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Published: Monday, 2/5/2001

`Strong mayor' race begins in Cincinnati

CINCINNATI - Just two weeks into the term of the new President, talk down here in the heart of Ohio's Republican homeland is about the next election, and the one after that, and the one after that. For pols, it is never too early to plan ahead.

While Ray Kest, Maggie Thurber, and the rest of the Lucas County gang prepare campaigns to become Toledo's second “strong mayor'' since the city charter was changed in 1992, the race for Cincinnati's first strong mayor since its charter was changed two years ago is under way.

Like Toledo in 1993, the sweeping new powers the next mayor of this town will inherit are attracting attention from some political heavyweights, including Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

It could make sense for Mr. Blackwell, a native who still lives here and commutes to his office in Columbus. He has been battling cancer, and could probably do without the daily drive up and down I-71. Waking up every morning in Cincinnati keeps him informed of local controversies and of the fortunes of would-be competitors.

The secretary had been mentioned as a possible cabinet selection of President Bush, but the call never came. A source in Mr. Blackwell's office said he wouldn't be satisfied with a sub-cabinet job.

And with so many well-known Republicans holding statewide offices in Ohio, the jockeying for position to retain power in Columbus despite term limits has been under way for a while, but Mr. Blackwell has seemed distracted from that game.

State Attorney General Betty Montgomery is term-limited, as is state Auditor James Petro, and they are expected to try a job swap much the way former state Sen. Bob Latta and former state Rep. Randy Gardner changed positions in the November election to avoid the effect of term limits.

There is no clear competition - yet - to spoil Ms. Montgomery's campaign for treasurer, but state Treasurer Joe Deters, another local GOP hero here, is battling for position in the race for AG. Not that either one of them wants to be attorney general - they just believe that post is the best launching pad for governor, and they both intend to run for the top state post in 2006, when, they assume, incumbent Bob Taft - another Cincinnati native - leaves after his second term. Democrats, of course, dispute that Mr. Taft will have a second term.

Mr. Deters boasts that, as a former county prosecutor, he has the career skills to be attorney general and also comes from this GOP bastion, where fund-raising is easy. But Mr. Petro pushes the fact that, as a popular Republican from the heavily Democratic Cleveland area, he has an advantage because he would be able to cut deeply into the natural political base of a Democratic opponent.

Both men are right. Mr. Deters would have the edge in a primary because of his base here, while Mr. Petro would likely do better in a general election.

But the Petro-Deters battle may become moot because another major player is looming on the horizon: U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine.

Mr. DeWine, who just won a huge re-election victory last fall, is making noise about a job swap with Mr. Taft in 2006.

His communications strategist, Mike Dawson, and his chief of staff (who are married to each other) are moving back to Columbus and will run his Washington office by remote control. Some are wondering whether Mr. Dawson, one of the best GOP strategists in the state, is going to lay the foundation for a DeWine run for governor.

The swap makes sense for Mr. Taft, who would follow in the senatorial footsteps of his father and his grandfather, a man known as Mr. Republican.

Not that Mr. Taft would have a clear shot at the Senate. Popular Congressman Rob Portman from here is also eyeing that spot, and may be able to give Mr. Taft a run for the nomination. As the second most powerful man in the U.S. House behind Speaker Dennis Hastert, Mr. Portman could be a prodigious fund-raiser and could be in a position to give Mr. Taft a real licking.


All this is contingent on what has been a constant for several years now: a stunningly weak Ohio Democratic Party, which has been unable to win a non-judicial statewide post in two election cycles and is dramatically outnumbered by Republicans in both houses of the legislature.

It will take some real work for the Dems to dredge up and prop up a viable candidate - maybe even more than one - from a local post to statewide prominence. Not that it would be impossible. After all, they still have Jerry Springer and Carty Finkbeiner in their quiver.

Fritz Wenzel covers politics for The Blade. Email him at fritz@theblade.com.



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