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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

President left his mark on local GOP leaders

BY FRITZ WENZEL
AND ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

American presidents leave their marks on government by signing legislation with official names so long they are nearly impossible to recall. They leave their marks on people by signing autographs, personal notes, and photographs that trigger frequent fond memories.

Ronald Reagan left many imprints on the lives of northwest Ohioans.

Delbert Latta, a 15-term Republican congressman from Bowling Green, probably knew him better than any local resident.

As the most-senior Republican member of the House Budget Committee, Mr. Latta played a key role in the passage of Mr. Reagan's 1981 budget bill that included landmark tax cuts designed to jump-start a stagnant economy. They met weekly at the White House in the early days of the Reagan presidency, crafting a budget that both Mr. Reagan and Mr. Latta would point to as a high point of their Washington careers.

Mr. Reagan later presented the congressman with a pen used to sign the historic tax cut into law. Years later, when Mr. Reagan learned Mr. Latta would retire from the Congress, he sent him a congratulatory note.

"We had a great relationship," Mr. Latta recalled yesterday. "We had many, many meetings with him at the White House. We always met in the Cabinet room, and he would come in and sit down and he would have a story to tell to relate to what we were going to take up," he said.

Mr. Latta, who served under seven presidents, said Mr. Reagan was the best, and that he decided to retire rather than serve under an eighth.

After he had open-heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, one of the first calls he got was from Mr. Reagan. Later, after Mr. Latta returned to Washington and attended another meeting at the White House, the congressman said the President announced a discovery had been made.

"He opened that meeting by saying that 'At least we found out Del Latta had a heart.' "

Similar stories abound. President Reagan will be remembered by local political figures as a commanding figure with an engaging personality who became President when inflation was in the double digits and interest rates were skyrocketing. Dozens of Americans held hostage overseas for more than a year were released as he was sworn in.

Mr. Reagan restored the nation's self-confidence and its reputation around the world at one of its darkest moments in modern times, they said.

Former Toledo Mayor Donna Owens's professional relationship with Mr. Reagan provided her with a lasting lesson in the difference between perception and reality, which was cemented in her mind by an encounter after his Oct. 12, 1984, re-election campaign appearance in Perrysburg.

His stop there came at the end of an exhausting day on the road.

"After speaking, along with him, from the back of the train, they asked me if I wanted to ride back to the airport with him, and of course I said 'Yes.' This came at a time when they were hammering him about his age."

Once the nighttime rally concluded, she was escorted to his limousine, where she waited for him inside. Two young aides then appeared, and, exhausted, plunked themselves down onto the seats and promptly fell asleep.

Soon after, the 73-year-old President popped into the car, full of energy, looking like his day had just begun.

"I looked at these young kids, and then I looked at him, and I thought, 'Oh, sure, he's way too old for the job. Yeah, right.' "

The Toledo Republican still has an autograph he signed for her that day on White House stationery.

Ms. Owens, who served as mayor from 1983 to 1989, made many trips to the White House during his presidency, and was always "trying to find out what was this magic about Ronald Reagan that really crossed all political lines."

She concluded it was his ability to verbalize the American dream.

Tom Noe was at that 1984 Perrysburg campaign event and remembers the energy. It was his first experience seeing a sitting president and one that remains a highlight in his life, he said.

What was unusual about it was the lack of detractors, Mr. Noe said. Most presidents attract protesters on the campaign trail, but Mr. Noe said that wasn't the case in Wood County.

"That was the type of president [that] Reagan was. He brought everyone together," said Mr. Noe, whose extensive political memorabilia collection is filled with items from the Reagan era. "And I was there, one of the crazy Reagan Republican supporters holding a banner in the crowd."

In part inspired by Mr. Reagan, Mr. Noe's political career took off. He became chairman of the Lucas County GOP in 1992, holding the post for three years. His wife, Bernadette, is now chairman.

Although she never met the former president, Ms. Noe said she always drew a parallel between herself and Mr. Reagan. Both began their political careers as Democrats and then became active in the Republican party, she said.

But it will be the country's response to Mr. Reagan's death that Ms. Noe will pay close attention to. It is a time when Americans traditionally come together to honor their country and its leaders, she said.

"It's a real testament to our country," she said. "Whether Democrat or Republican, it's one of the most peaceful and dignified ceremonies we give."

Mr. Reagan's political juggernaut had a lasting impact on local politics. As he swept to a landslide victory in 1980, he carried Lucas County and swept longtime Democratic Congressman Lud Ashley, a 13-term incumbent, out of office.

But Republican challenger Ed Weber, who won the seat that year, was unable to hold it with the power of his own personality, losing in 1982 to Toledo Democrat Marcy Kaptur, who has held the seat to this day.

Miss Kaptur said she opposed Mr. Reagan's tax cut bill because she believed in balancing expenditures and revenues. "The net result of the program that he enacted is that it became more difficult for ordinary families to finance themselves and the higher level of debt that we see families and America bearing really took root in that decade," she said.

Although she disagreed with Mr. Reagan's policies, Miss Kaptur said she admired his charisma.

"One thing about President Reagan, he conducted himself in a way that was not vitriolic," she said. "He was not mean or mean spirited in his partisanship, and I think the country appreciated it."

Former Toledo Mayor John Potter, who was appointed by then-President Reagan to the federal bench, vividly remembers the 1982 telephone call that changed his life. Serving at the time as a judge on the state 6th District County of Appeals, Mr. Potter picked up the phone to hear a White House staff member ask if he had time to speak to the President of the United States.

"That was one time when I made one of my quickest judicial decisions," Judge Potter had said in a recent interview with The Blade. He was unavailable for comment last night.

Public figures across Ohio remembered Mr. Reagan. Gov. Bob Taft ordered flags to half-staff.

"President Reagan will be remembered for reviving the American spirit and restoring America's leadership in the world. His leadership accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the decades-long Cold War. He truly changed the world, and America, for the better," Mr. Taft said. "I was honored to chair his Ohio re-election campaign in 1984, and, together with millions of Ohioans, was inspired by his faith in America and his positive vision for what we can accomplish as a nation."

State GOP Chairman Bob Bennett called Mr. Reagan "a friend to Ohio Republicans, and several times during my tenure as chairman he went out of his way to fly in for various events to help the party.

"It's hard to think of a Republican Party without Ronald Reagan," he said. "He changed the world in a way that few humans ever have, and his passing leaves all of us with a profound sense of loss."

U.S. Sen. George Voinovich praised Mr. Reagan's public service and his candor about Alzheimer's disease after leaving office.

"While mayor of Cleveland I was fortunate enough to work closely with him and grew to know him well. I admired him for his adherence to his principles and his ability to convey those principles to the American people. He inspired all of us and made us proud to be Americans," the senator said.

Toledo Mayor Jack Ford expressed sympathy for the Reagan family and ordered the city's flags lowered until Mr. Reagan is interred.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at fritz@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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