Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Rhodes recalled as different kind of Republican; ceremony will dedicate statue tomorrow in Toledo

COLUMBUS - James A. Rhodes served as Ohio governor longer than any other, leaving his mark for generations across the state in the form of highways, universities, and office buildings. Now, he will stand sentry in downtown Toledo.

As citizens gather tomorrow to unveil a statue of Mr. Rhodes in front of One Government Center, they will honor a different kind of Republican than the ones who are now running the state and federal governments, some political observers say.

"There was a personal admiration for him that you would not see today," said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron. "It is quite a different world we live in today. And it is not unprecedented. You can find brutal periods in politics, but in the Rhodes era there was much more comity than there is now.

"When Rhodes and his opponents duked it out, they fought fiercely. But when the election was over and the day was done, they kind of befriended each other," Mr. Green added.

Mr. Rhodes, who died March 4, 2001, at the age of 91, was Ohio's longest-serving governor and instrumental in the construction of Government Center. In 2001, the state named the building's plaza and fountain in his honor.

His larger-than-life, 7 1/2-foot bronze-cast statue will stand to the left of the plaza near the front entrance to the building. The $30,000 sculpture was paid for with $20,000 in private donations, and $10,000 in the donation of in-kind materials and labor. It was created by a six-person team of faculty and students at the University of Toledo.

Mr. Rhodes was governor from 1963 to 1971 and from 1975 to 1983.

One Government Center was named for Mr. Rhodes in 1983, but that decision was reversed after Democrats took control of the Ohio Building Authority under Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste. On June 18, 1986, the structure was renamed for former Gov. Michael DiSalle of Toledo.

Mr. Rhodes' legacies can be found in the state-supported universities around Ohio including the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, the development of airports in every county, vocational education programs, and the expansion of the state parks and recreation system.

Toledo Mayor Jack Ford, a Democrat, said Mr. Rhodes was a Republican who "knew firsthand the ravages of the Great Depression."

Mr. Rhodes was born in Coalton in Jackson County. His mother moved the family to Springfield in 1923, five years after her husband died. Young Jim sold advertising for ink blotters, booked bands for dances, and worked in a grocery store.

"He was a guy who had a supernatural empathy with the so-called 'little guy' and who would go out of his way to make sure that's where he lined up," said Mr. Ford, whose father went to high school with Mr. Rhodes.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Ford worked for the Ohio Youth Commission and observed Mr. Rhodes at the State Fair.

"He took great delight in mingling with and talking to the farmers and the kids who would come up there to show their prize animals. On the other hand, I would see him getting in and out of limousines. You would get a glimpse of John Galbreath or Woody Hayes.... He was just as at ease in board rooms as he was on street corners," Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Galbreath was a prominent developer, and Mr. Hayes was the legendary head coach of the Ohio State University football team.

Former Democrat Gov. John Gilligan, whom Mr. Rhodes defeated in the 1974 election, said last week Mr. Rhodes was not a "doctrinaire Republican of any kind."

But Mr. Gilligan said Mr. Rhodes is similar to today's Republicans on the federal and state levels because his mantra was "no new taxes."

"He used that over and over again, and now the Republicans are using that everywhere. It is a simple-minded way of avoiding the real problems of government," said Mr. Gilligan, who is a member of the Cincinnati school board.

But Mr. Gilligan said Mr. Rhodes never would have supported the changes to the Social Security system that President Bush has proposed.

As conservative Republicans have gained power in Washington and Columbus, the legacy of Mr. Rhodes is a centrist GOP blueprint for campaigning and governing, Mr. Green said.

"No one would confuse Jim Rhodes with being a liberal, but in some ways he was very liberal. He could reach out to working people. He managed to win statewide elections in Democratic years and his mantra was 'jobs and progress,' which today are words we would tend to associate with Democrats. Republicans today refer to it as 'investment and business climate,'●" Mr. Green said.

But State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said Mr. Rhodes fits into the moderate GOP leadership style of U.S. Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, Gov. Bob Taft, and GOP House and Senate leadership over the past two decades.

"Ask them what they want and give it to them," is how Mr. Gardner described Mr. Rhodes' style.

But the need for construction of public works projects has declined since the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Gardner said.

Mr. Rhodes and former House Speaker Vern Riffe, a Democrat from southeast Ohio, believed that "government had to be an active player in generating economic development," Mr. Green said.

"There has been something of a retreat from that. We see it most among the Republicans who govern now, but there is a similar sense among Democrats: 'What can we really do? Maybe we should just get out of the way and let the market operate with free trade or technology advances. The job of the government is to simply encourage that process and pick up the pieces,'●" Mr. Green said.

Mr. Rhodes' rise to power from humble beginnings and his lifetime in politics and government made him a "pragmatic leader," Mr. Green said.

"You would hear from Rhodes how he was keeping taxes low and he was against 'tax-and-spend Democrats,' " Mr. Green said.

"But to find the money to build highways or colleges or community colleges or other types of public works like the building in Toledo, he would always find the money and he was willing to pursue tax increases, revenue enhancements, and bond issues. In that sense, he is different from many of the Republicans who govern Ohio and the nation," Mr. Green said.

Part of the reason is how much politics has changed, said the Rev. Paul Ulring, pastor of the Upper Arlington Lutheran Church in suburban Columbus, where Mr. Rhodes and his wife attended.

"I never heard the anti-Rhodes rancor from Democrats that I hear anti-Taft stuff. It is a different day for politics; something made us think we could not work together or we were better off not doing that. Part of it has been forged by this national meddling in local politics. Rhodes never let the national people run this state," he said.

Last Wednesday, Mary Anne Sharkey was among those who attended the swearing-in ceremony at the Statehouse for state development director Bruce Johnson, Republican Gov. Bob Taft's choice to succeed Jennette Bradley as lieutenant governor. Mr. Johnson is a former GOP state senator.

Ms. Sharkey, Mr. Taft's former communications director who is now a consultant, said she didn't see any Democrats and that wouldn't have happened in Mr. Rhodes' day. The GOP controls the Senate 22-11.

She noted that the GOP was outnumbered by a similar margin in the late 1970s when Mr. Rhodes was governor, but he still controlled the Senate.

"He would call individual members into the governor's office and ask, 'What will it take? Do you need a new highway? Money for your arts center? Do you need a new airport? Do you need a new college?' It was your basic retail politics," said Ms. Sharkey, a former reporter who covered Mr. Rhodes' final four-year term for the Dayton newspaper.

Mayor Ford said the statue that will be unveiled tomorrow - even though it is a replica of the one in front of the state office tower in Columbus - "seems to have more [of a personal] touch to it than the one near the Statehouse."

"I can't put my finger on it. Maybe it's because we have labored so long with the idea that Toledo didn't always get its fair share. But with a guy like Rhodes, he was the first to look out for a Toledo or a Nelsonville or a Springfield," Mr. Ford said.

Contact James Drew at: or 614-221-0496.

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