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Published: Saturday, 11/16/2002

House Democrats want more than an `olive branch'

COLUMBUS - A few weeks before Election Day, Democrat Tim Hagan was stumping for governor in Trumbull County when a dedicated party worker walked up to him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and asked: “What are you going to do?”

The guy was serious. After listening to Mr. Hagan talk about the looming state budget shortfall and the challenges facing Ohio in a global economy, the man reached a logical conclusion. If a tax increase is death and deep spending cuts are painful, what would the next governor do?

Mr. Hagan privately had a prediction. If Bob Taft was re-elected, as he was on Nov. 5 by a landslide, Democrats in the legislature would sit politely at their desks and deliver a very short but simple message to Republicans next year: You've governed the state, you've cut us out of the debate, you fix the problem.

And if things go wrong, you walk the plank - with conservative Republicans warring with moderate Republicans and devouring each other.

Republicans - who will control the House next session by a 62-37 margin and the Senate by a 22-11 clip - obviously don't like this scenario.

If tough decisions must be made next year, they want Democrats to help and behave responsibly.

And the Republican governor doesn't want a small bloc of right-wing GOP lawmakers to hold the state hostage.

“We need more of a bipartisan approach. The challenge we're facing is too big for partisan posturing, too big for a small group of legislators from either side of the aisle to control the agenda,” said Brian Hicks, Mr. Taft's chief of staff and a top contender to replace Bob Bennett if he steps down as chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.

In fact, state Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) believes the Democrats' strategy to hold back votes on tough decisions about the state budget over the past two years doomed them at the polls Nov 5.

“I was a member of a House caucus that had 38 members. I have walked in their shoes. Republicans rallied together and we went into the early 90s and mid-90s with an agenda on tax policy, anti-crime proposals, welfare reform, and education reform. For the Democrats on the budget to be for no budget cuts and no new revenue, it's difficult for them to propose real solutions,” Mr. Gardner said.

GOP legislators said they have tried to work with Democrats over the past two years, but complain that the D's have been more interested in partisan warfare than governing.

“I won't criticize the Democratic balanced-budget plan because there isn't one,” Mr. Gardner said. “That's the difference. Republicans made the tough decisions and the Democrats thought the best approach was to `just say no.'”

In the Nov. 5 election, House Republicans picked up three more seats in a year when the Democrats thought they could pick up five. House Minority Leader Dean DePiero (D., Parma) said he will run next year for mayor of Parma and he has endorsed state Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) as his successor.

Mr. Redfern noted that House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) had offered an “olive branch” to House Democrats.

“I want to see both parties work together and solve problems,” Mr. Householder told reporters two days after the election.

No dice, said Mr. Redfern.

“He needs to offer us an entire forest, not an olive branch,” Mr. Redfern said.

Mr. Redfern is angry about Mr. Householder's rough-and-tumble style of politics. He's angry about how money dominates the Statehouse. He's angry that term limits have shifted power to special-interest groups.

He believes he and other House Democrats were “a bit naive” in thinking that a debate over policy would determine the results at the polls.

Mr. Redfern said he will encourage Democrats, if they feel they are victims of lies perpetuated by Republicans, to bypass the state Elections Commission and file civil lawsuits in county courts.

The elections commission has proven it won't enforce election law, Mr. Redfern said.

“My advice for my Democratic colleagues is to raise money and be on the offensive and trust your friends and your family,” he said.

House Democrats, increasingly confined to representing urban Ohio, must focus on the “interests of suburban and rural voters without abandoning our core constituencies,” Mr. Redfern said.

“There won't be one vote for a tax increase. We must live within our means and balance the state budget. That is what resonates back home. The Republicans have shown there is swift retribution when the words `tax increase' come up. We will not let ourselves be duped,” Mr. Redfern said.

In 1999, Mr. Redfern told The Blade he didn't believe politicians must be watered-down moderates to win eletions or to represent their constituents well.

“What would happen is I would lose a certain amount of passion. The people who vote for me, not all of them like me, but they respect how I represent them,” he said.

Nothing has changed since then.



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