Saturday, January 25, 2003

New Senate president doesn't stray from rural roots

By John McCarthy
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Doug White took the rural route to power.

The new Senate president grew up on a tobacco and cattle farm near the Ohio River in Adams County, one of Ohio's poorest, and took over the family business more than 30 years ago as the youngest of four brothers.

Mr. White says a desire to help people gave him a way into politics and he worked his way to Columbus, where he is one of the three most powerful men in state government, along with Gov. Bob Taft and House Speaker Larry Householder. All are Republicans.

He has never lost his rural charm or his straightforwardness, those closest to him say, but those qualities somewhat mask a knack for budget matters and his political savvy.

Fellow Sen. Scott Nein, a Middletown Republican, came with Mr. White to Columbus in 1991.

"I know many people joked with Doug that he changed his clothes at the roadside stop south of town and he puts on a suit and becomes a city slicker. It's hard, yes, sometimes to believe he comes from where he comes," said Mr. Nein, who considers Mr. White his best friend in Columbus.

Mr. White's background became news almost immediately after he took the gavel from outgoing Senate President Richard Finan. Two newspapers reported Jan. 12 that Mr. White had used the term "jew them down" while describing an auction during a Republican fund-raiser in Cleveland before the Nov. 5 election.

Mr. White immediately apologized when the remark became public and said he was not aware the remark could be offensive.

"I grew up in Adams County," he added.

Mr. White also denied an assertion reported by the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that he had rubbed for good luck the hair of Democrat Rhine McLin, a black former state senator and now the mayor of Dayton. Ms. McLin told the newspaper she was offended but kept quiet.

Neither Ms. McLin nor Mr. White has commented further.

Friends say Mr. White is not bigoted.

"Doug just said something off the top of his head," said Cooper Snyder of Hillsboro, whom Mr. White replaced in 1996 when Mr. Snyder retired from the Senate.

"The expression is not uncommon throughout the whole area I've been a part of," Mr. Snyder said.

Adams County, nestled along the Ohio River about 75 miles east of Cincinnati, is one of five Appalachian counties in Ohio with a poverty rate of more than 19 percent, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures. Its hilly terrain makes farming difficult, with tobacco and livestock the most plentiful products.

While in Columbus, Mr. White doesn't stray from his rural roots.

He has a deep tan from his years working the farm. He is impeccably dressed - "I love a sharp crease in my shirts" - and is ready with a smile as he welcomes constituents to his office.

Mr. White loves to mix stories and truisms from his rural upbringing into his speech around the Statehouse. His yarns may seem corny to insiders, but they make sense to him.

"Every one of those things have very, very sound basis in common sense," he said.

Mr. White once described the seven-year legislative struggle between the electric utilities and their biggest commercial customers on how to get competition into the $11 billion power industry as a fight between two bulls stuck in the same corral. He summed up the legislative impasse on the issue as a reluctance to get between the two sides: "You just wait 'til one of them falls down."

Mr. White, 60, also is known for his love of NASCAR and the relaxed country life. However, he also knows when it's time to go to work.

He said his Army service from 1964-66, when many of his fellow soldiers were going off to fight a little-known war in Vietnam, taught him the value of priorities. Mr. White was an honored military policeman at the Army's communications complex in Arlington, Va.

His military experience applied when he resumed his studies at Ohio State University.

"I learned how to grow in life. I learned, No. 1, that playing first and working second didn't work," Mr. White said. "The discipline of military life helped me to return to campus and be successful."

After graduation, Mr. White began working on his 800-acre family farm, which was left for him to run when his three older brothers, who all graduated from college before him, went on to other endeavors.

"I was on the farm, a full-time farmer for 18 years. I was in Levi's for 6 days a week," he said.

The political bug caught him in the late 1970s, and he served as the Adams County chairman for Mr. Snyder's campaign in 1980. In 1985, he began a six-year run as a county commissioner and arrived in Columbus in 1991 as a freshman representative.

When Mr. Snyder announced his retirement in 1996, Mr. White was appointed to replace him in the Senate. He must step down in 2004 because of term limits.

Mr. White said he is eager to put the fund-raiser remarks behind him and get on with the challenges facing the state, including what the governor has described as the toughest state budget in 50 years.

Fellow Sen. Mark Mallory, a black Cincinnati Democrat, said he believes Mr. White's remarks were out of character.

"People have misinterpreted where he comes from," Mr. Mallory said.

"He's sincere in his desire to help people. Doug and I may have differences as to how you do that, but I've never detected that he's not sincere."

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