DAYTON - In a televised debate that showed the dramatic contrasts between the two candidates for governor, Republican incumbent Bob Taft and Democratic challenger Tim Hagan last night clashed over how to help seniors pay for prescription drugs, whether to carry out the death penalty, and even whether cancer patients should be allowed to smoke marijuana to ease their pain.
Mr. Hagan tied Mr. Taft to double-digit tuition hikes at state universities, Ohio's ranking 41st in the number of college graduates and 48th in development of new businesses, sliding per capita income, and what he described as a failure of leadership.
“Four years of inaction, delay, postponement, and pandering have caused our state to lose its position compared to other states. ... Can you imagine the seventh-largest state in the Union being compared to Louisiana and Mississippi? All the people of Ohio are looking for is a leader who will challenge them, and Bob Taft, you haven't done that,” Mr. Hagan said.
Mr. Taft said that during his first term he has focused on improving school funding and performance, competed aggressively to create and retain jobs, developed initiatives to attract high-tech jobs, helped more senior citizens avoid going to nursing homes, and developed a program starting next year to help the elderly get discounts on prescription drugs.
“When I took the oath of office four years ago, I promised to be the governor for all of the people of this state, no matter how they voted. That is the kind of governor I have tried to be,” Mr. Taft said.
He touted his program to offer prescription-drug discounts to seniors, starting in January, through the Golden Buckeye card. He didn't respond to a statement from a journalist on the panel that it appeared the discount already was available if Ohioans paid $10 a year to a company.
“We think we can get deep discounts with this program,” said Mr. Taft, predicting discounts from 10 to 25 percent.
Mr. Hagan replied: “Bob, why don't you just give them a baseball card? It's fool's gold, a sugar pill with 20 to 30 days left in an election. Why don't you take on the drug companies of this state? Don't take contributions from them,” Mr. Hagan said
Mr. Hagan said his father died of cancer and if it would ease the pain of a loved one, he would go to a nephew to get marijuana to help ease the pain.
Mr. Taft replied that he opposes legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana and said drugs are addictive and damage people.
Asked whether he would be defying the “will of the people” if he commuted the sentences of Death Row inmates to life in prison without parole, Mr. Hagan replied: “I don't listen to polls with regard to my moral convictions. The governor of the state should act with reason. That is what distinguishes us from the other animals in the kingdom.”
Mr. Taft said he has carried out the death penalty five times since taking office in 1999 after reviewing every clemency request with “extreme care to make sure there is no mistake in law or fact.”
Mr. Taft said if Mr. Hagan opposes capital punishment, he should lobby the legislature to change the law instead of trying to “substitute his judgment” for the will of the people. Mr. Hagan replied that he never said he would commute all death sentences, saying he would take action on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Taft attempted to put Mr. Hagan on the defensive in his opening statement, asserting that Mr. Hagan is waging a campaign of “complaint and criticism” that shows he is “down on Ohio.”
“Tim, you're wrong, you're dead wrong,” said Mr. Taft, attacking Mr. Hagan's proposal to allow horse racing tracks to install video gambling machines. Mr. Taft also defended his handling of the two-year state budget, which the legislature has struggled to balance over the last two years because of a combination of slumping revenue and higher spending from the late 1990s.
Mr. Hagan, who served four terms on the Cuyahoga County board of commissioners, introduced himself as the “proud grandson of Irish and Italian immigrants” who grew up in a family of 14 in Youngstown.
“I think my mother and father did other things,” said Mr. Hagan, in the first of several colorful comments that spiced up the live debate.
Mr. Hagan said as a county commissioner, he balanced the county's budget each year.
Mr. Hagan said to Mr. Taft: “Bob, you keep saying things are up in Ohio. You're not wrong. Bankruptcies are up in Ohio. Unemployment is up in Ohio. Foreclosures are up in Ohio. Property taxes are up in Ohio. Prescription drugs are up in Ohio. Tuition is up in Ohio. The budget deficit is up in Ohio. I think the people in Ohio are fed up and it is time now for Bob Taft to realize his time is up in Ohio.”
Mr. Hagan said that as governor he would work with Republican lawmakers to eliminate a projected $4 billion shortfall in the upcoming two-year state operating budget that starts July 1, 2003.
“I will inherit a mess you created in the four years you were governor,” Mr. Hagan told Mr. Taft.
Neither candidate offered details on how they would eliminate that projected shortfall.
Mr. Hagan said he has avoided specifics so lobbyists in “$2,000 suits and Gucci shoes” won't descend on him, but he said the state should not give a $30 million tax break for “junk mail” or an $82 million tax break for telemarketing firms.
Asked by a panelist why he should be given four more years if he couldn't convince GOP lawmakers to enact a law to require people to safely store their guns, to give patients the right to sue their HMO, and to pass his first school-funding plan, Mr. Taft replied: “I don't accept the premise of your question.”
The governor said the state has increased funding to public schools by 40 percent over his four-year term and enacted an “ambitious” state-local program to build new schools, in part by convincing GOP legislators to take $400 million out of a fund that would have provided Ohioans with a small income tax refund. He also said he vetoed 49 items in the last GOP-adopted state budget bill.
“They weren't happy about that, but I felt it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Mr. Hagan, asked about saying “You're damn right they should be” when asked if corporations should be afraid of him, said he was talking about the CEOs who ran WorldCom, Enron, and Tyco.
“Here in Ohio, Arthur Andersen, now Accenture, raises the American flag in front of their buildings and talks about their patriotism and then they register offshore so they could avoid their federal and state taxes. ... I will talk to corporate citizens who understand they have an obligation to pay their fair share of taxes,” he said.
Mr. Taft said Ohio has been involved in 635 projects to help create and retain jobs over the last four years, including keeping the General Motors plant in Lordstown and the Ford plant in Avon Lake and assisting Dana Corp. in its research and development operation in Toledo.
Mr. Taft said Cuyahoga County's population declined by 90,000 during Mr. Hagan's 16-year tenure as a county commissioner, with that county having the highest property tax rate and sales tax in the state.
Last night's one-hour debate, which aired live on public television stations around the state, was the first of three debates over 18 days and was sponsored by The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, the Columbus Dispatch, and the Dayton Daily News.
The next debate is scheduled for Oct. 23 in Columbus. The third and final debate is set for Nov. 1 in Cleveland.