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Published: Sunday, 4/23/2000

A 'soft' beginning to the 2002 governor's race

COLUMBUS - In the 1998 governor's race, Bob Taft displayed a hunger for campaign dollars and a penchant for negative campaigning.

The two, of course, are intertwined. And if Mr. Taft's next opponent is U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown - who lost the 1990 secretary of state's race to Mr. Taft and may lose his congressional seat to redistricting - he'll need a ton of both.

Last week the 2002 governor's race officially began as a flap erupted over Mr. Taft offering Ohio State football tickets and a reception at the governor's residence in exchange for $25,000 contributions to the state Republican Party.

The governor denied knowing that the donations were linked to access, but he did what he often failed to do during the 1998 campaign. He took responsibility and said it would not happen again.

Although no one broke the law, the "soft money" from the "Team Ohio" project flowed into the GOP's operating fund, which can receive unlimited contributions. The problem is that political parties are not required to disclose anything about the contributions as long as the dollars don't directly benefit a candidate.

As Democrats know, their best hope of cracking the GOP monopoly over nonjudicial statewide offices is if the Republicans start to eat their own.

Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who nearly challenged Mr. Taft in the GOP primary two years ago, took a poke at state GOP chairman Bob Bennett by saying state law should be changed to require disclosure. Mr. Taft and a raft of other GOP officeholders followed suit, leaving us with Mr. Bennett's recent testimony to the U.S. Senate Rules Committee.

"We as a party report everything. We as a party use soft money for exactly its intended purposes and its noble purposes: voter education, getting out the vote, and party-building functions," he said.

One criticism of the press is that it harbors a double standard toward politicians and environmentalists.

The argument goes that if a public servant either fails to read a bill or misstates its content, reporters get their pound of flesh. When environmentalists do the same thing, reporters too often don't call them on the floor. Instead, their comments are reported uncritically, perhaps to inject some conflict into an otherwise drab news day.

This accusation popped up recently when U.S. Sen. George Voinovich introduced a bill to require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the risks, costs, and benefits of new or revised air-quality standards before they are issued.

The Clean Air Trust, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., awarded its Clean Air "Villain of the Month" award to Mr. Voinovich. The group said the junior senator from Ohio "has launched an effort to gut the Clean Air Act on behalf of polluting industries."

Although it's true that a cost-benefit analysis could make it tougher for the EPA to issue more stringent rules, Mr. Voinovich's bill does not require the feds to adhere to the results of such a study. They simply could say, as environmentalists did after further questioning last week, that the study underestimates benefits and overestimates costs. So even if Mr. Voinovich's bill becomes law, it would not "gut" the Clean Air Act.

No one has carried a coffin through the streets of Tiffin or Belle Valley, O., but the pulse of the "Other Ohio" movement is slowing.

The movement, of course, was launched by this newspaper's editorial page in 1989. Despite contempt heaped on it by Columbus beltway insiders, the phrase entered the political lexicon and has benefited northwest Ohio.

"Other Ohio" conferences in the Toledo area, Marietta, and Youngstown attracted hundreds of participants in the mid-1990s and presented a thorn in Governor Voinovich's side at a time when nearly every other newspaper editorial page was gushing over him.

One of the hopes of the movement was that the politically out-numbered would build a coalition to challenge the stranglehold that the three C's - Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland - have over the Statehouse.

In the pending state capital budget, an argument can be made that Chillicothe, Massillon, and Youngstown are getting screwed. All three have sought state funding for sports stadiums, and all three didn't get even close to their request as the governor of Cincinnati pours $20 million more into a new crib for the Bengals.

Publicly, there has only been silence from northwest Ohio lawmakers, who apparently are satisfied with taking the $5.4 million for the new Mud Hens stadium.

One irony is that the Dayton area had a chance to join the "Other Ohio" in the early 1990s but declined to do so. After complaining that the Miami Valley didn't get its fair share, the region is doing quite well, thank you, in the capital budget. But that will end when state Rep. Bob Corbin (R., Dayton), chairman of the House Finance Committee, leaves the Legislature after this year.

Jim Drew is chief of The Blade's Columbus bureau.



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