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Published: Sunday, 3/27/2005

If you can't say anything nice

Maybe you've heard those ads on the radio bemoaning the budget and tax proposals of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. They run all over the state, and are customized to ask listeners to call their local state senators and ask them to oppose the Taft plan.

In the Toledo area, listeners are directed to Republican Sen. Randy Gardner.

But the number they ask you to dial isn't Mr. Gardner's Senate office. It's a call center that then patches you through once they gather a little information from you.

At least that's how it is supposed to work. The problem, Mr. Gardner says, is that the people are sometimes rude to callers, and some callers are cut off. He said he is getting heat from constituents who complained to him, thinking it was his office who treated them poorly.

He said some have complained they were cut off because the call center, which is funded mainly by the Service Employees Union International, didn't seem to like what they had to say about the budget.

The call center message clearly states that it is not a Senate office, and explains that callers would be connected to their senator, but Mr. Gardner said he is bothered that some people do not understand what's happening, and that his reputation is suffering.

"We do a pretty good job of responding and getting back to people, and now some of that is being impacted," he said. "If one person disagrees with me and is upset with me, that's politics and that's part of the job. If someone calls and gets cut off because they think that my office doesn't want to hear from them or disagrees with them, and they're not even allowed to state their case to their senator, that's unacceptable to me. Even if it's one person, it's one too many."

When he first heard this was happening, he considered it an anomaly. When he kept getting complaints, he said, he decided to speak up.

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Word floating around Democratic circles in Ohio has a couple of former officeholders from the Cleveland area strongly considering campaigns for governor. Lee Fisher, the former state attorney general who holds the distinction of being the last Democrat elected to a non-judicial statewide post (he won in 1990 and lost the seat in 1994 to Republican Betty Montgomery), is said to be thinking about it, as is Bryan Flannery, a former state representative who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2002.

In a year when Democrats might have a good chance at statewide offices because Republican incumbents are running for governor instead of for re-election, the Dems seem poised to fumble the opportunity.

Mr. Fisher came close to winning the race for governor in 1998, but was edged out by Republican Bob Taft. He is perhaps the best-known Democrat in Ohio politics right now, which helps explain why Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman - the only announced Democrat in the race - has been out campaigning hard around the state so early.

Mr. Coleman was the lieutenant governor candidate on Mr. Fisher's ticket seven years ago.

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Handpainted sign of the times: Posted on a tree at the intersection of McGregor Lane and Clover Lane in West Toledo - "Ray Kest, take me to dinner." It summarizes voter sentiment regarding the latest chapter in the flame-out political career of Lucas County's former treasurer. It reminds of Mr. Kest's final campaign finance report filing, which details how he spent campaign cash last year on dinners at fancy restaurants in Florida, among other things, on the way to zeroing out his political fund.

The sign captures why Mr. Kest is no longer in politics. He said he spent the money at dinners where he probed confidants to determine whether to run for re-election last year (though John Irish, his closest aide for decades, said he knew nothing of these Florida confabs and wasn't invited to them).

Mr. Kest quit his post last November to avoid charges of felony theft.

It turns out that he didn't have to go to Florida to determine whether he should run again. All he had to do was drive to West Toledo.

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Mr. Kest has responded to the county elections board request for more information about his final campaign finance report, which shows he spent more than $17,000 last year on the dinners, travel, and legal fees. His response is mostly mundane, but he does say that a $2,700 laptop computer he bought last year for his campaign is now worth only $350.

He paid his campaign the money, then donated that cash to the Old Newsboys Goodfellow Association to run his balance down to zero, and officially close his account. It is interesting to note that, at the end of a bizarre political career, Mr. Kest's final act was one of charity.



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