Sunday, January 09, 2000

Aronoff: Ever close to power


Retired Senate president still wields clout as high-profile lobbyist, lawyer

BY TERRY KINNEY
The Associated Press

        When Stanley Aronoff ended his 36-year career in the Ohio Legislature a few years ago, it was an emotional departure. He had been president of the Senate for eight years and wielded immense power.

        “I only have withdrawal symptoms three times a week,” he said from his corner office high in a downtown Cincinnati high-rise, two blocks from the Aronoff Center for the Arts.

        The new career Mr. Aronoff has made for himself as a lawyer-lobbyist may provide a preview of what's to come in Ohio. About 40 lawmakers can't run for re-election because of new term limits this year, and while some will find other offices to run for, others may follow Mr. Aronoff's route as a behind-the-scenes deal maker.

        Mr. Aronoff waited the year required by law, then registered as a lobbyist for Ameritech, British Petroleum, 3M, Philip Morris Cos. and several other high-profile companies.

        Mr. Aronoff is in the business of delivering votes in a Legislature where fellow Republicans control both houses, but says that he prefers to work on long-term strategy.

        “I don't mind the word "lobbying,' but I do lots of consulting, which is a four-to-five-year plan, in my mind,” Mr. Aronoff said. “I like to have clients who want me for more than a one-time "pass' or "kill' on a bill.”

        When Mr. Aronoff left the Senate in December 1996, he could have served another four-year term. But a scandal over speaking fees and the prospect of term limits creating a logjam of succession persuaded him to retire.

        “It's funny how you can fear leaving something you love so much and is so important at the time,” Mr. Aronoff said. “But I know I made the right decision to leave when I did and, hopefully, I left while I was still reasonably on top.”

        In February 1996, he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts of failing to file accurate financial disclosure statements. He was among 11 legislators — including then-House Speaker Vern Riffe — involved in a “pancaking” scandal in which they were accused of avoiding reporting large payments by getting stacks of small speaking fees.

        “I felt so bad for him,” said Judge Joe Vukovich of Youngstown, a Democrat who also served in both houses. “It had to hurt him deeply. You could see the pain in his eyes. He deserved a better send-off.”

        Although it's hard to imagine a politician who wouldn't make some enemies over four decades, even those who served across the aisle from Mr. Aronoff are loath to say anything bad about him.

        “Even though we may have had different views on issues, he never hesitated to give me an opportunity to express my views,” U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said. “I think his understanding of power was that you can exercise power without being heavy-handed.”

        Former Sen. Joe Vukovich said he was treated better by Mr. Aronoff while in the Senate than by fellow Democrats while in the House. He recalls being upbraided by Mr. Riffe in a Columbus bar — in the presence of a reporter — and being stripped of a committee chairmanship by the petulant speaker.

        “That would never have happened with Stan,” Mr. Vukovich said.

        Mr. Aronoff learned about the exercise of power before he had it.

        “In the '70s, I learned what it was like to be in the minority,” Mr. Aronoff said. “I never forgot, and that helped me be a better leader.”

        Mr. Aronoff was such a boyish-looking 28 when he launched a 36-year career that, the story goes, Mr. Riffe mistook him for a page and tried to send him for coffee.

        Mr. Aronoff's latest indignity was a drunken-driving charge that resulted from a fender-bender in the Statehouse parking garage in August. He refused a breath-analysis test and entered a plea of not guilty to the charge. The case is pending.

        He still burns the miles between Columbus and Cincinnati, as he did for 36 years as a legislator.

        He heads the law firm founded by his father; is chairman of the Capitol Square Foundation trustees, who administer the Statehouse grounds; and is a trustee of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

        Cincinnati developer Neil Bortz, a longtime friend and Harvard roommate of Mr. Aronoff, said the former lawmaker had considered a career on stage and earned the nickname “Gaylord” in his teens because of his glibness and good looks.

        “Gaylord was a name often given to a riverboat gambler,” Mr. Bortz said, probably after the character Gaylord Ravenal in the musical Show Boat.

        Mr. Aronoff was just three years out of Harvard Law School in 1960 when he was elected to the first of his three terms in the Ohio House, where he used a “Gaylord” move to create the Ohio Arts Council. He won Gov. James Rhodes' support by promising to fund a statue of the governor.

        Mr. Aronoff moved to the Senate in 1966 and rose to power as a state budget maker but remained a staunch supporter of the arts.

        By the late '90s, times were changing in a Statehouse once dominated by Mr. Rhodes, the folksy, four-term Republican governor, Democrat Mr. Riffe and Mr. Aronoff, the consensus builder.

        “With term limits, with younger people coming in, with parties seeming to polarize a little more ... I'm happy to look at it from a distance and still be kind of a part of it,” Mr. Aronoff said.

        His style remains patrician.

        “I approach lobbying and consulting the way I did as president of the Senate: If I can't persuade you by logic, then don't follow me,” Mr. Aronoff said. “I think most legislators respond to that.”

        As a legislator, Mr. Aronoff had statewide impact. But he also had a narrow focus on Cincinnati.

        “In the early '80s, we were losing the downtown,” Mr. Bortz said. “Without Stanley, we never would have gotten anything downtown like the theater.”

        That is, the Aronoff Center for the Arts, which cost about $82 million, including $40 million in state funds engineered by Mr. Aronoff. The Aronoff Center for Design and Art on the University of Cincinnati campus was another windfall — and another reason for Mr. Aronoff to retire.

        “I was thrilled with the buildings,” Mr. Aronoff said. “But once they're there, it's kind of the highlight of your career, and I didn't want to do anything from that point on to diminish it. They sort of symbolize those 36 years.”

       



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