Monday, October 25, 2004

Blackwell revels in the hot seat


Promoting Bush - and himself

By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer

It was 12 days until the presidential election of 2004 - arguably the most important event in J. Kenneth Blackwell's tenure as Ohio's chief elections official.

A federal judge had just blasted the secretary of state for denying the right to vote to people who show up at the wrong precinct. Democrats from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Sen. John Kerry had accused him of trying to suppress turnout to swing the election to President Bush.

And pundits everywhere were calling him "the Katherine Harris of 2004."

So where was Blackwell?

At a breakfast of the Loveland Area Chamber of Commerce, campaigning for governor in 2006.

As the Republican former Cincinnati mayor enters the national spotlight on Ohio's role in the presidential campaign, Blackwell, 56, is using his newfound soapbox to advance two causes he holds most dear: President Bush's re-election and his own candidacy for governor.

In the course of a half-hour speech in Loveland, he proposed to privatize state university dormitories, abolish the Ohio Turnpike Commission (a "cesspool of public corruption") and cut income taxes, property taxes, estate taxes and capital gains taxes in a tax-strapped state.

"I am a tree-shaker," he told the 46 business people. "If I get through the election, I guarantee I will have a mandate to change the political culture inside the (Columbus) I-270 beltway. I am not a go-along-to-get-along sort of fellow. If someone tells you that about me, you'll know they've tagged my toe, because I'll be dead."

'Delightfully offensive'

If being the Katherine Harris of 2004 is supposed to be a career-ending insult, someone forgot to tell that to Blackwell.

"I would think after Katherine Harris embarrassed herself, her governor, her party and her country, Ken Blackwell would not want to embarrass himself like that," said U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, the last Democrat to hold Blackwell's office and who until now hasn't publicly criticized either of his successors. "But maybe he does. Maybe that works in a Republican gubernatorial primary."

Comparisons to the Florida secretary of state, who became a household name after the 2000 presidential election, are so frequent they're becoming cliche.

Blackwell acknowledges the comparison with characteristic humor. In fact, he notes that Harris' role in 2000 didn't hurt her career. She's now in Congress.

His longtime friends and rivals don't doubt that Blackwell relishes the attention.

"He thinks he's chosen," said Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, a Democrat who formed the conservative "Gang of Five" coalition with Blackwell on City Council in the 1980s and later beat him in a race for Congress on Cincinnati's West Side in 1990.

"He's like a moth to a flame - and I really mean like a moth to a flame. What he's looking for is those bright lights, those television lights in his eyes," Luken said. "In the long term, he'll probably hurt himself, but for now he can't resist."

Critics see his willingness to spark negative publicity as a sign of his ambition and opportunism - and even stubbornness.

That's what his conservative friends like about him.

"I regard him as being sort of delightfully offensive in terms of his contention for the ideas in which he believes," said Rick Segal, an advertising executive and erstwhile political operative from Fairfield who's known Blackwell since City Hall days and worked with him on Steve Forbes' 2000 presidential campaign. "There are too few who will consistently go into the breech for the cause."

Those causes span the spectrum of conservative ideas, from supply-side economics to a ban on same-sex marriage. He needled many in his own party by bucking a temporary sales tax increase supported by Republicans as a solution to the state's financial crisis.

Outside Toledo last Tuesday night, he angered gay-rights activists when he used a barnyard analogy to describe the issue of same-sex marriage. "I don't know how many of you have a farming background, but I can tell you right now that notion even defies barnyard logic ... the barnyard knows better," he said.

Controversial orders

But the controversy surrounding Blackwell these days has to do with his handling of the election. Last month, he promulgated a directive that required all voter registration forms to be on a certain weight paper. He rescinded the directive after Democrats pointed out that even his own forms didn't meet the requirement.

In Loveland, he again made headlines when he said he'd rather go to jail than be forced by a federal judge to rewrite his directive on provisional ballots by out-of-precinct voters. Blackwell wants to require voters to cast ballots only in the precincts where they live; a federal judge in Toledo ruled federal law requires votes cast anywhere in the county to be counted.

Blackwell won that round Saturday, when an appeals court in Cincinnati overturned the Toledo decision and sided with Blackwell.

In Cleveland three weeks ago, the Rev. Jackson mentioned Blackwell in the same sentence as Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Alabama police commissioner who turned fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights marchers in Birmingham in 1963. "Now we have beneficiaries of our work engaging in election schemes to undermine the right to vote," Jackson said.

And responding to a question from the Enquirer about provisional voting while campaigning in Ohio last week, Kerry didn't mention Blackwell by name, but lumped the problems in Ohio with the missing registration forms and ballot shortages of other states.

"The acts of voter suppression are a disgraceful, unacceptable kind of thugism in the United States of America," Kerry said. "It's the denial of people's most fundamental constitutional right: the right to vote. And the acts of suppression already taking place indicate a fear and a disrespect for the Constitution that just simply doesn't have a place in America."

Blackwell, the first African-American ever elected to a statewide executive office in Ohio, accuses Democrats of patronizing black voters.

"It's hard for me to understand how Afghans can get to the right place, but you can't expect that of Americans who are veterans of democracy?" Blackwell said.

And to those who would say that he has been making decisions purely on political grounds, Blackwell points to evidence to the contrary: "Please believe me, the Republicans were none too happy that I took Ralph Nader off the ballot."

Citing massive fraud by the Green Party candidate in circulating his petitions, Blackwell ruled that Nader was ineligible to run in Ohio. Court decisions have affirmed that decision.

Grander plans

Though the 2004 election has made Blackwell the highest-profile secretary of state in Ohio's history, the office has long been considered a lesser down-ballot office that allows ambitious politicians to establish a statewide resume. Democrat Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr. used it as a stepping stone to run for state attorney general and an unsuccessful bid for governor; Brown is now in Congress, and Gov. Bob Taft was a two-term secretary of state in the 1990s.

In 1998, the Dayton Daily News quoted Blackwell as saying, "The only thing worse than running for secretary of state would be being secretary of state."

Blackwell denies having said it. But there's no question that he's always aspired to something higher.

"What I have said over the years is that I was running for governor," he said. "The reality is, I've enjoyed my job as secretary of state. I'm a constitutional officer of the state. I get to talk about Ohio issues."

Paulette Leeper, the executive director of the Loveland Area Chamber of Commerce who invited Blackwell to speak there Thursday, said Blackwell's resume and reputation show him to be beyond reproach.

"If anyone's going to decide who the next president is going to be, I'd rather it be Ken Blackwell. He's a man of integrity. His reputation is rock solid," she said.

Harris comparison

Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell keeps getting asked, "Are you the Katherine Harris of 2004?" The ever-quotable Blackwell keeps coming up with new one-liners to answer it:

"Let me just say, last time I checked, I was very comfortable in my masculinity and I'm not looking for a sex change."- Lou Dobbs Tonight, CNN, Oct. 8

"If my critics were told that I could walk on water, they would say, 'But he can't swim.' So a lot of this is partisan jibber-jabber, and we have to move on." - Fox News Sunday, Oct. 17

"Last time I checked, Katherine Harris wasn't in a soup line. She's in Congress." - Newsweek, Oct. 18

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E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com




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