March 16, 1997
Taft simmers as Blackwell
turns up heat

BY Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Call Amnesty International. Call Human Rights Watch.

Ken Blackwell has shoved another bamboo shoot under one of Bob Taft's fingernails. The torture continues.

For a politician who was once the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Blackwell - the former Cincinnati mayor and councilman and present state treasurer - doesn't mind applying a little torture now and again to his fellow native Cincinnatian. Mr. Taft is hoping to have a primary-free ride next spring to the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Over the past several months, Mr. Blackwell has rankled many in the Ohio Republican Party leadership - most of whom have all but officially endorsed Mr. Taft for governor in 1998 - by doing everything in his power to make it appear that he is ready, able and willing to take on Mr. Taft.

If that were to happen, it would likely be the ugliest Ohio GOP fight since Mr. Taft's father and Jim Rhodes tangled for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination 27 years ago.

Mr. Taft would just as soon not have to deal with Mr. Blackwell's gubernatorial overtures; he's busily raising money - nearly $2 million - that he would much rather spend on a fall campaign against a Democratic candidate for governor than on a primary fight that he could lose.

But Mr. Blackwell, no wallflower he, has taken every opportunity to get under the skin of Mr. Taft; and, while he is at it, that of Gov. George Voinovich, who is running for the U.S. Senate in 1998 and who has publicly blessed the Taft candidacy.

Well, it may not be real torture. It's more like severe aggravation. Prolonged annoyance. Intensive angst-inducement. After all, he hasn't locked Mr. Taft into an iron maiden and made him listen to the last six Voinovich state-of-the-state addresses. Nothing like that.

No, our state treasurer is more subtle than that.

Instead, he made a 10-minute video about himself that outlines his life story - growing up in Avondale and the West End and becoming a football star at Xavier University. It lists his rather long and impressive resume: Cincinnati councilman, mayor, assistant to Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, U.N. ambassador, state treasurer, the first African-American to be elected to one of Ohio's statewide constitutional offices.

He goes on, in a interview where he speaks to the camera in calm and measured tones, to outline a program for Ohio which decidedly does not sound like the platform of a man running for re-election to the bean-counting post of state treasurer.

Instead, he talks about rewriting and simplifying the state's tax code, 10 percent across-the-board tax cuts and his idea for a ''super-majority'' vote of the state legislature before it could raise taxes.

Then, as the piece de resistance, there is a photograph of Mr. Voinovich and Mr. Blackwell in happier times, with a voice-over quote from the governor on how Mr. Blackwell - or ''Kenny,'' as he likes to call him - is a prince among men.

Included with the video, which went out to about 500 of the biggest contributors to Ohio GOP campaign coffers, was a letter asking for contributions to ''Ohioans for Blackwell'' - without specifying what office he is seeking.

Mr. Blackwell's campaign fund has about $400,000 in it right now. If the video appeal works, it may push Mr. Blackwell into a decision to take on Mr. Taft next spring. The decision, Mr. Blackwell says, will come in May.

In the meantime, Mr. Taft won't be hard to find. Just follow the trail of sweat.