COLUMBUS, OHIO—As he runs for governor, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has been telling audiences about the values he learned from his parents that guide him to this day.
“I was raised in a Bible-believing, church-going, hardworking [family],” Blackwell told me as we drove through downtown Columbus to a campaign event at the Nationwide Arena. “My dad … worked a couple of jobs. He worked as a meatpacker, and he served parties on the weekends for some of the affluent families in the greater Cincinnati area.”
“My mom was, for the most part, a stay-at-home mom,” he said. “She had been a drop-out. She had gone back and got a GED and became a practical nurse. But she was a stay-at-home mom. She had a big belief in the accelerating power of education.
“My dad was a devotee of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy. So his thing was work, work, work, save, work.”
“They believed in self-sufficiency,” said Blackwell. “They believed in economic independence. And even though my dad never ever—he died when he was 56 years old—owned his own home, he preached nothing if he didn’t preach: Own your own home.”
The Blackwells always kept their eye on the American Dream. “They both believed that they could make sacrifices, they could work, they could save, they could invest in their boys and their boys could do better.”
Now their son, Ken, who made a fortune investing in a chain of radio stations, and who has served as Cincinnati mayor, U.S. undersecretary of Housing, U.S ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission, Ohio treasurer and Ohio secretary of state, is seeking to become governor of the swing state that determined the last presidential election—and could determine the next.
If Blackwell wins, he will become the first black Republican ever elected as a governor. He also may become the most influential and inspirational conservative officeholder in the country.
But Blackwell is no new-comer to the conservative movement. For almost three decades, he has been working to advance conservative causes and principles in local, state and federal government. He is an outspoken champion of both the free market and cultural traditionalism. He has been in the front lines of the movements to cut taxes and unnecessary regulation and to protect marriage and the lives of unborn babies.
Blackwell served from 1995-96 on the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform, which was empanelled by the Republican congressional leadership and chaired by Jack Kemp. With Blackwell’s enthusiastic support, the commission endorsed a flat tax. “The future health and strength of our economy will depend on lawmakers’ willingness not just to tinker with the system and make a change here or there, but on their willingness to uproot the entire tax code and implement a pro-growth system,” he said at a 1997 conference hosted by Empower America.
“On the Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington, there is a quote that says: ‘Taxation is the cost of a civilized society,’” Blackwell said that year. “We’re paying too much for too little civilization.”
In 2000, when he chaired Steve Forbes’ presidential campaign, he again argued for a flat tax.
Now, in his gubernatorial campaign, Blackwell is calling for converting Ohio’s progressive income tax into a 3.25% flat tax. He is also calling for abolishing the state death tax.
In recent years, Blackwell opposed Gov. Bob Taft, a fellow Republican, and the Republican controlled state legislature as they increased spending and hiked the state sales taxes. Earlier this year, he led the effort to place an initiative on Ohio’s November ballot—the Tax Expenditure Limitation (TEL) amendment—that would have limited both state and local spending increases to 3.5% per year or the sum of the rate of inflation plus the rate of population increase.
After Blackwell trounced his opponent, Atty. Gen. Jim Petro, 56% to 44% in the GOP gubernatorial primary, the Republican establishment capitulated and enacted a bill codifying the state-government spending restrictions in Blackwell’s TEL. The initiative was removed from the ballot.
But Blackwell is still pledging to repeal a 10% increase in the state sales tax enacted by his fellow Republicans.
When I asked him what the he sees as the core principles his party must defend now, he put individual liberty at the top of the list.
“First,” he said, “that the individual is at the center of our political system, not the state, not government. I believe in limited government. I actually believe that free men and free women and free markets can overcome any kind of economic challenge.”
“I trust in people to make good decisions,” he said. “I understand there are things, but only a limited number of things, that government can do that individuals and communities of individuals cannot do by themselves.”
One thing he insists government must do is defend the God-given rights of its citizens.
A member of the Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church in Cincinnati, Blackwell finalized his formal education—and honed his debating skills—among the Jesuit priests at Xavier University, where, as an undergraduate, he majored in education and philosophy and then took a master’s degree in education.
He later became a teacher at Xavie, and one of its vice presidents. His wife, Rosa, whom he has known since 4th grade, and who is superintendent of the Cincinnati public schools, also attended Xavier and is on university’s board of trustees.
“I probably am among the rarified few who have read the Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II, twice,” says Blackwell, referring to a series of lectures in which the late pope explained his understanding of the purpose and sanctity of marriage.
In 2004, Blackwell was the leading proponent of a ballot initiative for an Ohio constitutional amendment that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and prohibited legal recognition of same-sex unions. The initiative won 62% of the vote on the November ballot that year and helped drive a record turnout in which a million new Ohio voters came to the polls. Given that President Bush would not have won an Electoral College victory in 2004 if he had not won Ohio, and that he won Ohio by only 118,775 votes, it is a reasonable to assume John Kerry would be President today had it not been for the Blackwell-led marriage amendment.
Blackwell has been endorsed by the Club for Growth as well as the Republican National Coalition for Life. “Ken Blackwell believes all innocent life is sacred and should be protected,” says his campaign website. “His opposition to abortion has been steadfast and consistent, he has always been pro-life. The first obligation of government is to protect innocent life. As governor, Ken would advance a culture of life, just as he has for 30 years, as mayor of Cincinnati, ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission and in statewide office.”
Beyond his credibility as a conservative activist, his long experience in public office, and his deep knowledge of the issues, Blackwell is a great campaigner. He has an unaffected, easygoing style—and wit.
At a fundraising event at the Nationwide Arena he was greeted by a group of former Ohio State and professional athletes who support his candidacy. They include Clark Kellogg, who played for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and is now a network television basketball analyst; Granville Waiters, who played for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls; Lawrence Funderburke, who played for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings; and William White, who played safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1999 Super Bowl.
As we entered the room, Blackwell joked about his own brief career in the NFL. After graduating from Xavier, he says, he was invited to training camp by the Dallas Cowboys. When the Cowboys tried to convert him from linebacker to offensive lineman, he decided he didn’t want to play pro football after all and went home to Cincinnati. Some years later, however, he was invited to an NFL Alumni event, where he found himself teasing a long-time star of both pro football and politics.
“So I said to Jack Kemp,” Blackwell recalls with a laugh, “you played 13 years in the NFL and I played 13 minutes—and we still have the same alumni status.”
Had the Ohio gubernatorial election been held two years ago, Blackwell would be governor today, and conservatives around the nation would be clamoring for him to run for even higher office. But this year is a tougher year to be a Republican—especially in Ohio, where the party’s image has been damaged by Gov. Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest to ethics charges, and Rep. Bob Ney, who is under investigation for his dealings with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and who is not running again.
So far, Blackwell is down in the polls. But his campaign has just started to effectively define his Democratic opponent, Rep. Ted Strickland, as the liberal-masquerading-as-a-moderate he truly he is.
And something tells me conservatives are going to be cheering for Ken Blackwell long after this November.