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Jews On First!

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Blackwell never put his best foot forward, and paid the price

By Joe Hallett, The Columbus Dispatch, November 19, 2006

No file in the office cabinet bulges more than the one marked Blackwell.

Over the past 12 years as a statewide officeholder, Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell has been a reporterís dream. He opens his mouth and news pours out. He has a talent for speaking in quotes and a knack for seeing how they will look in the next dayís newspaper, even as he says them.

I will miss covering Blackwell. He is fun to be around, blessed with an enveloping personality, an endearing sense of humor and a very big brain. His has been a life of inspiration, from the projects of Cincinnati to mayor of that city, from college civil-rights crusader to U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, from fiscal meagerness to multimillionaire.

Blackwell loves his wife, Rosa, and their three children with all his heart, and nothing bespoke their bond more than the private and dignified way in which they rallied to conquer his prostate cancer six years ago. He is a deeply devout man, given to acts of kindness and generosity.

All of these wonderful traits about Ken Blackwell, and more, were largely unknown to voters in the governorís race. Instead, they went to the polls with an image of him as a shrill and negative man who espoused divisive policies -- exactly what voters resoundingly rejected across the country on Election Day.

To be sure, there was almost no way Blackwell or virtually any other Republican could have won the governorís race this year. A batch of wildly unpopular or scandalous Republican surnames -- Bush, Taft, Noe, Ney, DeLay, Foley, Abramoff -- conspired to poison a political atmosphere already foul with foreboding about the Iraq war and the direction of the nation.

Almost no campaign Blackwell could have conducted would have won. But the campaign he waged arguably made him lose by such a wide margin. It was an in-your-face campaign bereft of humility, a campaign of controversial moves and proposals, and one that personally vilified anyone who dared to push back, even fellow Republicans.

The tone was set on Feb. 20, candidate filing day, when Blackwell held a news conference to unveil the television attack ad he was airing against his GOP primary opponent, Attorney General Jim Petro. The attacks never stopped, and Blackwell came out of the primary victorious but broke and with a negative image among voters.

As Ohioís first black gubernatorial nominee, Blackwell had an extra hurdle to clear for acceptance by the general electorate, according to Charles Walker of Columbus, who is black and has served as a minority-voter outreach coordinator for two Democratic presidential candidates, Bill Clinton and Edward Kennedy. He said Blackwell missed an opportunity for a fresh start shortly after the primary election.

"Once he won the primary, he needed to reintroduce himself," Walker said. "They should have shown his background, how he grew up, what he has accomplished."

Why, Walker wondered, didnít the Blackwell campaign show in June or July two powerful testimonials ads that ended up being aired in the final 10 days of the campaign, when the race had become lost? One featured former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani lauding Blackwellís economic ideas. The other showed Blackwellís youngest daughter, Kirstin, in a moving tribute to her father.

Instead, Walker said, the campaign opted to attack Strickland in TV spots.

"They made Blackwell look mean. He didnít talk about what he was going to do for the public, he talked about ĎTaxiní Ted.í "

As the campaign progressed, Blackwell was in a no-win spot when corruption became a dominant issue. He had nothing to do with the Statehouse corruption, but as a Republican, he couldnít avoid being tainted by it. Blackwell considered attacking Gov. Bob Taft, but his internal polls showed that even though Republicans didnít like Taft much, they would have resented the attack.

By mid-September, Blackwellís money was drying up and he was off the air for six weeks until Oct. 30, ceding the ad war to Strickland. The result was one of the most lopsided governorís races in modern times, with Blackwell performing worse than any Ohio GOP gubernatorial candidate since 1912.

Itís sad that he has to go out this way. Itís too bad the political climate and his own campaign didnít give voters a chance to see the Ken Blackwell they would have liked.

Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch.

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