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Published: Saturday, 7/29/2006

Fired GOP staffer regrets Internet link

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

The Ohio Republican Party's former "social conservative coordinator" regrets linking to an Internet post that speculated Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland might be gay, and he accepts being fired for including the link in an e-mail to conservative activists.

But Gary Lankford defends other parts of the e-mail - including those that question Mr. Strickland's work ethic, voting record, and ministerial service - as an appropriate response to Mr. Strickland's recent faith-themed ads on Christian radio.

"I believe Ted Strickland is using religion to cover a very liberal voting record that strongly disagrees with Christian teaching," Mr. Lankford told The Blade in a telephone interview yesterday.

He cited Mr. Strickland's support of abortion access, including government funding for it, and his support for "giving all the legal rights of marriage to homosexuals."

Mr. Strickland is a southeast Ohio congressman. His radio ads quote scripture and note he is an ordained United Methodist minister. He opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions for gay couples.

Told of Mr. Lankford's comments yesterday, Mr. Strickland responded with New Testament citations and Old Testament fury.

"That's his interpretation of the Bible, or of Christianity," he said. "I guess when we read the Gospels, we perceive different things. I don't read a lot about abortion in the Gospels. I read the words of Jesus, when he was talking, saying, 'I was hungry and you fed me not what you do to the least, you do also to me.'●"

Later, Mr. Strickland predicted that attacks on him and other Democrats would bring a "gully-washer" of voter disgust onto Republican officeholders this year.

"There's a flood coming that's going to sweep away a lot of the leadership we have in Ohio and this country," he said. "The only way [Republicans] are going to be able to win is obscure the issues and avoid discussion of their failures I'll indulge them, I'll respond to them, but I'm not going to let them derail me in the discussion of the issues facing our state."

Mr. Lankford is a Christian home-school headmaster who worked this spring for Ken Blackwell, the Republican nominee for governor.

The state GOP hired him a month ago as part of a broad effort to target specific voting blocks, such as sportsmen or conservative churchgoers.

The Blade reported Sunday that an e-mail Mr. Lankford sent to his targeting list included a claim that Mr. Strickland and his wife, Frances, live in different states and noted that they have no children. The message linked to a blog posting that questioned both Stricklands' sexuality.

Mr. Strickland denied the allegations and Democrats denounced the e-mail.

GOP leaders responded at first by requiring Mr. Lankford to submit future e-mails for their approval and barring him from talking to reporters, Mr. Lankford said. The state chairman fired him Thursday and apologized for the e-mail's "innuendo" in a letter to Mr. Strickland. A party spokesman declined to discuss Mr. Lankford's comments yesterday.

In his first interview since the controversy arose, Mr. Lankford said he was trying to educate activists about Mr. Strickland and called the link a mistake. "It raised an issue that I would not raise," he said, adding later: "In no way was I intending to smear him."

Asked why he mentioned the Stricklands' decision, after marrying in their late 40s, not to have children - and why he alleged they live separately - Mr. Lankford declined to talk in detail, saying it was not the focus of his e-mail.

But he offered that Mr. Strickland was "making being a Methodist minister and husband an important part of his qualifications" in his radio ads. "It seems like a fair observation," he said.

Mr. Lankford noted that he attached evidence to back up many of his e-mail's other points, such as Mr. Strickland's relatively high number of missed votes in Congress. He elaborated on another point, questioning whether it was honest for Mr. Strickland to pitch himself as a minister after not having worked in a church for nearly 40 years.

Mr. Strickland studied at a Bible college and at a theological seminary. He last served a church congregation in the late 1960s and took a bishop's appointment as the director of a Methodist children's home in the mid-1970s. He defended invoking the experience in the campaign.

"That's about a decade in my life devoted to or studying for work in the church," Mr. Strickland said. "I think that is relevant for who I am today."

Contact Jim Tankersley at:

jtankersley@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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