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Published: Sunday, 10/27/2002

Taft aims to bolster educational legacy

BY JAMES DREW
COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - In 1970 Robert A. Taft, Jr., needed help in his campaign for the U.S. Senate, so his son took three months off from his job as a budget analyst for the state of Illinois.

Bob Taft was 28 years old, and his job was to fill in for his father at some campaign events.

His first assignment was in Toledo, and he found himself sharing a platform with his father's foe in the GOP primary, Gov. Jim Rhodes.

“It was intimidating,” recalled Mr. Taft, who is Ohio's 66th governor. “It was kind of awe-inspiring. I don't know what I said or how I did. All I remember is that it was intimidating.”

For Mr. Taft, it was his first taste of “real political involvement.”

From 1963 to 1965, he served in the Peace Corps as a teacher in Tanzania. He then spent two years in Vietnam working for the State Department. He returned to the United States to get a master's degree in government from Princeton University.

As Mr. Taft hit the campaign trail recently in his bid for a second term as governor, he took some time to recall what he learned from Mr. Rhodes, Ohio's longest-serving governor.

“He was positive. If he ever got down, he didn't show it. He was always looking forward and moving on,” said Mr. Taft, who was Mr. Rhodes' running mate in 1986, when he made a doomed comeback attempt against Democrat Richard Celeste.

Facing a political climate that he says isn't healthy for incumbents, Mr. Taft has faced a barrage of attacks from his Democratic opponent, Tim Hagan.

A former Cuyahoga County commissioner, Mr. Hagan has slammed Mr. Taft as a “nice guy, bad manager” who has mishandled the state budget, failed to invest in higher education, and fared poorly as a leader.

Mr. Taft said he's not fazed by the criticism.

“I'm not offended by what a political opponent says. That's part of the rough and tumble of a political campaign. We're focused on getting our message out about what we have accomplished and what our agenda for the future is,” he said.

Mr. Taft - the son and grandson of U.S. senators and the great-grandson of President William Howard Taft - said he hopes his legacy as governor is an improvement in Ohio's education system.

“Four years or eight years, it is not a long time. I think we already are having a dramatic impact on raising the level of educational achievement in this state. I think we can do a lot in the next four years, in terms of accountability, standards, and teacher support, reading, and school buildings,” he said.

Mr. Taft and his wife, Hope, have one child, Anna.

He said her childhood was different than his.

“She was born in 1979, and everyone was going through the childbirth classes, so I was present at the birth and more engaged and involved. I spent probably more time with her than my dad did with me, because of his schedule.

“I can have a dry wit and sometimes I can be sarcastic and so forth, but not with her. I try to be as positive and supportive as possible,” he said.

Anna Taft graduated last May from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. He spoke when she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He said he expects she will pursue an overseas assignment similar to the Peace Corps.

Those who work for Mr. Taft describe him as a “detailed, hands-on” manager who has learned to delegate more over the past four years, partly because, as the face of state government, he often travels around Ohio.

Mr. Taft - who served two four-year terms as Ohio's secretary of state, the state's chief elections officer - said a governor has “to trust a lot more in the people who work with you.”

“The span of control is a lot larger. You've got 23 departments reporting to you, and then you've got all the boards and commissions. The scope and scale and the diversity of the issues require so much detailed, specialized knowledge that you have to spend a lot of time trying to hire the best people,” he said.

Mr. Taft said he likes to campaign but he described fund-raising as “a less pleasant but essential part of the job.” His campaign's large edge in fund-raising has enabled Mr. Taft to air a series of TV ads. Mr. Hagan has not had enough money to air even one.

“It's a little easier when you're governor because they're a little more likely to return your calls,” he said with a smile. “If you're serious about running in a state with 11 million people, you can't communicate your message and your agenda and your record without the resources to do that.”



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