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Published: Monday, 3/5/2001

Friends, foes fondly recall political skill

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - In the hours after the death of James A. Rhodes, Ohio government and political leaders reflected on an era in state government that likely never will be matched.

“Jim Rhodes demonstrated that smart politics could be good government,” said former House Speaker Charles Kurfess, the Bowling Green Republican who worked closely with Mr. Rhodes for several years.

“I doubt if anyone will match his record as governor as far as duration, and I doubt if anyone will match his accomplishments,” said James Brennan, former chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party.

“Northwest Ohio and Toledo did better under Rhodes than we ever have under any governor before or since,” Mr. Brennan added.

Several elected officials said Mr. Rhodes' most lasting legacy may be the dramatic expansion in state-supported universities and technical colleges in his first two terms as governor from 1963 to 1971.

“His goal of having higher education within the grasp of every Ohioan, not more than 30 minutes away, changed the face of higher education forever,” said U.S. Sen. George Voinovich.

But John Gilligan, the incumbent Democratic governor he defeated in the 1974 election, said that, although Mr. Rhodes helped make Ohio attractive to foreign corporations, such as Honda, the state's public services, especially primary and secondary education, suffered during his tenure.

“The public services in Ohio, I think the record will show, declined steadily during his administration,” Mr. Gilligan said. “Despite that, he was a gregarious, effective campaigner, and he convinced the people of Ohio that he had done a good job for them.”

James Ruvolo, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and an ex-chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party, said Mr. Rhodes dominated Ohio politics for three decades and left behind several accomplishments.

But his career also was marked by his decision to send National Guard troops to Kent State University, Mr. Ruvolo said.

Four students were killed and nine others wounded when guardsmen opened fire during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1970. Earlier Mr. Rhodes referred to the demonstrators as “worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and vigilantes.”

“I graduated from college in 1970, and, for my generation, Kent State was a defining moment for us and Jim Rhodes always will be linked with that,” Mr. Ruvolo said.

Toledoan Frazier Reams, Jr., a Democrat who ran against Mr. Rhodes in 1966 and lost in a landslide, said last night that Mr. Rhodes was “one of the most successful politicians we had in the state of Ohio.

“He had an ability to carry the votes; that seemed to be his entire thrust,” Mr. Reams said.

Yesterday afternoon supporters recalled a governor who left behind as many stories as he did projects.

In 1962, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas said he was campaigning with Mr. Rhodes in Toledo when they left a restaurant and gave Mr. Rhodes some money so he could telephone the publisher of The Blade, Paul Block, Jr.

“He said, `Mr. Block, this is Jim Rhodes. I want to tell you that if I am elected the governor of Ohio, Toledo will be the site for the new medical school, and this is how I will do it. I will appoint something called a board of regents, we will have plans submitted from around Ohio, and Toledo will win,'” Mr. Douglas recalled.

The Blade endorsed Mr. Rhodes over former Toledo Mayor and first-term Democrat Governor Mike DiSalle. Mr. Rhodes won the election. The legislature in 1964 approved the creation of the Medical College of Ohio.

“He will be remembered as the can-do person. He always taught me that anything you put your mind to, you could do,” Mr. Douglas said.

State Rep. Jack Ford's father went to high school with Mr. Rhodes.

“I grew up in a family that had Jim Rhodes stories to tell,” said Mr. Ford. When Mr. Ford became House Minority Leader in 1998, Mr. Rhodes autographed a picture taken of the two men when Mr. Rhodes spoke at a high school football banquet. Mr. Ford was 18 then.

“He not only knew how to win elections; he was a great governor. He had a particular knack of working with the African-American community to get them to support a Republican,” Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Brennan, the former Lucas County Republican Party chairman, said it would be “extremely appropriate” if the state named the new I-280 bridge over the Maumee River after Mr. Rhodes.

Mr. Ford agreed. “It would be a nice thing for people from other countries and states to go through that span and see where Toledo is at in terms of honoring Jim Rhodes,” Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Kurfess said he had been working on a letter to Mr. Rhodes when he learned of his death..

Mr. Rhodes' legacies can be found in the state-supported universities around Ohio, the development of airports in every county, and the expansion of the state parks and recreation system, Mr. Kurfess said. “He was a builder. And politicians and officeholders learned more things from Jim Rhodes than from anybody else,” he said.



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