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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Eye on the governor's office

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS Democrat Wesley Thompson said he will never forget what Republican Ken Blackwell did this year.

Instead of serving as Ohio s chief elections officer, Mr. Blackwell was a political operative for President Bush s re-election campaign, charged Mr. Thompson, who lives in the Columbus suburb of Westerville.

So as Mr. Blackwell, who is in his second term as secretary of state, seeks the GOP nomination for governor in 2006, Mr. Thompson and others say they will speak out. And if Mr. Blackwell wins the GOP primary, Mr. Thompson said he and like-minded people will work for his Democratic opponent to defeat him.

I ve never seen anyone less qualified for public office, said Mr. Thompson.

In his long and winding career in politics, from Cincinnati city hall to statewide office, Mr. Blackwell frequently has been controversial, but nothing compares to the howls of anger from Democrats and voting-rights activists during this year s presidential race.

Donna Brazile, chairman of the Democratic National Committee s Voting Rights Institute, accused Mr. Blackwell of helping to suppress voting through a Sept. 9 directive that registration forms be on 80-pound text weight paper. Mr. Blackwell later revised the directive so that counties could accept copier paper, which is 20 pounds.

Mr. Blackwell successfully appealed the decision of a federal judge in Toledo who ruled that provisional ballots should be counted as long as they are cast in the same county where the voter is registered.

Mr. Blackwell said the correct interpretation of the federal Help America Vote law was to count those ballots only if they were cast in the correct precinct.

Provisional ballots are given to eligible voters whose names are not on the rolls, either by mistake or if, for example, they moved and did not update their registration.

Mr. Blackwell has said there were some glitches in the election, but none of these glitches was of a conspiratorial nature and none of them would have overturned or changed the election results.

On Dec. 6, Mr. Blackwell certified the official results, with Mr. Bush defeating Democrat John Kerry by 118,775 votes: 50.82 percent to 48.70 percent. A recount sought by the presidential candidates of the Green and Libertarian parties should be completed this week.

I think most people will judge that this election was a great success, said Mr. Blackwell in an interview Thursday. The strength of the system is it is bipartisan. The checks and balances are found in the fact that there is oversight from the two major parties.

Mr. Blackwell said his title as associate chairman of Mr. Bush s campaign in Ohio was largely honorific. He said county election board members, from Republican Bernadette Noe in Lucas County to Democrat William Anthony in Franklin County, played greater roles on behalf of their presidential candidates.

As for what 2004 means for his gubernatorial campaign in 2006, Mr. Blackwell replied: "The final analysis, in and of itself, it will have no big impact, either way."

Several of Mr. Blackwell's supporters, however, say that his oversight of the 2004 election enhanced his chances of winning the GOP nomination for governor in 2006.

Jeff Ledbetter, treasurer of a pro-Blackwell group called Citizens for Tax Reform, said Republicans "overwhelmingly felt he ran a fair and honest election."

" And when the entire world focuses on your operation, there can be no greater scrutiny. Obviously, Ken Blackwell passed with flying colors," Mr. Ledbetter added.

He cited a recent statewide poll - paid for by Mr. Blackwell's campaign - that showed that 77 percent of GOP voters approved of how Mr. Blackwell "handled registration and voting in the election this year," with 12 percent saying they disapproved.

Fred Steeper, a principal with Detroit-based Market Strategies, did the poll for Mr. Blackwell's campaign. Mr. Steeper has conducted polling for President Bush dating back to his gubernatorial campaigns in Texas, and also for his father.

"Not only is our candidate's positions on the issues more in tune with the voters, we also think he comes across personally as being a strong leader and willing to stick up for his convictions and voters like that," Mr. Steeper said.

Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said Mr. Blackwell sharply boosted his name recognition this year.

"There are some of us who feel that part of the name recognition he obtained will be very negative in a very lasting way. It is clear he made some choices in this campaign. The biggest one I fault him for was this very rigid restriction on provisional voters that disqualified thousands of voters all across the state of Ohio," said Mr. Burke, who is a member of the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

If Mr. Blackwell wins the GOP primary for governor in 2006, he may face the same fate as he did in 1990, when he ran for Congress from Cincinnati's West Side against Democrat Charlie Luken, who was then and is now Cincinnati's mayor, Mr. Burke said.

Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Luken divided the white vote, but Mr. Blackwell lost the black vote.

He had served on a negotiating team in former President Bush's administration that questioned renewal of the Civil Rights Act. But Mr. Blackwell said that is not why he lost.

"When I came out of the Bush administration, I was 30 points down. [Mr. Luken] was the sitting mayor and his father had been in Congress for 18 years," he said.

Mr. Blackwell said those who portray him as an "ideological extremist" are failing to analyze how many African-American voters supported the ban on same-sex marriage and the petition drive to repeal the state sales-tax rate increase.

Others agree with Mr. Blackwell, saying his handling of this year's presidential election in Ohio won't have much of an effect on the 2006 governor's race.

"The only possible effect was if Ohio had become another Florida and a lot of fingers were pointed at Blackwell running an incompetent election. But I don't think that happened," said Robert Adams, a political science professor at Wright State University.

Mr. Adams said the biggest effect from this year's election likely will be Mr. Blackwell's support for the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and his attempt - albeit unsuccessful - to repeal the 2003 increase in Ohio's sales-tax rate.

But Mr. Adams said he does not think Mr. Blackwell will run in 2006 as a "hardcore right-winger."

"I think he'll be running on competence. Someone who tried to save the people of Ohio from the temporary sales-tax increase and an anti-big government type. Nationally and in Ohio, there is a rightward drift that could put Secretary Blackwell more in the mainstream than say Bob Taft," he said.

But Mr. Adams said he believes the outcome of the GOP primary for governor - in which Mr. Blackwell is competing against state Auditor Betty Montgomery and state Attorney General Jim Petro - will be determined by which candidate is the best campaigner and has the best organization.

Contact James Drew at: jdrew@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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