Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Marilou Johanek

Uphold Ohioans' choice for National Statuary Hall

Play fair. We expect it in everyday transactions and disciplines from sports to politics. Abide by the rules. Accept the consequences.

If someone breaks the rules, makes up new ones, or assumes that none need apply, it bothers our sense of fairness. A case in point is the statewide effort to select a historic Ohio figure for a coveted national honor.

The political shenanigans behind the pending legislative selection of Ohio's representative to the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol are patently unfair. Most folks assume the recognition is going to inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who received the most votes by both a bipartisan committee and on a public ballot.

But defeated contenders are not always gracious losers. From the beginning, rivalry was intense over which notable Ohioan should be immortalized in the Statuary Hall.

A panel of three state senators and representatives considered scores of possible candidates over a lengthy period.

Lawmakers studied numerous suggestions, visited historical sites in the state, and whittled their choices down to 10 finalists. Lobbying commenced on behalf of those who made the roster, including Edison, Jesse Owens, the Wright brothers, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and former Toledo congressman James “Lud” Ashley.

After the oral and written testimony ended, committee members ranked their 10 picks with weighted scores. The top vote-getter was Edison, the most inventive American of all, with solid Ohio roots.

Deliberations might have concluded then. The committee, clearly impressed with Edison's unparalleled contributions to mankind, could have voted to recommend the Milan, Ohio, native as the state's proud new representative in Washington.

Presumably the General Assembly would have rubber-stamped the selection, moving the project closer to completion. But politicians, ever mindful of voter reaction to any whiff of controversy — especially in an election year — opted to put their list of nominees to a vote of the people.

The Ohio Historical Society set up ballot boxes at more than 30 historical sites and museums across the state. Ballots could also be downloaded online. Public response was extraordinary.

More than 48,000 citizens of all ages and from every region of the state voted in the 10-way competition between March 20 and June 12. The study committee acknowledged in advance that it was not bound by the outcome, but the chairman, state Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), said: “We'd be hard-pressed to not respect the will of Ohioans.” That sentiment was echoed by legislators leaning toward nominees other than Edison.

State Rep. Tom Letson, a Warren Democrat, favored the Wright Brothers despite rules requiring each statue to be of one person. But he, too, was pleased to open debate to the public, saying: “It's only fair that every Ohioan has the chance to weigh in on the decision.”

Senator Wagoner insisted the result of the public vote would be the single most important factor in the final committee recommendation. Yet some who took the committee at its word, and worked their tails off to win the popular vote, are scratching their heads now.

The small, one-stoplight town where Edison was born, played as a young boy, and visited as a brilliant, innovating adult, is fighting a sinking feeling of betrayal. Milan's famous son, whose life-changing inventions revolutionized the 20th century and beyond, was the undisputed choice of voters throughout Ohio.

Even after the votes were counted and recounted — thanks to omissions by a fumbling Historical Society — Mr. Edison still led the competition by a significant margin. That should seal the selection by a committee eager to give Ohioans a definitive voice in who will replace the likeness of William Allen, the 19th-century Ohio governor and congressman whose tolerance for slavery is no modern attribute.

But fair play at this late stage in the process may be too much to expect from those who are unwilling to accept the statewide consensus for a new statue. In Dayton, hometown of the Wright brothers, the campaign for most-deserving luminary apparently continues.

Edison enthusiasts in Milan fear their grass-roots victory could be snatched from them at the last minute by a bigger, more influential urban constituency in southern Ohio. So much for winning fair and square.

Today, the full study committee is to vote on its ultimate recommendation — and we'll be watching. Lawmakers can act in good faith with a majority of Ohioans who want Edison, or like pandering politicians who break commitments and bend rules with impunity.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

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