It's all about Ken. The same could arguably be said about most ambitious politicians, but J. Kenneth Blackwell is so darned transparent about his all-consuming political aspirations. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the motivation behind most of Ken's publicity-seeking plans. While he sits biding his time in his Secretary of State's office - when the Ken Blackwell Show is actually not on the road - the Ohio Republican has to do something besides ducking controversy over voting machine bids to get noticed.
And he's no slouch at getting noticed. He knows his party has to pay attention to him because so few other blacks are willing to stand under the GOP banner, and he's only one of three black Republicans in the country to hold elected statewide office. As the nation's most senior black elected Republican, Ken Blackwell gains easy access to the national stage.
No question, Ken is an expert at promoting Ken. Having moved up from Cincinnati City Council to vice mayor, mayor, federal appointee, and state treasurer before election to his current post, he is a driven politician in pursuit of the big time. If the Bush Administration had given him an offer in 2000, he'd be angling for a higher profile in Washington now instead of stirring up contention on Ohio's recently increased sales tax.
But Mr. Blackwell always has a Plan B. By initiating a campaign to repeal this year's 1-cent state sales tax increase, Ohio's chief elections officer could be trying to improve his odds of winning the GOP nomination for governor in 2006. Or, by grandstanding about the evils of high taxes and runaway spending and eventually getting a tax repeal vote on the November, 2004, ballot, he could be bringing more single-issue GOP voters out to support President Bush. Either way, the enterprising Mr. Blackwell could improve his political capital among state and national GOP leaders.
Or not. While the national party likes to give a prominent platform to Mr. Blackwell as evidence of its purported Big Tent inclusiveness, state Republicans see right through his antics. Where was the outspoken Secretary of State this summer when his fellow Republicans were losing sleep over the politically risky option of temporarily raising the tax rate to meet funding obligations in the two-year state budget? What kind of funding alternatives did Mr. Blackwell bring to the table then to address growing Medicaid, higher education, and public school costs?
How exactly did he propose to do more with less - siphoning more of the state's operating budget to fulfill mandated and formula-based spending commitments with dramatically less tax revenue? The time to weigh in with tax increase objections and different spending priorities was when GOP legislative leaders and the governor were wrangling over how to balance the $48.8 billion budget. Even now as the opportunistic Secretary of State rails against the destructive actions of “tax and spend Republicans,” he has no ready plan to replace theirs, no details on how he might balance a budget without the additional sales tax revenue.
In other words, he offers nothing constructive, just a lot of warmed over rhetoric about restoring fiscal discipline to Ohio and getting the state back on track. If voters were to repeal the temporary sales tax increase in November, 2004 (even though it would expire seven months later anyway), who knows where Mr. Blackwell would have the state pare the resulting $650 million spending reductions from its budget. Not knowing is not reassuring to state educators, among others.
If the political climber standing on his anti-tax soapbox wants to be taken seriously as a leader and not just an articulate Republican anomaly, he's got to do more than cry foul after the fact. That means coming up with a committed “vision thing” to tackle challenge head-on with specific possibilities that are open to bipartisan consultation and necessary compromise. That's how you get the state back on track. Otherwise, it's just all about Ken.