CLEVELAND - Fresh off his victory in Tuesday's Democratic primary for governor, Ted Strickland yesterday met with union members in two Ohio cities to let them know he is one of their supporters.
Republican leaders say Mr. Strickland, a congressman from southeast Ohio, is "in the pocket of liberal labor unions" who have endorsed and financially supported his campaign.
Yesterday, Mr. Strickland, while shaking hands and meeting union workers at the AFL-CIO Union Industries Show at the I-X Center in Cleveland, said no interest group has him in its back pocket - but he makes no apologies for his support of organized labor.
"I have a record. People know what's important to me, and they can find out what's important to me by looking at my record - a 12-year record in the House of Representatives," Mr. Strickland said.
"I am not likely to change once I become governor," he continued. "People can look at my record and decide if I'm a reasonable guy that has good ideas that is going to lead Ohio forward or not."
He added, "And if they conclude that I am not, then they can go with the other guy."
Republicans and the labor leaders have already begun dissecting Mr. Strickland's record on organized labor.
Mr. Strickland received perfect marks from the Ohio AFL-CIO based on his 2005 performance in Congress. The labor organization commended the congressman on a number of votes, including his support of a minimum-wage increase and a $286 million transportation infrastructure project.
Ohio Republican Party spokesman John McClelland said yesterday that Mr. Strickland's voting record shows that he is "a pawn of the left-wing labor bosses," adding "he has a record where he is constantly supportive and votes with the labor unions."
"The days of the behemoth manufacturing giants are over and with them the labor union influence," Mr. McClelland said. "As Ted Strickland continues to cater to that group and doesn't focus on the best ways to create jobs for the state, it is going to hurt him in November. And definitely, we are going to talk about his record and how he is wrong for job creation here in Ohio."
Mr. Strickland said Republican leaders are trying to "separate" him from the business community.
"I have tremendous support from my labor brothers and sisters, but I have tremendous support from the business community," Mr. Strickland said. "That's what drives these Republican operatives crazy - they think they own the business community."
Mr. Strickland said he has won support from the business community the same way he has sought the endorsement of organized labor: "What you do is you lay out an agenda that promises a brighter, more progressive future for our state. Nothing more."
Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the GOP's nominee for governor, began making Mr. Strickland's affiliation with labor leaders an issue long before this week's primary.
Mr. Blackwell has said Mr. Strickland should join him in his call for all of the members of the oversight commission of the scandal-plagued Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation to step down - a move that would require Mr. Strickland to call for Bill Burga, the president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, to resign from the board.
"I have been the only candidate that has challenged real reform through the total resignation of every board member on the oversight committee," Mr. Blackwell said Monday during a campaign stop in Toledo. "That is one Achilles' heel for Ted Strickland. He refuses to join me in calling for the resignation of all the board members of the oversight committee because Bill Burga, one of his political advisers, is on that board."
The Ohio AFL-CIO, which represents 650,000 Ohio workers and retirees, endorsed Mr. Strickland in January. Mr. Burga, in a statement, said: "I have not seen such labor unity for one candidate since 1986."
Mr. Strickland, who said yesterday that he didn't know what the resignations would accomplish, accused Mr. Blackwell of being "disingenuous" in his criticism because the secretary of state refused to join the congressman's call for a bipartisan investigation of the scandal.
"What's really important is not the members of this commission," Mr. Strickland said. "What's really important is the elected officials in this case, including Mr. Ken Blackwell, whose involvement in the unfolding of this scandal is not yet fully understood or explored."
Jim Ruvolo, a Democratic political consultant, said Mr. Blackwell's criticism of Mr. Strickland's ties to labor leaders should not be surprising.
"He can try, but the people of Ohio want change," he said. "Ken Blackwell is not change. Ted Strickland is. Whether you are a union member or a nonunion member, you know the economy is not good."
Mr. Ruvolo said he expects unions will be helpful to Mr. Strickland come November, but the Democratic nominee must be able to go beyond that base to win the election. About 800,000 Ohio workers - 16 percent of the state's work force - belong to a union.
"It is still a base the Democrats have to have, but it is not a base we can take for granted," he said.
Jim Goggin of Laborers Local 310 in Cleveland said yesterday that expects every union in the state of Ohio to support Mr. Strickland, based on his record in Congress. "He's really a middle-of-the-road individual," Mr. Goggin said yesterday at the AFL-CIO show in Cleveland. "He's not too left or right."
Asked if Mr. Strickland runs the risk of becoming too close with union leaders, Mr. Goggin said: "I think he is embracing everybody that he touches. It's not just unions with him - it's jobs, the economy."
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Strickland addressed the Ohio Education Association in Columbus at the organization's statewide representative assembly. Mr. Strickland, a former member of the organization, said the group was key in several of his congressional elections.
"He said point blank: There's no way he would have been able to do it for 12 years in Congress had it not been for us," said Deidra Reese, the association's director of government services. "We helped him win, we put him over the top in several elections. He's very committed to us."
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