Gizzi on Politics: Sept. 17-21

After Hagel

Last week, two-term Sen. Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) announced he will not seek re-election next year or run for any office (thus, apparently, ruling out speculation the 60-year-old Nebraskan would share an independent presidential ticket with liberal Independant New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg).

Elected in 1996 as a strong conservative who called for no taxes and abolishing the Department of Education, decorated Vietnam veteran, former Reagan Administration official, and investment banker Hagel was an overnight GOP sensation. His background, resonant voice and knowledge of foreign policy sparked immediate talk of Hagel as a Republican presidential hopeful. Even this year, he stunned supporters by appearing poised to declare for the nomination and then holding a press conference to say he had not yet made up his mind.

But, like friend and fellow senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.), whom he backed for President in 2000, Hagel irked supporters on the right on several issues—supporting a liberal energy bill to curb greenhouse emissions, backing more extensive political donation reporting and, most recently, backing the administration’s comprehensive immigration reform bill (while his Nebraska Democratic colleague Sen. Ben Nelson was fighting the measure).

Sunday talk show favorite Hagel probably is best known for breaking with President George W. Bush on the Iraq War after initially supporting him. Referring to Vietnam (where he took shrapnel intended for younger brother Tom Hagel), the Nebraskan declared: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand there and accept the status quo and let it all happen again.

State Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning, distancing himself from Hagel on Iraq and illegal immigration, announced earlier this year he would run for the Senate regardless of what the incumbent did. Republican National Committeeman Hal Daub, a past congressman (1980-88), mayor of Omaha and two-time Senate candidate, has also signaled he might well run. Columbus businessman Tony Raimondo and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns (himself a former Nebraska governor) could get into the race as well.

Democrats smell a chance of winning, but only if they recruit a top-tier candidate. The man most often mentioned is popular former Sen. (1988-2000) Bob Kerrey, now a college president in Manhattan, who met with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) soon after Hagel’s announcement.

‘Rep. Gillmor, II’ or ‘Rep. Latta, II’?

A week after the sudden death September 6 of Rep. Paul Gillmor (R.-Ohio) in his Arlington, Va., home after an apparent fall, talk continues over who will succeed the well-liked, 10-termer.

Sources who spoke to me said that they anticipated a “snap” special election coinciding with municipal elections in the Buckeye State in November—and believed that the next congressman from the heavily Republican 5th District would be a Republican with the same last name as one of its last two U.S. Representatives.

The congressman’s widow, former State Sen. Karen Gillmor, is the first possibility everyone mentions. The 59-year-old Mrs. Gillmor, mother of the congressman’s three youngest children, who worked closely in her husband’s campaigns, was appointed to the State Employee Relations Board in 1997.

“The problem with Karen,” one GOP source who requested anonymity told me, “is that she and Paul never really lived in the 5th District. The Toledo Blade was always hammering Paul and Karen on the fact that they owned homes in Northern Virginia and suburban Columbus but not in the district he represented. It never hurt Paul, and he never had a tough re-election, but you can bet it will really come out again if she runs.”

The counterarguments are, of course, that Karen Gillmor has already been elected to office and that widows of congressmen have an outstanding record of success in special elections. The other name talked about for the 5th District is that of State Rep. Bob Latta, son of still-revered conservative Rep. Delbert Latta, who held the 5th District from 1958-88. Almost a generation after he left Congress, Del Latta is still spoken of in near-worshipful tones by conservatives who recall him as a spirited foe of federal spending and as co-author of the famed Gramm-Latta Act of 1981, which contained the massive spending cuts signed into law by Ronald Reagan. (Budget Committee Member Latta actually sponsored the original bill with language from Reagan that had $5 billion more in cuts than the version that finally passed, in large part with Democratic crossover votes.)
When the elder Latta stepped down in 1988, Gillmor won nomination in the all-important GOP primary over Bob Latta by a margin of 27 votes out of 63,000 cast. The younger Latta went on to be elected Wood County commissioner, state senator and then, after being termed out under the state’s term limits for senators, state representative.

Along with holding the same offices his father did before going to Congress, Bob Latta has also followed in his footsteps as a hard-charging fiscal hawk. He broke with Republican Gov. Bob Taft in opposing the Capital Activities Tax, a tax on gross sales that would have hit hard at the service business.

Other Republicans mentioned for the race include State Senators Steve Buehrer and Randy Gardner, both of whom are considered less conservative than Latta or Gillmor and lack the wallop of those last names.

Farewell to ‘Mr. Inside’

“The margin will hold up, don’t worry,” Paul Gillmor telephoned to tell me in May 1988. “I want you to know, so you can let your readers know.” Anyone who was following the Republican primary in Ohio’s 5th U.S. House district knew what he was talking about: Then-State Senate President Gillmor had run in the primary for the House seat vacated by Rep. Del Latta. His race with attorney Bob Latta, son of the congressman, was a cliff-hanger, and I originally had to report there was no clear winner. About eight days later, Gillmor was calling to tell me he had beaten the younger Latta by only 27 votes out of more than 63,000 cast.

Once I got the word, I had barely finished congratulating him when, predictably, Gillmor and I were talking about the nuances of Ohio political history. Most people who had gone through a race like he did would probably hang up and head for bed for a week. But not Gillmor. My fellow political junkie laughed dauntingly when I could not recall the two other candidates in the four-candidate Republican primary for governor of his state in 1970 aside from winner Roger Cloud and Rep. Buz Lukens, the third-place finisher.

After the news of his death, that was the Paul Gillmor I remembered: big, avuncular and passionate about history and politics. He was never really a congressman that many outside his district or Congress knew well—although all who knew him genuinely liked him. I particularly remember a major interview with him that included some not-so-flattering reminiscences about his state’s Democratic Sen. John Glenn and a warning to me that the former astronaut would be no pushover as ranking Democrat on the 1997 Senate committee investigating illegal campaign donations from abroad and chaired by a Republican senator named Fred Thompson. Gillmor was right, as Glenn repeatedly one-upped and stole scenes from the Tennessean.

After earning his law degree from the University of Michigan and serving a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Gillmor at 27 won a seat in the Ohio Senate. Rising to become senate president, the man from Old Fort, Ohio, increasingly clashed on spending issues with the Buckeye State’s four-term Republican Gov. James Rhodes. Although he was not as outspoken as other high-profile Rhodes foes—notably the late Rep. John Ashbrook (R.-Ohio) or State Sen. Tom Van Meter—they nonetheless adopted Gillmor as their ally. In 1986, when Rhodes, as an ex-governor, sought a non-consecutive fifth term, Gillmor placed second in the primary against him. Rhodes was defeated in November by the then-incumbent, Democrat Richard Celeste.

With a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 81%, Gillmor was obviously no conservative icon like Ashbrook. A member of the Energy and Commerce and Financial Services Committees, he was described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as “a workmanlike lawmaker, chewing on unlit cigars as he pondered public policy,” uninterested in higher office or a leadership position.

Paul Gillmor was my friend and to know him enriched my life. Like so many others who had the pleasure of his company, I will miss him.