Sunday, February 20, 2000

Former Congresswoman relishes political rebirth

Oak overcomes election law convictions to run for the Statehouse

The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — Two nameplates sit on Mary Rose Oakar's desk in her storefront business office. One is hers. The other bears the name of a friend from Ms. Oakar's days in Congress — the late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill.

        The O'Neill nameplate reminds visitors that Ms. Oakar once moved in powerful Washington circles. But she lost her 1992 bid for re-election and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor violations of election law in 1997 — either of which would have been career-ending blows for most politicians.

        Ms. Oakar is different. At 59, she is running to represent an Ohio House district that cuts through working-class Cleveland neighborhoods and a few inner suburbs that were once part of her congressional district.

        And she is enjoying every moment of her new life in politics.

        A Democrat who still lives in the house where she grew up, Ms. Oakar says the chance to represent her community again and to have a say on issues like education and health care was too good to pass up.

        “This is my career,” Ms. Oakar said. “I think I owe something.”

        Ms. Oakar has been a fixture in Cleveland politics for decades. She served on Cleveland City Council from 1973 until 1977, when she went to Congress.

        In Washington, Ms. Oakar gained a reputation as an effective legislator, especially when it came to securing money for her favorite projects such as breast cancer screening, NASA — which has Cleveland-based research center — and local economic development projects.

        She became a powerful figure among House Democrats, taking Geraldine Ferraro's leadership post in the Democratic Caucus when Ms. Ferraro ran for vice president in 1984.

        But through the years Ms. Oakar was also pestered by questions about her ethics.

        She once had an aide who lived outside the district and Washington in violation of House rules. In another case, Ms. Oakar was cleared of wrongdoing for investing in a townhouse with an aide to whom she gave a $10,000 raise.

        After the House bank scandal broke in 1992, investigators learned Ms. Oakar wrote hundreds of overdrafts at the institution. Her Republican opponent that year, Martin Hoke, portrayed Ms. Oakar as a shady politician and won the election.

        Ms. Oakar's troubles got even worse once she was out of office. The overdrafts triggered scrutiny by federal investigators who ultimately charged her in a seven-count felony indictment.

        Some of those felony charges were thrown out and the rest were dropped when Ms. Oakar pleaded guilty to two election law misdemeanors. She was fined $32,000 and sentenced to two years of probation.

        Now she teaches at a local community college, is host of two radio shows and runs a political consulting business. She said she's moved on from the problems of her congressional days.

        “It's not only that I've put it behind me but so have the voters,” she said. “That makes me feel good.”

        The same seems true of her fellow Democrats and even the three political novices she is running against in the party primary on March 7.

        State Rep. Barbara Pringle, the Democrat who holds the 13th District seat Ms. Oakar is seeking, came up with the idea of Ms. Oakar running. Ms. Pringle has to leave the state legislature because of term limits.

        “She was the first person who came to mind,” as a successor, Ms. Pringle said. “I figured she would know how to get bills passed and bring home money to the district.”

        Ms. Oakar has since won the endorsement of the Cuyahoga County Democrats and several labor unions. She is considered a heavy favorite to defeat her primary opponents: P. Michael Kazarovich, 40, a technician at an aircraft parts maker and a major in the Air National Guard; Brian Patrick Hodous, 26, a social worker and law student; and Kevin Kelley, 31, a social worker who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1997.

        None of her opponents raises Ms. Oakar's previous legal problems in their campaign pitches.

        Mr. Kelley said his concern is Ms. Oakar will use her Ohio House seat as launching pad for a challenge to incumbent Michael R. White in the 2001 Cleveland mayoral election. “She wants to use this seat to achieve higher political office,” Mr. Kelley said.

        But Ms. Oakar said if she goes to Columbus, she will stay there for her two-year term.

        Her longtime supporters are glad to have Ms. Oakar's name on the ballot in any race.

        That was clear from the reception Ms. Oakar received on a recent weekday when she dropped in on a charity card party in the basement of St. Procop's Roman Catholic Church.

        Ms. Oakar flitted between tables passing out campaign literature and remembering old connections with the crowd, mostly older people and women. The candidate was in her element as she recalled teaching some of the players' children when they were in high school.

        The players responded with encouragement. “You're our girl, Mary,” said one.

        “You know I'm with you, babe,” said another.

        “I hope she gets in,” said Alice Smith, who has given Ms. Oakar her vote since the 1970s. “We need more women with the guts to open their mouths.”

        Asked how she felt to be back on the campaign, Ms. Oakar said what was obvious from the look on her face: “I love it.”


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