Monday, September 20, 2004

Past pushes Rucker to run

Candidate saw crime's impact

By Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writer

Fanon Rucker started thinking like a prosecutor when he was a kid growing up in Gary, Ind.

He remembers burglars ransacking the family home, vandals tearing apart his mother's car and neighborhood thugs waking him up one morning as they tried to break in through a basement window.

Fanon Rucker
Enquirer photo/JOSEPH FUQUA II
Special section: Mike Allen coverage

Rucker was just 12 years old, but he knew he wanted the bad guys to go to jail.

So when he became a lawyer years later, the first job he took was as a prosecutor for the city of Cincinnati. And when the Nov. 2 election for Hamilton County prosecutor was thrown open by a sex scandal three weeks ago, Rucker jumped at the chance to run.

"If you commit a crime, you need to be afraid," Rucker says. "That's my philosophy."

It's a philosophy he hopes will resonate with voters this fall in a race that pits him against three Republicans - including Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters - who are likely to echo his tough-on-crime mantra throughout the campaign.

All four filed to run as write-in candidates after Prosecutor Mike Allen took his name off the ballot following a sexual harassment scandal. With Allen out of the race, Hamilton County voters have the unprecedented task of electing a prosecutor from among only write-in candidates Nov. 2.

Democrats endorse him

Rucker received the unanimous Democratic endorsement Sunday, said Tim Burke, the county's Democratic Party chairman. He has about six weeks to convince voters he's the right man for a job that has been held by Republicans for decades.

"Fanon Rucker is a very solid individual. He's just a good guy," Burke said. "He's going to more than hold his own against Joe Deters."

At 32, Rucker is the youngest candidate in the race, and he's believed to be the first African-American to run for the office.

But Rucker insists his campaign isn't about his age, his race or his party. Instead, he says, it's about how his personal and professional experience makes him the right person for the job.

Although he now does civil rights and criminal defense work, Rucker says he's naturally drawn to the prosecutor's office because of his childhood experience as a crime victim. He's also the son of Robert Rucker Jr., a former deputy prosecutor in Gary who now is an Indiana Supreme Court justice.

"I had some philosophical problems early in my career defending people," Rucker says. "I knew how it felt to be a victim."

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati law school in 1996, he took a job as an assistant prosecutor for the city, where he handled misdemeanor cases ranging from domestic violence to drunken driving. He says he enjoyed the work, especially the trials and dealing with victims.

Prosecution to defense

"He's a very competent individual, and he's very personable," says Terry Cosgrove, chief counsel for the city and Rucker's former boss in the solicitor's office. "He can go into a hostile meeting and do OK, and he can go into a church meeting and do OK. He has that kind of personality."

But after four years as a prosecutor, Rucker decided to try something new. He says his initial resistance to defense work soon gave way to his sense that poor and minority defendants are too often treated differently than their wealthier counterparts.

Some African-American activists have complained that under Allen, the prosecutor's office has been aggressive in pursuing black defendants but has gone easier on police officers accused of wrongdoing. It's a charge Allen has denied, but one that Rucker seems determined to make a campaign issue.

'The same treatment'

"Across the board - regardless of economic status, race or party affiliation - the same policies should apply to everyone," Rucker says. "Everybody who walks through those courthouse doors should get the same treatment."

He says his concerns about fairness led him to organize an effort in 2001 to provide lawyers for people accused of committing crimes during Cincinnati's riots. The move drew fire from some in the community who argued the accused rioters were getting special treatment.

Rucker, who was then president of the Black Lawyers Association, says his only interest was to ensure the system worked fairly.

"I didn't throw away my desire to make sure rules are followed just because I said, 'Look, these people need some help,' " says Rucker, who is also a city prosecutor in Lincoln Heights. "At the same time I was doing that, I also was prosecuting people for crimes."

'Pretty clear choices'

Although Rucker says he does not want race to become an issue in the campaign, Burke says there's no doubt his candidacy will increase interest in the campaign among African-Americans.

"The African-American community is really turned on," Burke says. "It's important to African-Americans that they see qualified members of the community running for office."

Rucker knows he'll need all the support he can get. A write-in campaign is difficult under the best of circumstances, let alone when the candidate must face a political powerhouse like Deters.

But Rucker says prosecutor is a job he's been preparing for since he was kid. And he says he's confident he can convince voters he's ready.

"It will be an interesting race," he says. "People will see they have some pretty clear choices to make."

Fanon Rucker

Experience: Part-time prosecutor for Woodlawn and Lincoln Heights; employment and civil rights attorney at Santen & Hughes; former assistant prosecutor for Cincinnati; former attorney with Manley Burke.

Law school: University of Cincinnati

Age: 32



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