The passing of former Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes Sunday marks the end of the most remarkable political career in the nearly 200-year history of the Buckeye State. What set Jim Rhodes apart was his awareness that this state has 88 counties, not three. It is a lesson those who have followed him have not always remembered.
He was a Republican in a state generally considered Republican, but he was a governor for all Ohioans, a man who loved Toledo and Democratic stronghold Lucas County almost as much as his own Jackson County.
And it was a philosophy that inspired great confidence among the citizens of Ohio, who gave him 16 years as governor in two separate eight-year stints. That was part of the man's remarkable political talent. When some doubters might have assumed that he was finished after term limits ended his first eight years, he simply sat out four years and came back to do it all over again.
It was a lesson former Gov. Jack Gilligan learned the hard way. Speaking at his primary election night victory party in 1974, when he sought re-election and knew Mr. Rhodes would be his opponent in the fall, Mr. Gilligan told his cheering supporters that he would beat Mr. Rhodes so badly in the general election that “they'll be counting our votes for months.” He was singing a much different tune when Mr. Rhodes defeated him that November.
How easy it would have been for Mr. Rhodes to ignore Lucas County, where Democrats traditionally have enjoyed a big advantage in voter registration, but that wasn't his style. He visited every county in Ohio at one time or another, and his first question inevitably was, “What do you people need here?”
A frequent answer in Lucas County: a medical college. It was Gov. Rhodes who helped secure the Medical College of Ohio for this region, and it was MCO that he visited on the last trip of his life to Toledo. Two years ago, at 89, and confined to a wheelchair, he insisted on flying to Toledo to be part of the unveiling at MCO of the official portrait of former Blade publisher Paul Block, Jr.
The two men had been key to the college's creation, and he wanted to pay his respects one more time. Typical of his never-slow-down approach, Mr. Rhodes told Blade editors at the time he was already planning his 90th birthday party, and it would involve lots of ice cream.
Jim Rhodes was like that, blessed with great insight and political intuition but a common man who liked ice cream and county fairs and tomato juice, a drink he pushed as the state's official beverage. “Jobs and progress” - that was his mantra, and his words ring as true today as they did in the 1960s and 1970s.
Sadly, he truly was the last of an era of personal politics.
He campaigned one on one, shaking every hand he could reach, unlike the candidates of today who look to special-interest groups for money and TV commercials for exposure. Flying with the governor on the state plane to official functions was always an adventure for reporters. The governor would divvy up a jar of quarters for a spirited game of poker, but no matter who won, the quarters always went back into the jar for next time.
Toledo and Lucas County have an opportunity to repay Mr. Rhodes for his life of public service and his attention and affection for this part of Ohio, and all it will take is a simple act of the General Assembly. The new Maumee River Crossing is a bridge still without a name. While it's regrettable that it was not named for Mr. Rhodes while he was alive to appreciate it, the Legislature should waste no time and just do it.
It's our firm belief that Mr. Rhodes was the best governor this state had over the last century, and perhaps ever. Certainly he is the best governor Toledo ever had - reason enough to perpetuate his legacy with the James A. Rhodes Memorial Bridge.
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