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Published: Saturday, 3/22/2003

Fingerhut focuses on preparing Ohio for new economy

COLUMBUS - Eric Fingerhut faces a big challenge.

It's not the sleazy affair that some Ohio Democrats and labor leaders are having with trash TV talk-show host Jerry Springer.

Unless someone slaughters his cash cow and there are no more gigs left, Mr. Springer likely won't leave television to run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.

That means Mr. Fingerhut, a former one-term congressman and a state senator since 1999 from the Cleveland area, will try to unseat GOP incumbent George Voinovich next year.

Skeptics say Mr. Fingerhut can't win. They also suggest he is using a high-profile race to build the foundation for a statewide office bid in 2006.

Beyond the struggle to silence the skeptics, make a name all over Ohio, and battle an experienced politician like Mr. Voinovich, Mr. Fingerhut's challenge is how a permanent war against terrorism and rogue nations could alter America's political dialogue.

On Wednesday night, R.W. “Johnny” Apple, the associate editor of the New York Times, was eating dinner at an upscale restaurant in Columbus with a cousin and her husband. Spotting a TV behind the bar, Mr. Apple saw a “crawl” on CNN that President George W. Bush would be addressing the nation in 10 minutes.

Mr. Apple asked if the volume could be turned up so he could watch the speech, knowing the war had begun.

“All of the other people at the bar, except two, said, ‘Nah, we don't want to watch that crap. We're drinking.' And the people in the restaurant went around and asked whether anybody wanted to stand at the bar and watch it - and nobody did,” says Mr. Apple. He was in Columbus to give the first in a series of lectures that Ohio State University is sponsoring about Ohio's bicentennial.

A day earlier, Mr. Fingerhut grappled with Mr. Bush's Monday night speech, in which the President gave Saddam Hussein and his two sons 48 hours to get out of Iraq.

“It's clear our troops will be in action within 48 hours,'' Mr. Fingerhut said over lunch on Tuesday. “This is a time for all Ohioans and all Americans to be circumspect and supportive. I will say this. I have been and will continue to be very critical of the Bush Administration's foreign policy.”

Mr. Fingerhut says Mr. Bush's decision to pull out of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming and proclaim a policy of pre-emptive strikes against nations that pose a risk to the U.S. has “created a distance between the Bush Administration and the world.”

“It's in our best interests to be in a consultative process with the world. It's in our best interest to build an international consensus on the best way to fight terrorism, and we haven't done that,'' he says.

Bright and ambitious, Mr. Fingerhut moved from law school to the Ohio Senate in seven years - and two years later he was in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But he only lasted two years on the Hill.

His support for Mr. Clinton's first budget and tax plan probably cost him the 1994 election to Republican Steven LaTourette, but he says those policies ushered in the booming economy of the mid to late 1990s that turned federal budget deficits into surpluses.

Backers of Mr. Voinovich say his two terms as governor last decade showed how centrist policies can make Democrats an after-thought in Ohio.

But Mr. Fingerhut, 43, says his campaign for the U.S. Senate will focus on how Mr. Voinovich and his GOP successor in the governor's office, Bob Taft, have not prepared Ohio for the 21st century.

“The central issue is how to move Ohio from the position of strength it held in the old, manufacturing economy and transition through that rust-belt period into a new mix of industries and businesses that provide high-quality jobs for all Ohioans,” Mr. Fingerhut says.

Mr. Fingerhut says shortly after taking office as governor in 1991, Mr. Voinovich squandered his opportunity by blasting higher education as wasteful and a drain on the state's budget, didn't spend enough time on a science and technology agenda, and followed a jobs strategy that Ohio needs to be a “low-cost state.”

“The problem with that strategy is businesses and jobs that are attracted in that manner are low-paying jobs that don't carry the kind of health and retirement benefits, and wages, that really can support families,” Mr. Fingerhut says.

Real economic growth is rooted in new, high-tech companies and advanced manufacturing - and government can play a major role in helping those firms flourish, he adds.

Until Ohio government leaders embrace that strategy, the state will continue to lag in per capita income and lose educated young people to other states - the dreaded “brain drain,” Mr. Fingerhut says.

“The question that I will pose to the voters is, ‘Is George Voinovich going to be able to turn that around or do we need someone with a vision for the future who reflects what is really happening out there in the national and international economy? I know the answer to that is yes, but I've got a year to try to pose that question to people,” Mr. Fingerhut says.

The question is how the occupation of Iraq will affect the U.S. and the world economy, and how many people will be listening to Mr. Fingerhut's question next year.



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