Sunday, October 13, 2002

Taft gambling that results woo voters


In re-election bid, 'it's about getting things done'

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus bureau

In September, Gov. Bob Taft boarded a luxury motor home with a “Win with Taft” sign plastered on the side and set off to visit 11 cities across Ohio.

During the two-day campaign blitz, the governor schmoozed business leaders, trumpeted his programs before TV news crews and shook hands with people in factories and sandwich shops.

[photo] Gov. Bob Taft in teh garden of the governor's mansion.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
But he never once asked for anyone's vote.

When asked why he didn't mention his re-election bid, Mr. Taft shrugged. “I don't really know,” he said. “That's a good idea. I'll have to start doing that.”

Mr. Taft, who is running for a second four-year term against a relatively unknown opponent, is no Ronald Reagan or even former Gov. Jim Rhodes, both savvy politicians adept at courting voters. On stage, Mr. Taft follows the texts of speeches and rarely tells jokes or interacts with the crowd.

During the tour's opening rally in downtown Cincinnati, he introduced his wife, Hope, by kissing her on the cheek and then nervously shaking her hand, as if meeting her for the first time.

But after 25 years in public office, Mr. Taft isn't worried about an awkward campaign style. He says Ohio voters care more about his accomplishments than his charisma.

“I try to focus on results as opposed to rhetoric,” Mr. Taft, 60, says. “I think it's about getting things done.”

The Republican governor, who grew up in Mount Lookout, is most animated when talking about tutoring programs such as Ohio Reads or his plans for the Third Frontier, a proposal to spend $1.6 billion over 10 years to expand high-tech companies and research in Ohio.

He is less enthralled with rallies, parades and similar made-for-TV events.

“A lot of campaigning can be tiring, and it can be intense. I like meeting people when you have a chance to spend time and get into a discussion,” Mr. Taft says. “I really enjoy the policy issues. Figuring out strategies for school improvements, for economic development and that type of thing.”

Despite his reputation as a policy wonk whose idea of a fun Saturday night is curling up with a good book on management theory, it would be a mistake to dismiss Mr. Taft as a political lightweight.

He prefers governing to running for governor, and he hasn't shied away from tough political battles.

In 1990, Mr. Taft ousted Secretary of State Sherrod Brown in a hard-hitting campaign that showed critics he wasn't afraid to take on a well-known, well-funded opponent.

Eight years later, Mr. Taft was the first to run negative campaign ads in the race for governor against Lee Fisher, another strong Democratic rival. One ad against Mr. Fisher was so harsh that the Ohio Elections Commission — in an unprecedented ruling against a gubernatorial candidate — found that it used false and misleading language.

At the time, Mr. Taft dismissed “the negative infighting as part of the process.”

BOB TAFT FILE
Occupation: Governor
Age: 60
Party affiliation: Republican
Residence: Governor's mansion in Bexley
Education: Bachelor's degree, Yale University; master's degree, Princeton University; law degree, University of Cincinnati
Married: to Hope Taft; one daughter, Anna, 23
Experience: Elected governor in 1998; secretary of state from 1991 to 1998; Hamilton County commissioner from 1981 to 1990; state representative from 1976 to 1980; budget analyst for the state of Illinois from 1969 to 1973; U.S. State Department, Vietnam, 1967 to 1969; Peace Corps from 1963 to 1965.
Accomplishments: Mr. Taft frequently pushes OhioReads, a program he started that now has more than 40,000 tutors for schoolchildren. He says he increased financial aid for college-bound students by 28 percent since he took office — a jump of more than $40 million.
He says his administration has enacted record spending for primary and secondary education, increasing state aid to schools by nearly 40 percent. Ohio now spends more than $2 million a day to build and improve school buildings.
Disappointments: During the budget crisis, Mr. Taft was criticized by members of his own party, who accused him of failing to be a strong leader and pushing to spend the state's $1 billion rainy-day fund too quickly.
The state now has no savings and is expected to face a deficit as high as $4 billion next year.
Last month, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, slapped Mr. Taft with an F for his fiscal policies, saying he is the highest-taxing governor in America.
Mr. Taft's spokesman responded that the governor cut taxes early in his term but was caught this year in a stubborn recession that required new taxes to balance the budget.
He won the race for governor, and after his first year in office, Mr. Taft was under fire for offering seats in his stadium box at Ohio State football games to $50,000 contributors to the GOP. He promised he would never again give “access” to people who gave money to organizations whose donor lists are secret, but then raised money for a pro-business group with unidentified donors that tried to unseat Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick in 2000.

“The governor is not afraid to get his uniform dirty,” his communications director, Mary Anne Sharkey, said at the time.

Like "a Hollywood movie'

This year, Mr. Taft's target is his Democratic opponent, Tim Hagan. Although the governor's television ads focus on his accomplishments, Mr. Taft on the campaign trail calls his rival unrealistic and out of touch.

He says Mr. Hagan's push to expand gambling in order to help balance a budget deficit that analysts say could be as high as $4 billion next year is more of a ploy than a plan. Mr. Taft says it's premature to say how he would deal with the deficit, but that Mr. Hagan's proposal is “kind of like a Hollywood movie. It's over-budget, very expensive and unreal.”

Mr. Taft's Web site calls Mr. Hagan “Taxin' Tim” and portrays him as a cartoon character playing slot machines and gambling away the state's future.

Mr. Taft is favored to beat the Cleveland Democrat, with polls showing him 11 percentage points to 18 percentage points ahead.

Certainly, he has most of the money — more than $9 million, compared with less than $1 million for Mr. Hagan. The governor, the great-grandson of President William Howard Taft and the grandson and son of U.S. senators, also has most of the name recognition. And he has the distinct advantage of incumbency, which allows him to cut ribbons, give speeches, announce millions of dollars in new grants and perform other duties around Ohio that generate free media coverage.

Mr. Hagan, meanwhile, says he has no money for TV ads. Television news crews rarely show up when he campaigns, and he plans to rely heavily on the Internet to get his message out, a method analysts say is failing to reach enough voters.

Still, Mr. Taft is anything but confident. “If this were the late '90s and it was a go-go economy, things would be different,” Mr. Taft says. “It could be a close race because people are concerned about the future of the economy, coming out of a recession and the stock market.”

Mr. Taft, whose legal name is Robert Alphonso Taft II, says he learned from his father, Robert Taft Jr., not to take any political race for granted. He says that his dad, who was unexpectedly defeated by Howard Metzenbaum for a U.S. Senate seat in 1976, “had a hard road” in politics because his grandfather, U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft, was so well-known nationally. His father wasn't nearly as outgoing as his grandfather, who was known around the country as “Mr. Republican.”

“My dad followed in my grandfather's footsteps in a quiet, earnest and effective way,” Mr. Taft says. “My mother was more outgoing and ultimately fun-loving. I'm a little more spontaneous and outgoing like my mom. But my dad set a good example.”

Setting a good example is vital to Mr. Taft, who says he is motivated most by a keen sense of responsibility. “It's important to fulfill responsibilities, to help out where you can in the community, to do the tutoring or make sure you are setting an example for good employees, that you give blood or whatever.”

Eric Okerson, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Taft in the mid-1980s at the Cincinnati law firm of Graydon, Head and Ritchey, says Mr. Taft's life has been focused on positioning himself to be in public service.

“He is not somebody you would peg to end up being the governor of the state of Ohio. He's not slick,” Mr. Okerson says. “But he's so gosh-darned determined. He believes intensely in what he's doing, and when he develops a position, it's hard to shake him off of it.”

Brian Hicks, Mr. Taft's chief of staff, says his boss doesn't “suffer fools lightly” and can be direct in expressing his disappointment in employees who fail to do their homework. At the same time, he says, the governor has a “dry and sometimes biting wit that isn't readily available to the public.”

In terms of public performances, the governor isn't the best on the block, Mr. Hicks says. “He's never going to be a fabulous orator like a Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan,” he says. “But he is a good, engaged office-holder.”

Charting his course

The oldest of two boys and two girls, Mr. Taft was born in Boston, where his father was enrolled at Harvard Law School. He moved to Cincinnati in 1946.

In the sitting room of the governor's mansion near downtown Columbus, Mr. Taft recalls that his mother raised money for the Fine Arts Fund in Cincinnati and taught him the importance of charitable giving. Last year, Mr. Taft and his wife gave $25,842 to charity and believe such giving is a fundamental way to help people.

“I developed a good appreciation of the fact government doesn't do it all,” he says.

Mr. Taft acknowledges that there were strong benefits to growing up in one of Ohio's most famous families. As a child, he vacationed at the Taft family home in Quebec and visited his grandfather on the Senate floor. He traveled extensively and graduated from two top Ivy League schools, Yale and Princeton.

But despite his early exposure to power and wealth, the governor says he was never spoiled. He bristles at Mr. Hagan's contention that the governor was born too rich to understand what most Ohio workers go through to make ends meet.

“We didn't have to struggle. But you know, early on, I can remember going door-to-door selling tickets for raffles for schools and going over and caddying (at a golf course) to raise money,” Mr. Taft says. “I always felt an obligation, or a desire, not to sit back and enjoy the good life.”

Mr. Taft says he knew early on he would chart his own course. After doing some of the expected things, such as graduating with degrees from the prestigious Taft High School in Connecticut and Yale University, he passed up Harvard Law School in 1963. Instead, he joined the Peace Corps, a creation of Democrat John F. Kennedy, and was sent to Tanzania, where he taught children English, math and art.

When asked why he joined the Peace Corps, Mr. Taft grins. “I couldn't get another job,” he says. Then, worried he'd be misunderstood, adds: “That was a joke, a joke.”

Mr. Taft explains that he wanted the experience of living in another country. “I got caught up in that time; it was kind of an exciting time. President Kennedy was just elected and was calling people not to think about themselves but what they could do for their country,” Mr. Taft recalls. “The world was opening up. There was an excitement and an idealism in those times.”

Mr. Taft discovered he liked traveling. While a Princeton student on a post-graduate trip to Central America in 1966, he ran into Hope Rothert in an airport in Guatemala City. A year later, he married the young woman from Camden, Ark., and went to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Saigon.

It didn't take him long to realize that people worried about their villages being bombed weren't too focused on developing administrative skills. After two years, he decided to move to Illinois and work as a budget officer for Gov. Dick Ogilvie, who helped shape many of his views about government.

“I admired him. He was kind of a tank commander, who just faced up to problems and stormed ahead,” Mr. Taft says. “He was a conservative, but he also felt government had a role to play.”

The governor echoes such views, saying he disagrees with conservatives who think there is little place for government in everyday life. “I don't think government has the answer to every social problem, and I think government has become so large that it can stifle the private sector,” he says. “On the other hand, it is important to care for those who simply cannot care for themselves.”

Some conservatives say Mr. Taft is too moderate and take issue with his choice of a running mate, Columbus City Councilwoman Jennette Bradley, who supports abortion rights and gay rights. Mr. Taft, who has long opposed abortion, says Republican legislators who criticize his moderate views likely have constituents who don't need as many government services.

“They come from a different place than I do as a statewide executive.”

"A new deal'

In 1976, after finishing law school at the University of Cincinnati, Mr. Taft was appointed to the unexpired term of a state representative who had resigned. He served in the House until his election to the Hamilton County Commission in 1980, a post he held for 10 years.

In 1990, Mr. Taft decided not to challenge George Voinovich in a Republican primary for governor, and instead won the office of secretary of state. When Mr. Voinovich ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998, Mr. Taft put a bid in for governor and beat former Attorney General Lee Fisher.

It was a heady moment. “Election night, when you go home and see the (Ohio State) Highway Patrol car in the driveway, that's an awakening,” he says. “It's a new deal.”

Mr. Taft quickly discovered there was also a downside to winning the state's top office, including the loss of his cherished privacy. Nodding toward the patrol car parked at the governor's mansion, he says, “There is always someone with me wherever I go. There is always someone out there in the garage. The Highway Patrol is our telephone receptionist here.”

Hope Taft says she spends a lot of time with her husband but they are rarely alone.

“If you want to have a private conversation, it's hard to find that time. You can't go into the yard without being in view of some camera,” Mrs. Taft explains.

“So we try to take a long weekend every month or so. We used to go out of state so no one would recognize us and we could get away from the troopers. But sometimes we just play golf or take walks in the woods.”

The couple like to hike in Hocking Hills or sometimes ride their bikes around their Bexley neighborhood. In lighter moments, the governor might sing a song from South Pacific, West Side Story or My Fair Lady — his favorites.

“I've got a lot of old songs floating around in my head, "Big Rock Candy Mountain,' ” the governor says, softly singing and then humming a tune. Then he laughs.

“But I have a horrible voice, so my audience is really small.”

When they can, the Tafts also spend time outdoors with their daughter, Anna, 23, a recent graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., who is interested in wilderness preservation.

“We do a lot of outdoor stuff with Anna. You've got to. That's the way to see her,” Mr. Taft says with a smile.

“I can remember this spring going out to visit her for the weekend and cross-country skiing. I spent a lot of time on my back, trying to get up.”

Mrs. Taft says her husband isn't afraid to look goofy if it pleases Anna.

“He's the kind of dad who dressed up as a gorilla to be in his daughter's school video. And how many fathers take their daughters to kayak school when they are too big for a kayak and have no balance?”

Mr. Okerson, the Cincinnati lawyer who is still close friends with Mr. Taft, says that Mr. Taft will never be the kind of politician who worries about news articles such as one in a Columbus newspaper this summer.

The article said the “blue-blooded Cincinnati governor” looked ridiculous attending the Ohio State Fair decked out in a giant white cowboy hat and red, white and blue golf shirt.

“Somebody probably said, "Bob, put on a cowboy hat and go to the fair, and he did,' ” Mr. Okerson says. “I don't think he has a natural tendency to be concerned about his image.”

He adds: “The thing that keeps his batteries charged is his desire to do something good for this state. He's an unusual person in the depth of his commitment. He believes intensely in what he's doing, and he is tenacious enough to keep pushing ahead.”

E-mail djasper@enquirer.com




- Taft gambling that results woo voters
Monitor's first steps: Hit ground listening
The busiest judge in Ohio
Colleges in Ohio, Ky. sign ad pledge
Dognapped husky returns after 3 1/2-year absence
Obituary: H. Gordon Martin
Sharonville man: Sniper killed friend
Springboro Junior High cancels Washington trip
Tristate A.M. Report
BRONSON: Antiwar dictionary
HOWARD: Some Good News
PULFER: The field trip
SMITH AMOS: Dodging danger
Evolution may be hot topic, but not in school board races
Teachers want say in lesson plan
When to harvest organs at issue
Candidates struggle to find distinctions
Centre vs. Harvard win to be made into movie