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Published: Sunday, 10/7/2001

Ford claims contacts can give city clout in Columbus

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - In September, 1999, Republican legislative leaders wanted bipartisan support for how Ohio would spend its share of the national tobacco lawsuit settlement.

The Senate president, the House speaker, and the chairmen of the two chambers' finance committees called House Minority Leader Jack Ford and Senate Minority Leader Ben Espy of Columbus into one of the small rooms tucked into the Statehouse for negotiations.

Mr. Ford, the Toledo Democrat, told the GOP members that he wanted a big chunk of the tobacco settlement set aside to combat smoking among African-Americans and Hispanics. It did not take long for the GOP legislators to agree, including then-House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson of suburban Columbus.

“I told the speaker, ‘I am the House minority leader. I am in the little room. I am African-American. I have to ask when I get this opportunity,' and she said, ‘I understand.' As we walked out, Ben whispered, ‘Boy, you asked big,'” said Mr. Ford, referring to the pool of money which is expected to total about $68 million.

To Mr. Ford, the closed-door moment was among his proudest in the seven years he has been in the Ohio House of Representatives. In a GOP-controlled chamber, he worked his way up to become the No. 1-ranking Democrat in 1999, claiming a much-coveted seat at the negotiating table with Gov. Bob Taft and Republican legislative leaders.

If he is elected mayor of Toledo on Nov. 6, Mr. Ford, 54, said he can use those contacts to advance city hall's agenda in the governor's office and the legislature.

But to his opponent, Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest, Mr. Ford's emphasis on social services is a glaring weakness in his legislative track record.

“He has proposed very few bills, and most of them have been social service-type things,” said Mr. Kest, a Democrat. “They have not been pro-business or to expand jobs or help the economy.”

John Irish, Mr. Kest's longtime lieutenant, said Mr. Ford's legislative track record will receive more scrutiny in the last month of the campaign. In search of independent and Republican votes, the Kest campaign is trying to portray Mr. Ford as overly partisan.

“He got his colleagues to vote against the budget bill, which allocated a lot of funds for senior programs and for education,” said Mr. Irish.

Mr. Ford said part of his job as minority leader was to carry the Democratic flag, and if elected mayor, he said he will work closely with Republican Governor Taft, a frequent target of Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's wrath.

But Patrick Kriner, chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party, said he is worried that Mr. Ford's partisanship could mark his decisions if he defeats Mr. Kest.

“I don't know the Jack Ford of the budget battle would be different if he is elected mayor,” said Mr. Kriner, who is weighing whether the GOP should endorse Mr. Kest.

Since he began to serve in the House in 1995, Mr. Ford has introduced 36 bills, and three have been signed into law:

  • A bill requiring placement agencies to give foster parents a written report about a child's social background and any criminal or violent behavior. Mr. Ford took action after Johnnie Jordan killed his Lucas County foster mother, hitting her in the head with a hatchet, dousing her with kerosene, and setting her on fire.

  • Legislation doubling from 12 to 24 the number of training hours foster care providers must receive before the state places a child with them.

  • A bill repealing a section of state law that allows people to draw a state public employee pension while working for a private nonprofit group that manages a sports team.

    The language was slipped into law by then-state Rep. Barney Quilter, a Toledo Democrat, so that Toledo councilman Gene Cook could have his salary as general manager of the Mud Hens counted toward his state retirement benefit.

    Mr. Ford said the three bills that he introduced that became law don't tell the whole story of his legislative career in Columbus, especially since Republicans have controlled the House his entire tenure.

    He introduced a bill this year to close a loophole in state law that prevented 19 widows of firefighters and police officers - including five from Toledo - from receiving pension checks. The legislation went nowhere until state Rep. Kirk Schuring (R., Canton) folded it into a bill he was sponsoring.

    Mr. Ford said one of his biggest accomplishments was convincing Mr. Schuring a few years ago to include one of his proposals in a welfare reform bill.

    The provision - which was enacted into law - placed greater emphasis on drug treatment for welfare recipients, in particular drug-dependent mothers.

    Mr. Ford said the idea came from the Toledo drug and alcohol treatment agency - Substance Abuse Services, Inc., - that he ran for 14 years, handling roughly $30 million in tax funds and supervising a staff of 60.

    He noted that GOP legislators have re-introduced bills he proposed to crack down on identity theft and make it easier to arrest those who try to entice children - and got them through the House.

    Mr. Ford's legislative track record reflects his passion about citizens who need government help, said Linda Woggon, a lobbyist for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce who worked for the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce when Mr. Ford was a Toledo city councilman.

    Mr. Kest said Mr. Ford has portrayed himself as “pro-business” on the campaign trail.

    “His voting record is just the opposite,” Mr. Kest said last week.

    On a scale with the highest “pro-business” being 100 percent, Mr. Ford received a 30 percent score for the 1997-98 legislative session from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce - tied for the lowest among the 99 House members.

    In the 1999-2000 legislative session, Mr. Ford's score jumped to 70 percent - raising his cumulative score to 60 percent over six years.

    “He tends to be fine on business legislation that does not pit us against unions or against personal injury lawyers,” Ms. Woggon said.

    Mr. Ford has received 100 percent scores from the Ohio AFL-CIO.

    A leading small-business group - the National Federation of Independent Business-Ohio - gave Mr. Ford a 27 per cent score for 1997-98, increasing to 60 percent in 1999-2000.

    Roger Geiger, the small-business group's executive director, said he does not believe Mr. Ford would be unfriendly to business if elected mayor.

    “Most local governments are not nearly as partisan as when you get to the state legislature and Congress. The issues are, ‘What part of the city gets the plant, whether we put a road through someone's neighborhood, whether the trash is picked up and the snow removed,” he said.

    Mr. Ford noted as council president in 1994 that he signed the incentive package that helped Owens Corning move into a new world headquarters in Toledo - since Mr. Finkbeiner could not because of a conflict of interest involving his Middlegrounds condominium.

    Mr. Geiger said shortly after taking over as House minority leader in 1999, Mr. Ford initiated a meeting with the independent business group to discuss issues. Previous House minority leaders had not done so, Mr. Geiger said.

    “He is a very low-key individual. He does not in many ways fit the aggressive show-boating politician style,” he said.

    After eight years of Mr. Finkbeiner, many people are wondering about Mr. Ford's work style.

    Those who have worked for him in the legislature say Mr. Ford is demanding and a perfectionist but that he rarely raises his voice and has never been abusive.

    “He'd look at you over the top of his glasses and say, ‘I expected better,' and that would be enough,” said Cathy Allen, a former legislative aide to Mr. Ford who now works for the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters.

    “I've worked for a lot of elected officials, and Jack is one [for whom] you have to be at the top of your game.”

    Mr. Ford's former chief of staff, Columbus city Councilman Kevin Boyce, said his former boss “expects results from his employees and nothing less, but he is as warm and friendly and concerned about you personally as you would ever guess.”

    Derrick Clay, who was Mr. Ford's legislative aide during his first House term in 1995 and 1996, said Mr. Ford is a hard worker “who will know everything that is going on in his administration.”

    Since January, Mr. Ford has had a perfect attendance record in the House of Representatives. In 1999-2000, he had a 99 percent record, according to the clerk's office.

    Tom Green, a veteran Statehouse lobbyist, said he is among several people who have underestimated Mr. Ford because he's so quiet.

    “He will find ways to get things done, and he will do it without a lot of fanfare,” he said.

    Mr. Ford is paid $51,674 a year as a state representative. His current two-year term ends at the end of next year, when he would be barred from running as a House member again because of term limits. He would be paid $136,000 a year as mayor.



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