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Published: Wednesday, 1/24/2001

Political job limitation considered


COLUMBUS - At the heart of Florida's presidential election controversy was Secretary of State Katherine Harris, placed in the position of making key election decisions affecting the Bush campaign that she had co-chaired.

She became a lightning rod for allegations of politicizing the elections process.

The same thing could happen here, said state Rep. Bryan Flannery (D., Lakewood), who has proposed a bill prohibiting Ohio's secretary of state from serving as chairman of a political campaign.

Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell questions the constitutionality of one branch of government attempting to limit the political activities of another.

“He's gotten an early start on his campaign,” he said. “I'm sure he's politically motivated, but he can't be constitutionally motivated.”

Mr. Blackwell, who will run for re-election next year, was national chairman for the Steve Forbes campaign in 2000, but Mr. Forbes had disappeared from the scene by the time Ohio's Republican primary election was held in March. Al Gore ultimately finished about 4 percentage points behind George W. Bush in November.

“The chief elections officer of the state of Ohio is supposed to be nonpartisan when making decisions,” Mr. Flannery said. “When you're chairman, you serve as the figurehead, the person responsible for that campaign. As secretary of state, you're also duty bound to be fair and impartial. It smacks of hypocrisy to have the secretary of state chairing a presidential campaign.

“It all gets back to voter confi-dence in the elections process,” he said.

The bill would not prohibit the secretary of state from being involved in the political process or serving on or working for a campaign. It would prohibit him from chairing the campaign.

“Where does it stop?” asked Mr. Blackwell. “Where do people who are legitimately elected on partisan ballots have to suspend their political speech? If I, as a Republican, had to make a decision, Democrats would find a reason to try to taint my decision.”

His office noted that when Mr. Blackwell announced his Forbes campaign chairmanship, he pledged to recuse himself from decisions on election-matter disputes involving the campaign and instead allow his chief election counsel to make the decision.

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