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Published: Saturday, 8/23/2003

Ohio Democrats have their work cut out for them

COLUMBUS - The next Democrat elected as governor of Ohio will be the candidate who can convince voters that he or she won't raise taxes or be a captive of state employee unions.

It's a simple message, but a very difficult one for Ohio Democrats to embrace.

In 2006, two decades will have passed since Ohioans elected a Democratic governor. There will be high school students who have never lived in Ohio without an “R” next to the governor's name.

As in 1998 and 2002, Democrats are insisting the GOP cycle will run its course and voters eventually will return to the Democrats. There is no evidence yet that this will happen. In fact, it could get much worse.

Republicans have done a masterful job of ruling from the center. Since voters in 1998 repealed then-Gov. George Voinovich's overhaul of the workers' compensation system, the GOP largely has maintained labor peace. It has enabled the GOP to hold every statewide executive post, to build strong majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, and to gain ideological control over the Ohio Supreme Court.

Ohio Democrats should be in the same mood as national Democrats were in 1991, when Bill Clinton visited Cleveland to address the Democratic Leadership Council. “... Too many of the people that used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we are talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline,” Mr. Clinton said.

As he travels around the state, House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) is trying to appeal to that “very burdened middle class.”

Last year, then-House Minority Leader Dean DePiero (D., Parma Heights) took the same approach - but with New Dealer Tim Hagan at the top of the statewide ticket.

Despite a recession and deteriorating state budget, the House GOP actually picked up a net of three seats and now controls the chamber by a 62-37 margin.

It could not have been a sweeter victory for House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford), who announced he would seek a statewide post in 2006.

Republicans have a message for Mr. Redfern, who continues to rage against the negative 30-second TV ads and massive fundraising that prevailed last year:

“Get over it.”

Mr. Redfern will use the bad memories as motivation, but it may take a change in party and union leadership - and out-of-state consultants - to get Ohio Democrats to coalesce around the “New Democrat” message that Mr. Clinton used in 1992 to win.

Earlier this month, Mr. Householder put up a new Web site - www.householderforohio.com - that tries to channel the same optimism that was at the core of Ronald Reagan's appeal.

The spirit is best summed up in the letter from Mr. Householder on the home page:

“Dear fellow Ohioan: If you're like me, you have probably grown tired of the Ohio-bashing by the ‘political pundits' and ‘media elites' who say that our state's best days have come and gone.”

As Mr. Redfern and other Democrats try to nail the GOP for raising taxes to support increased spending, Mr. Householder and other Republican candidates will have millions of dollars in campaign funds to deliver another message. “There is not any state in this country that has more opportunity than Ohio,'' Mr. Householder said in a recent interview.

Dwight Crum, an aide to the House speaker, said Mr. Householder is hearing too many negative comments about Ohio when he's on the road. It's time for Ohioans to focus on Ohio's large system -albeit expensive - of colleges and universities, tourism spots, and the institutions that could help build high-tech jobs, Mr. Householder said.

“We have to get our act together and understand what we are. We are an industrial giant. We are an agricultural giant. We have an opportunity with high-tech moving forward,” he said.

Because of term limits, Mr. Householder can't run for re-election next year. He has a two-year gap until the statewide election of 2006 - and that appears to be adding an urgency to his efforts to find a message that resonates with Ohioans.

The conventional wisdom was that with term limits, a House speaker couldn't use the same tactics as Democrat Vern Riffe did. The conventional wisdom was wrong.

The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Riffe never could win statewide office and so Mr. Householder can't.

As Democrats struggle to find a message, Mr. Householder is bent on proving his critics wrong again.



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