Sunday, November 05, 2000

Politics turns ugly

        In 1981, we had leisure suits in the closet, hostages in Iran, Reagan in the White House and a lingering hangover from the drug-soggy '70s. Pot was nearly as common as polyester.

        It seems like a long time ago, and gratefully far away. But it has been hauled clanking to the surface this year, like some rusted car body dredged from the bottom of a gravel pit. Voters who were not even born in 1981 are hearing about it because 20 years ago, a guy was caught passing a joint with friends in Put-in-Bay.

        Robin Piper, 27 at the time, never expected it would some
day rise up out of the past to drag him down. It was stupid. But there was a lot of that going around in 1981. And it's no more stupid than what has been going in this year.

        A loved and feared J. Edgar Hoover-style county prosecutor, who kept secret files on his enemies, sent an investigator to Put-in-Bay to dig up dirt on his opponent. The fishing trip snagged a marijuana bust. And Mr. Piper tried to head off a dictionary of drug questions by saying, “Assume I tried everything.”

        He said he should be judged on 15 years of enforcing the law, not on one citation for breaking it.

        Then in the middle of the campaign, Prosecutor John Holcomb died. Mr. Piper found himself running against a former friend, Dan Gattermeyer. And an ugly campaign turned creepy.

        An advertisement Mr. Gattermeyer made, based on Mr. Piper's unguarded comment, shows a syringe, a razor blade and pills. “Assume I tried everything” it says, next to Mr. Piper's picture.

        Mr. Piper says that's a distortion. It's brass-knuckles tough — but fair by the rules of full-contact politics.

        But then Mr. Gattermeyer went overboard. As sitting prosecutor, he sent a memo to the sheriff implying that Mr. Piper should be arrested for violating a law that prohibits firearm possession by anyone with a drug conviction.

        Mr. Gattermeyer said the sheriff was confused about the law and he was only trying to help. “I'm not trying to use it politically. I'm just trying to respond to what the sheriff said. There's no vendetta going on here.”

        Mr. Piper's lawyers called Mr. Gattermeyer's memo a “clearly politically motivated attempt . . . both legally flawed and morally bankrupt.” They say there's no drug “conviction,” and such a minor misdemeanor would be exempt from the law anyway.

        Readers who are unhinged by our endorsements will be glad to hear they don't sway elections. They are mainly a restatement of our philosophy and principles, applied to candidates. In this race, we endorsed Mr. Piper. And it might be one of our best calls.

        Mr. Gattermeyer is out of bounds, past the sidelines and into the stands.

        “To me, it's dangerous,” Mr. Piper said, “for someone to want power so bad he will use it to go after his opponents.”

        When he first decided to run, Mr. Piper was sent word from Mr. Holcomb's office “that before it was over, my wife would be crying.”

        And this is more of the same poison politics.

        Voters should worry: If someone will abuse the prosecutor's power to try to get his opponent arrested, what will the prosecutor do when nobody's watching?

        Like the presidency, it's all about character.

        Mr. Piper is ashamed of 1981. “I experimented in areas I'm not proud of and I don't want my children to hear about now. . . . But I'm not trying to make excuses. All of your experiences are what make you the person you are today.”

        It's time to let 1981 sink back into the muck. Better to have a prosecutor who used drugs 20 years ago and learned from it, than someone who acts like he's drugged on power today.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call (513) 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.

        Piper blasted over donation


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