Pastors stand up for Blackwell
Democrats seek names of donors behind TV attack ad
By Mark Niquette, The Columbus Dispatch, August 29, 2006
Saying they are exercising their constitutional rights as citizens, a group of about 30 conservative pastors from across the nation stood behind Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell yesterday to endorse him for Ohio governor.
That followed Sunday’s release of Blackwell’s first television ad of the fall campaign, which criticizes Democrat Ted Strickland’s record on taxes and calls him "Taxin’ Ted."
Strickland is responding with his own commercial emphasizing his votes for tax cuts, while the Ohio Democratic Party called on Blackwell yesterday to 2 order a group that is bashing Strickland in television, radio and print ads to reveal its donors. It was all part of a busy day in the nationally watched campaign, with the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the fall election season still a week away. The pastors, who are both black and white and call themselves "Clergy for Blackwell," pointed primarily to Blackwell’s stands against abortion and samesex marriage.
The clergy members include the Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, who leads the Ohio Restoration Project; Bill Owens, director of the Coalition of African-American Pastors in Memphis, Tenn.; and Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Maryland.
"I think he’s better than President Bush at articulating Christian values and how that plays out in terms of policy," said Jackson, a Democrat.
However, Strickland and We Believe, an organization of clergy formed this year to counter the political influence of the religious right, complained that the pastors backing Blackwell are focusing on issues that divide voters.
This year a group of central Ohio religious leaders also filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against Johnson and the Rev. Rod Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church in Columbus, arguing they used their churches and affiliated tax-exempt organizations to promote Blackwell’s candidacy.
The pastors deny that, and Johnson said yesterday that the ministers "have not given up our citizenship" and support "religious liberty."
"We are fundamental believers in the fact that the public square should not be stripped or scrubbed clean of religion or faith or God," Blackwell said. "I will fight for the right of the nonbeliever to not believe, because we all have a right to be wrong."
Johnson said the Family First Political-Action Committee sponsored yesterday’s event, and that Clergy for Blackwell will not raise or spend money.
Blackwell, who is behind in the polls, may be trying to shore up his conservative base, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Sabato said it’s also not surprising that Blackwell’s first television ad of the general election campaign is an attack on Strickland.
"His only real hope is that people will somehow, some way reject Ted Strickland," Sabato said.
Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern, meanwhile, said yesterday he has asked Blackwell in his capacity as secretary of state to order the group waging a $1.5 million campaign against Strickland to disclose its donors.
Records show Common Sense Ohio was incorporated last month as a nonprofit organization to "inform Ohioans regarding public-policy choices," and the group also formed an "electioneering communication entity" called Common Sense 2006 this month.
That meets a new requirement in Ohio law, which also says such entities trying to influence the election must file weekly reports of contributions and expenditures.
But according to those reports, the sole source of the $1.5 million in contributions to Common Sense 2006 so far is Common Sense Ohio - which, as a nonprofit, is not required to disclose its contributors.
"These entities are engaging in a shell game to hide the identities of donors," said Redfern, noting Blackwell has supported laws to give voters access to the sources of political contributions.
But Columbus lawyer William Todd, the attorney for Common Sense Ohio, said the group is following the new law. Blackwell spokesman James Lee said if Democrats think there’s a violation, they should file a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission.
Todd said he also worked as a volunteer on Blackwell’s healthcare plan.
The law says issue-advocacy groups can’t work with candidates, but Todd said he kept the work for both groups separate.
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