By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau
MANCHESTER - Ohio Senate President Doug White will never forget the day he killed a man.
It was a clear, sunny morning, and White was pulling two empty flatbed hay wagons through town when one broke loose and crossed into the other lane. A metal piece hit an oncoming truck. The driver died instantly.
"It went through the fender and out the dash and straight through the man's heart," White recalls, fighting back tears. "I was about to go back and say, 'Yeah buddy, it was my fault,' and then I realized he was dead."
In that moment, White's whole life turned upside down.
"Everybody around here knows me, but I found myself standing across the street, with all the people on the lawns and up on the slopes, and I was all alone," he says, his voice breaking. "My chest started hurting, and for the next 35 minutes it got to the point that I knew I was going to die."
White started praying. He prayed like he had never prayed in his entire life.
"I told God, 'I don't know what I'll ever do in my life, or where I'll end up. But if you show me that somebody's hurting, I may not be able to do more than hold them, but I pledge to you that's what I'll do.' "
White says he never forgot the prayers he uttered on that September morning in 1982. He says the crash made him more compassionate and open to others - skills he believes helped him rise in January to Ohio Senate president, one of the most powerful jobs in state government.
Today, the lessons from White's past translate into a leadership style that is dramatically different from his predecessor, Richard Finan, a tightly wound probate lawyer from Cincinnati who ruled the Senate with an iron fist.
In the next month, White, a tobacco farmer from Adams County, will lead senators as they decide who should pay more in taxes and which programs to cut to address the worst state fiscal crisis since World War II.
But unlike Finan, White says he won't dictate what must be done. He prefers to use persuasion.
"If you put a boot to a man's throat, eventually you can get him to do what you want," the Republican leader says. "But then you have to live with that."
White, 60, attributes his low-key style to two major influences: the Bible and growing up on a farm along the Ohio River.
The Bible taught him not to try to grind his enemies into dust.
"It's a total waste of energy," he explains, "because God says, 'I can raise your enemies up from dust to overcome you.' "
The farm taught him it is better to get into sync with people than fight them.
"The thing you learn out here," he explains, waving a hand over his pastureland, "is if you don't work with nature, nature will kill you."
White readily admits that his laid-back approach doesn't always get the job done.
His first big leadership test came in February, when Republican Gov. Bob Taft desperately lobbied state senators to raise sales taxes to plug a $720 million deficit before the fiscal year ends on June 30.
White agreed with the governor, but failed to deliver the votes. "I just couldn't make it happen," he said after the session. "I passed what we could pass."
Talking about the vote the next day, White minced no words.
"My inexperience in leadership showed," he said bluntly.
House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican leader known for cracking down on lawmakers who step out of line, says White still has a few things to learn when it comes to controlling a caucus.
He recalls that at one point during the debate he told White he had 24 House members determined to vote against the sales tax bill.
"I had to laugh. He didn't think we could get it passed, but I told him we'd get there in 24 hours," Householder says. "With one member, I kicked his butt. With another, I put my arm around him and did a little cajoling. And with another, I cut a deal. Doug is going to have to learn that it's not just about counting votes. You've got to know what (lawmakers') hot buttons are."
White, he says, is a "consensus builder who doesn't drive anybody toward one thing."
Senators on both sides of the aisle agree with that assessment. "He doesn't view people as expendable," says Sen. Jeff Jacobson, R-Dayton. "And for that, he earns a measure of loyalty."
Jacobson recalls how White backed him during a tough controversy over a plan to save money by reducing funding for two-year colleges.
"He didn't disassociate from me when things got tough," Jacobson says. "He told me that you don't leave an injured man on the battlefield. That really stuck with me."
White's ability to bring both sides together showed in late March when he led a bipartisan coalition of 14 Republicans and six Democrats to pass a$5.8 billion transportation and public-safety budget that includes a 6-cents-a-gallon gas-tax hike. Minority Leader Greg DiDonato, D-Dennison, praised White for working with Democrats, saying they appreciated his straightforward and honest approach.
White, he says, gets results without using intimidation. "Early on, he referenced the Bible and says he saw no need to crush his enemies."
Although Republicans rule the Ohio Senate 22 to 11, White says he is deeply concerned that Democrats continue to end up at the decision-making table.
"Is it necessary to get things done? Not at all. It is necessary for Doug White's heart, for my fulfillment, my psyche," White says. "Power is not my thing. To me, a leader is a facilitator."
Out in front
Wrestling with a brutal budget deficit and gas-tax hikes aren't the only battles White has found himself facing in his first few months on the job. Days after he was sworn in, a firestorm broke out over his use of the phrase "Jew them down" when telling a joke at a Cleveland fund-raiser.
White apologized to Jewish leaders and told reporters he didn't understand the remark was anti-Semitic. "Hillbillies use certain ways, briar-hoppers use certain ways," he said at the time. "I'm a hillbilly."
His response spurred even more blistering criticism, with some newspaper editorials questioning his "yokel defense" and asking whether he had enough polish and sophistication to be Ohio's Senate president.
For White, the experience was illuminating. "I realized people are paying attention to everything I do, everything I say," he says.
The incident also demonstrated White's ability to smooth over controversy almost as fast as he generates it. After he apologized repeatedly and colleagues rushed to his defense, the issue quickly faded.
White says people misunderstand him. He says he grew up joking and telling tall tales, but would never intentionally offend anyone.
"I was ignorant, but I'm not anti-Semitic. I'm sophisticated in a much different way than people from metropolitan areas. I'm sophisticated in my understanding of nature, of the big picture," he says.
"A lot of people around Ohio might look at me and say, 'That corny sucker,' but that's OK," he adds with a grin, "They're going to turn around and find me out in front of them."
'He's still just Doug'
At the Statehouse in Columbus, White is a high-powered leader with a large, ornate office and the media, lawmakers and top state officials attuned to his every word.
At home on his Manchester farm, he still pulls on his muddy boots in the morning and feeds the handful of black Angus cattle that roam through his back yard. He and his wife, Shirley, live in an elegantly renovated, 1820s-style white farmhouse, where White likes to spend his Sunday afternoons watching NASCAR.
"Down here, he's still just Doug to everybody," his wife says, watching White lounge by the fireplace in his house slippers, talking on the phone with the governor's chief of staff, Brian Hicks. "The other day, a check-out clerk told me, 'Your husband's not stuck up at all. He came in here last week and started bagging groceries.' "
White's roots run deep in Adams County, one of the poorest counties in the state. He drives his beat-up, pick-up truck over the same dusty back roads that his grandfather and father - both old-fashioned horse and mule traders - traveled on.
"Even though he only had a sixth-grade education, he was one of the greatest philosophers I've ever known," White says of his father. "He was a workaholic, who rode the roads, buying, selling and talking. A real salesman extraordinaire."
White and his four brothers grew up breaking their father's wild horses, playing basketball and, of course, trying to date the prettiest girls in the county.
White cracks a few jokes as he tells how he developed his love of basketball because he initially thought it would be a good way to meet girls.
"I went to my first dance, and saw a lot of girls standing around, and thought, 'Forget basketball, I'm going to have to learn to dance,' " he recalls.
After high school, White's mother pushed him to go to Ohio State, where he eventually got a degree in animal science. He spent summer vacations working in highway construction until 1964, when he was drafted into the Army.
White believed he was headed to Vietnam but he and four other troops were unexpectedly chosen to serve in Arlington, Va., where he worked as a personal aide to a deputy general. Many of his friends died in Vietnam, and White says he was haunted for years by the fact he never fought in that war.
"I finally went into counseling over the guilt," he says. "I thought, 'Why wasn't it me? Why didn't I go?' All the red-blooded guys whose fathers went to war believed they should go, too."
After his stint in the Army, White returned to Adams County, married Shirley, a teacher who works with the disabled, and went back to his first love: farming.
He was happy working 14-hour days raising animals and tobacco until Sept. 20, 1982 - the day his hay wagon veered off course. The family of the man who died sued, and White says he was so depressed he debated whether to become an alcoholic or commit suicide.
"There was a point when I got up one morning and the decision of whether to put my right leg or my left leg first into my britches was too big a decision," White says. "I went back to bed."
Eventually, the lawsuit was settled, though White declines to give details. He says he then asked himself one critical question: "Do I become a drunk for the rest of my life, or do I fulfill my duties as a father and a husband?"
Although he and Shirley had long been regular churchgoers, White says the wreck helped him develop a stronger relationship with God. Now, he reads the Bible every day, holds weekly Bible study meetings with a half-dozen other senators and mentions God in most of his conversations.
"Before, I was just trying to be a good person. Now I don't try to be good, I just try to be a servant, and there is a difference," White explains. "Serving, waiting on God's inspiration, doesn't take any effort. Once you become the suffering servant, then you are in sync."
His brother Malcolm, a minister at the Keystone Baptist Church in Chicago, also attributes the changes in White to the crash. "I was there as a minister praying with him, and I saw his faith and his compassion increase and mature."
He says White also became a better communicator and gained plenty of experience listening to people who don't share his political views - Malcolm included.
"I'm more liberal than most Democrats. Yet he listens to me tell my side of issues because he knows I've paid my dues," Malcolm says.
Shirley White says her husband's strong interest in politics spurred him to run and win a seat on the county commission in 1985. "He sees (running for office) as a calling," she says simply. "It's all about what the Lord has in store."
In 1990, White defeated longtime Democratic Rep. Harry Malott and moved to the Senate six years later. There, White slowly started climbing the leadership ladder, raising so much money that in 2002, he quietly donated $350,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, which helps elect lawmakers.
"I was pretty innocuous and people really didn't pay attention to me until I was president pro tem," he says, laughing.
Still, White, who was groomed for the job by Finan, downplays his connections and fundraising success.
"I didn't move up because I built the right coalitions. God puts people in my aura, and I befriend them and they respond," he says. "A lot of people don't understand that. But doors open that he wants open, and that's what I'm looking for, God's doors to be open."
This month, White will need all of those coalition-building skills as he pushes the Senate to decide how to plug a budget deficit that could be as much as $4 billion over the next two years.
It will be tough. The parties don't even agree among themselves what to do.
"It's not like Republicans are on the right and Democrats are on the left," he says. "Hell, we're all the way from the right to the left in the same caucus."
Still, White predicts he will get the job done this time.
"As a leader, it's my job to train the troops, to feed the troops, equip the troops and listen, listen, listen," he says. "But ultimately, I will make the big decisions."
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