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Published: 7/29/2001

Ohio term limits have triggered musical chairs

COLUMBUS - On Sept. 5, 1990, Republican statewide candidates in the “down ticket” races signed a voluntary “Declaration of Term Limitation,” pledging that they would limit their time in office to two successive terms if they won.

“When terms are limited, statewide officials must seek other statewide office, or depart the scene,” said Bob Taft, candidate for secretary of state. “This opens other offices up to new leadership ... Everyone benefits from limited terms - that is unless they are officeholders who have made a career of holding the same public office.”

A GOP press release said: “The `Declaration' also states that prolonged incumbency can lead to stagnant leadership which acts as a barrier to new ideas. Noting the constitutional limit already in place for the office of governor, the `Declaration' says that a beneficial effect would be seen if enacted for all statewide offices other than state Supreme Court.”

It was in 1990 that the cycle began to turn in favor of Ohio Republicans.

In addition to George Voinovich capturing the governor's office, Mr. Taft defeated incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown in the secretary of state's race.

Republican Jim Petro lost to long-time Democratic incumbent Tom Ferguson, but Mr. Petro captured the seat four years later. When Democratic state Treasurer Mary Ellen Withrow became U.S. treasurer, Mr. Voinovich tapped Republican Ken Blackwell as her successor. Republican Paul Pfeifer narrowly lost to Democrat Lee Fisher for attorney general, but Republican Betty Montgomery knocked off Mr. Fisher in 1994.

In 1992, Ohio voters amended the state Constitution to impose term limits on state legislators and add other statewide officeholders - with the exception of the Supreme Court - to the two successive terms that the governor's office has had since 1954.

With GOP sweeps in statewide non-judicial races in 1994 and 1998, there's not much mention of the “Declaration of Term Limitation” around Statehouse Square.

But there is a concern among some Republicans about how voters next year will react to the musical chairs that term limits have triggered. Democrats will try to whip up public opinion and could come up with their own “Declaration of Term Limitation,” which would vow that state elected officials should have to sit on the sidelines for a term before running again for another statewide office.

Mr. Petro, who can't run for auditor again, wants to be attorney general. Ms. Montgomery, who can't run for attorney general again, wants to be auditor. Mr. Blackwell, the secretary of state, could run again for that post, but he wants to be treasurer. Joe Deters, the Treasurer who also could run for re-election, wants to be attorney general.

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It was fitting that Kevin Kellems resigned this week as Governor Taft's press secretary to take a job at the Pentagon - the second person to flee the job since Mr. Taft took office in 1999.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story with the headline, “Bush Media Shyness Could Be Handicapping His Agenda.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Taft have more in common than their famous families and their gubernatorial credentials.

“Since taking office nearly six months ago, Mr. Bush has largely avoided extended questioning from the news media or the public,” the Journal wrote. “Instead, a risk-averse Bush team that campaigned as Washington outsiders have come to rely on closed-door sessions with members of Congress and heavily scripted public events to move the administration's agenda.”

After his 1998 victory in the governor's race, Mr. Taft pledged to hold regular news conferences or briefings, but he has not followed through and it has damaged perceptions about his leadership. It's not surprising. During the campaign, an adviser told newspaper reporters that the campaign would be won on 30-second TV ads and whatever “free media” the candidates could grab from TV news.

When he held a brown-bag lunch for Statehouse reporters in November, 1999, Mr. Taft admitted that he was unaware of a 1993 state law that allows death-row inmates to choose between the electric chair or lethal injection - a nightmare for a governor who views reporters as interested only in “gotcha” stories.

Mr. Kellems ran into a harsh reality of Mr. Taft's leadership style. The inner circle is small - the governor, Chief of Staff Brian Hicks, and First Lady Hope Taft.

But Mr. Taft is running for re-election next year and if you're a reporter who doesn't work in central Ohio and have never talked to Mr. Taft, get ready to have a new friend.

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



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