Conservative Star, Ken Blackwell, Is on the Rise in Ohio

With Ohio’s Republican gubernatorial primary 17 months away, the fight to succeed lameduck GOP Gov. Robert A. Taft II already promises to be one that conservatives nationwide will watch with great interest. Early polling indicates that Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell–a pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, anti-tax conservative stalwart–has emerged as the top candidate. This is significant because Buckeye State Republicans have often opted in the past for middle-of-the-road nominees rather than conservatives such as Blackwell. Blackwell would almost surely draw national media attention in the general election if for no other reason than that the most likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate is Jerry Springer, whom Blackwell succeeded as mayor of Cincinnati in 1979. Springer is the nation’s premier television shock-talk host, who has come under repeated attacks for his show’s tastelessness. Nonetheless, in the last year, the Ohio Democratic Party (which has not won a gubernatorial election in 20 years) has named Springer “Man of the Year” and Springer himself has begun to discuss state issues on his radio show. Clearly relishing a race against Springer, Blackwell, during a visit to our office, told HUMAN EVENTS: “Jerry is increasingly demonstrating on the radio what a big-government liberal he is.” Blackwell, a 56-year-old African-American, received national television exposure himself during last year’s presidential campaign because his duties as Ohio secretary of state put him at the center of potential controversy over the presidential vote count. He proved an excellent spokesman for his state. And as it turned out, the vote-counting ended without substantial controversy, as even Democratic candidate John Kerry declined to contest the Ohio results. An educator who was drafted as a linebacker out of college (and then cut) by the Dallas Cowboys, Blackwell served on the Cincinnati City Council as a member of the local “Charter Party” before switching to the GOP in 1981. His switch was made at the urging of then-President Reagan’s two top political advisers, Lyn Nofziger and Ed Rollins. After two unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. House and a stint as top deputy to Secretary Jack Kemp at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Blackwell won two terms as Ohio state treasurer and then two as secretary of state. “There are too many folks who say you have to be ‘moderate’ to win in Ohio,” Blackwell told me, adding that he sharply rejects that conclusion. “Look, George W. Bush won this state in 2000 with 8% of the black vote. Last year, he won it with 17% of the black vote. This was while the marriage amendment was passing by a margin of 62% to 38% statewide–and the ‘yes’ side drew 500,000 more than President Bush did. There’s no argument about it: The churches put that issue over and, in the process, put the President over the top and doubled his share of black voters. ” Blackwell proudly recalled how he was in the forefront of the pro-marriage amendment movement while both his likely primary foes, state Atty. Gen. Jim Petro and state Auditor Betty Montgomery, shied away from it. As a conservative, Blackwell has also disagreed with many Ohio Republican leaders on other issues. He says he is “pro-life with only one exception: the life of the mother” and is a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment. While most of the Ohio Republican establishment, led by Taft and state GOP Chairman Bob Bennett, were early Bush backers in 2000, Blackwell was national chairman of longtime friend Steve Forbes‘ presidential campaign. When Taft supported a 20% sales tax increase last year, Blackwell not only led the fight against it but also called for a spending cap amendment to the state constitution. If elected governor of a state known as the “Mother of Presidents”–moreover, a marginal Red State that Republicans probably must win to retain the White House–Blackwell would instantly become a major national political player. The candidate himself seemed to anticipate this possibility when he wrote me a letter following his party switch in 1981 and predicted he would “be running for President in 2016, when I will be the same age as the very vigorous incumbent when he was first elected.”