case for expanding the role of public schools when the district is classified by the state as being in an "academic emergency.''

But public school students don't stop learning after their last class of the day, Gilligan said. Schools must help improve their other "classrooms" - their neighborhoods and homes.

The strategy of stretching tax dollars into new programs for the poor isn't new to Gilligan. Some say his tax-spending tactics doomed his gubernatorial re-election bid 20 years ago.

Now, those same tactics are elevating him as a champion for education.

"He understands that education is a tool to help the underprivileged,'' said Dan Radford, a longtime Gilligan supporter who leads the Greater Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council.

"As governor, he did not bend to special interests that he did not share values with,'' Radford said. "What was important to him was those who do not have a voice."

Gilligan is not among the voiceless poor. A member of a Cincinnati family that made its fortune in funeral homes 50 years ago, Gilligan taught literature at Xavier University.

When he decided to run for Cincinnati City Council in 1953, he didn't expect to win. But win he did - six times - before he went on to become a U.S. representative and then Ohio's governor from 1971 to 1975.

In December 1971, he was instrumental in pulling off the nearly impossible - getting the first personal and corporate income taxes passed in Columbus.

"Ohio had never had an income tax, so our state expenditures on programs on education and vital services were as bad as Mississippi's and Alabama's," Crowley recalled.

"The (tax) took us to a much higher level, and we began to collect and spend a lot more on service programs and education."

Gilligan was also responsible for reforms affecting the environment, mental health, strip mines, and occupational health and safety.

The state's first minimum wage was set under his watch. Under the Ohio Plan he instituted, public college graduates could repay state loans after they began making a living.

But Gilligan, viewed by some as arrogant and aloof, battled conservative state lawmakers on a number of fronts.

Once, to illustrate the legislature's tight fistedness, Gilligan closed state parks for a couple of weeks, prompting a backfire of complaints.

When Gilligan established one of the nation's first Commissions on Aging in 1973, he caused a ruckus by appointing Crowley to lead it.

There were missteps in his administration, Gilligan admitted later.

When Rhodes squeaked by him to become governor, Gilligan "had the best face on of everybody in the room," Crowley said.

"He accepted the fact that people voted, and his administration did not make a good enough case."

Gilligan is still trying to make a better case, this time for broadening the role of public education.

Gilligan plans to be on the school board when the centers open.

"I'd like to be involved," he said. "When I reach the point where I see I'm not helpful, I'll get out."

Board meets Jan. 7

Re-elected Cincinnati Public Schools board members John Gilligan, Rick Williams and Florence Newell officially start their new terms Jan. 7. The Board of Education holds its annual Organizational Meeting at 7 p.m., when it will select a new board president and vice president, select new committee leaders and members, and welcome the returning board members.

The public is invited. The meeting is at the Education Center, 2651 Burnet Ave., Corryville.



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