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Ronald Reagan’s Unlikely Heir
Ohio’s Republican gubernatorial front-runner Ken Blackwell is “Jesse Jackson’s worst nightmare.”
Winter 2006

Ken Blackwell has just finished regaling a group of Ohio retailers with his vision of how to turn around the state’s struggling economy with a heavy dose of fiscal restraint and tax cuts. The crowd, accustomed to Republicans who tax and spend as furiously as Democrats, is rapt. But as Blackwell works the room afterward, on a warm fall afternoon in Columbus, one well-dressed woman stops him to outline her concerns. “I like your ideas on taxes,” she tells the former college football star, who at 6 foot 5 towers over her imposingly, “but I don’t like your other ideas so much”—meaning Blackwell’s strong pro-life positions and support of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. “I am not just an economic being,” Blackwell unapologetically replies. “I have a wider set of beliefs that I follow.” And then, before the woman moves away, Blackwell adds: “With me, you’ll always know what you are getting. You’ll always know where I stand.”

Right now, Ken Blackwell stands at a pivotal point in American politics. He’s taken an early lead in the race for governor of a state that was key to reelecting George W. Bush and that may well be even more crucial in picking the next American president. Moreover, Blackwell has built his early lead not by tacking toward the center of this swing state but by running on an uncompromisingly conservative platform that’s won him grassroots support from both Christian groups and taxpayer organizations—a novel coalition that makes the old-boy network in his own Ohio GOP as uneasy as it makes the state’s Democrats, who have begun a “stop Blackwell” campaign.

Ken Blackwell has so many people worried because he represents a new political calculus with the power to shake up American politics. For Blackwell is a fiscal and cultural conservative, a true heir of the Reagan revolution, who happens to be black, with the proven power to attract votes from across a startlingly wide spectrum of the electorate. Born in the projects of Cincinnati to a meat-packer who preached the work ethic and a nurse who read to him from the Bible every evening, Blackwell has rejected the victimology of many black activists and opted for a different path, championing school choice, opposing abortion, and staunchly advocating low taxes as a road to prosperity. The 57-year-old is equally comfortable preaching that platform to the black urban voters of Cincinnati as to the white German Americans in Ohio’s rural counties or to the state’s business community.

The former Xavier University football star is one of a handful of black conservatives making a stir in national politics. The group includes Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele, vying for an open U.S. Senate seat in his heavily Democratic state; Keith Butler, a minister and former member of the Detroit City Council who is the current front-runner for the GOP nomination for next year’s Michigan Senate race; former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, running for the 2006 Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nomination; and Randy Daniels, New York’s former secretary of state, now seeking the state’s GOP gubernatorial nomination. Of this group, only Steele has the unqualified backing of both his own state GOP and the national party. Ironically, Blackwell and Co. are proving too conservative for the Republicans.

Blackwell stands apart from the group, thanks to his deep electoral experience and his very good chance of getting elected. He has already run more political races—from school-board seat to city councilman to secretary of state—than all the rest of them combined. He’s served in Washington as a HUD undersecretary and traveled the world as a U.S. ambassador. He’s chaired a major presidential campaign, been mayor of one of Ohio’s largest cities, and plotted supply-side fiscal policy with Jack Kemp. If he wins in Ohio, a state where Republicans are on the defensive after scandals that rocked the administration of Governor Bob Taft, Blackwell would not only become the nation’s first elected black Republican governor but would immediately figure as a compelling 2008 vice-presidential candidate.

“Ken Blackwell represents the only chance the Republicans have in Ohio,” says Paul Weyrich, who headed the Heritage Foundation, where Blackwell was an analyst in 1990. Weyrich, who calls Blackwell one of the few extraordinary individuals he has met in 50 years of public service, says that, without him on the ticket, Ohio Republicans “are going down the tubes big-time for what they’ve done there.”

What they’ve done since capturing the statehouse more than a decade ago is to engage in a flurry of taxing and spending that has left the state’s budget swollen and its economy deflated. Under GOP rule, state and local government spending from 1995 through 2004 rose nearly 20 percent faster than the personal income of Ohio’s residents—almost three times the national growth rate. To pay for such splurges, current governor Bob Taft, in conjunction with the Republican-dominated state legislature, heaped on some $350 million in tax increases in 2001, then followed with a host of new levies the following year, prompting the Cato Institute’s annual survey of governors to deplore his “disastrous fiscal record” and award Taft a failing grade. “About the only good news to report is that Bob Taft is term limited and cannot run for office again,” the Cato report declared.

Not surprisingly, Ohio’s economy has been one of the nation’s feeblest. In the last decade, the state’s private sector has added only about 147,000 jobs, a mere 3.4 percent growth rate, compared with a robust 12 percent nationwide. Ohio also lays claim to one of the slowest population growth rates of any state, and one of the highest rates of migration of its citizens elsewhere in the country. “We have become one of the leading repopulators of other states,” Blackwell says.

Though Ohio’s decline has been steepest in the last ten years, the state has been on a downward arc for more than three decades, transformed by both Democratic and Republican administrations from one of the country’s lowest-taxed states to its current high-tax, slow-growth model. Ironically, the man now bidding to reverse the state’s course has been on exactly the opposite ideological arc. Coming of age in the 1960s, Blackwell tilted toward the radical activism of that era. Sporting an Afro and a dashiki, he headed the African-American student association at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, attended Martin Luther King’s funeral as the school’s representative, and studied the organizing principles and confrontational politics of Saul Alinsky, founder of the far-left Industrial Areas Foundation. A football star with an athletic scholarship, Blackwell took a break from activism after college to try out for the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys, but when the team tried to turn the linebacker into an offensive lineman, Blackwell turned his back on a three-year deal to play pro ball and returned to Xavier for graduate school. He leaped into the political arena, running for the local school board in a race that he narrowly lost in 1977. He took time out to marry his high school sweetheart, Rosa, who after 35 years in the Cincinnati school system rose last year to become its superintendent, successfully leading it off Ohio’s list of most troubled school systems by year’s end.

Her husband fashioned his first winning coalition in politics when he started to reject the Left’s nostrums because they conflicted with his own family-inspired beliefs. By the mid-1970s, he already opposed forced busing as a solution to black educational problems, because he doubted that black kids needed to sit next to white ones to do well. Noticing how white parents took advantage of Cincinnati public schools’ open enrollment policy, which allowed talented kids to select schools outside their districts, Blackwell became an early advocate for school choice. Mindful that many families in public housing seemed stuck there, Blackwell began to worry that government programs to help the poor were instead breeding dependence, and he became one of the few black political leaders of the 1970s to preach that the responsibility for rising out of poverty rested with the individual, not the government.

Carrying this message around Cincinnati, Blackwell attracted white liberals ready to embrace an attractive and eloquent black candidate, blacks who identified with his message of social conservatism and personal responsibility, and conservatives who saw him as an unexpected ally. This broad-based support won him a seat on the Cincinnati city council in 1977 as a member of the Charterist Party, a 1920s-style progressive reform organization. The council’s only black at the time, Blackwell was elevated to mayor two years later by council members, in a era when they, not voters, elected the city’s top official. On Blackwell’s first day in office, 11 people died in a mad stampede at a Cincinnati rock concert; the 31-year-old mayor earned instant credibility for his clear-headed response to the crisis and its aftermath.

Blackwell’s unusual political profile began attracting attention outside Cincinnati, too. He met then-congressman and former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp through the NFL’s alumni association—though, he points out, “Kemp played for 13 years, and I played for about 13 minutes.” Blackwell traded ideas with the future Housing and Urban Development secretary on using the private sector to spur inner-city redevelopment, and Kemp steered Blackwell to others who helped refine his thinking, including Reagan White House staffers. While he debated whether to leave the Charterist Party to become either a Democrat or a Republican, Blackwell got an invitation to visit Reagan in the White House, where the president told Blackwell the story of his own political conversion. “I walked out of there knowing that I was going to join the party myself. It was clear to me that I stood a better chance of following my principles as a Republican,” says Blackwell.

One of Blackwell’s principles, handed down from his father, is that opportunity is something you have to grab for yourself, because it won’t be handed to you by government or anyone else. Since becoming a Republican, Blackwell has sharpened that principle into a coherent set of ideas on how to spur economic development and create opportunity in the private sector through cutting taxes and regulation. One lesson that Blackwell particularly remembers his father preaching is the importance of owning one’s own home—something that the elder Blackwell never achieved. Serving as Kemp’s undersecretary at HUD, Blackwell touted recommendations to spur affordable housing development in cities not through government subsidies but by eliminating regulatory barriers to building, streamlining zoning codes, and changing federal grant programs to encourage states and cities to reduce their own land-use bureaucracies.

Serving on the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform in the mid-1990s, Blackwell became a passionate advocate of a simplified tax code and co-edited a book with Kemp, entitled IRS v. The People: Time for Real Tax Reform. So much significance did Blackwell eventually come to attach to tax reform that he agreed to chair Steve Forbes’s 2000 Republican presidential primary campaign, centering on Forbes’s flat-tax proposal. “Ken is an experienced fighter in the political trenches, but he also thoroughly understands the ideas he’s fighting for,” says Forbes. “That’s a very rare combination in politics.”

As Blackwell rose in the national Republican Party, he won greater attention from the Ohio GOP, though the state party quickly discovered how much Blackwell’s Reagan Republicanism diverged from its unreformed country-club Republicanism. In 1993, Governor George Voinovich appointed Blackwell to fill Ohio’s vacant treasurer’s post, and the next year voters elected Blackwell to that position, making him the first black to win statewide office in Ohio. Four years later, he was elected secretary of state—after forgoing a run for governor at the request of Ohio’s Republican Party chairman, who wished to spare Taft a primary battle.

In the midst of his rise, Blackwell has struggled to push the Ohio GOP rightward, becoming one of its sternest critics. He bitterly opposed Governor Voinovich’s attempts to raise the state sales tax, then successfully campaigned against a ballot initiative designed to increase the sales tax after Voinovich’s effort failed in the legislature. Though many state GOP leaders supported the tax-hike initiative, 80 percent of Ohio voters rejected it. (Voinovich, now one of the U.S. Senate’s so-called Republicans In Name Only, is today’s leading national embodiment of Ohio-style Republicanism.) Blackwell’s successful opposition to his own party sparked an all-out war on him, with Republican House Speaker Larry Householder’s staff even circulating a 109-page plan for destroying Blackwell politically. The hyperbolic language of the report labeled Blackwell “the Enron of Ohio politics, propped up and overvalued, a fraud,” prompting Blackwell to respond that the report displayed so much hate on the part of its authors that “I pray for them and for us.”

In a state where he’s often at war with his own party as well as the Democrats, Blackwell has developed a combative political style, sharpened by his quick wit. Drawing a clear distinction between his platform and that of one of his GOP opponents in the Ohio gubernatorial sweepstakes, Attorney General Jim Petro, Blackwell says, “Jim is the Al Gore of Ohio. He wants to reinvent government. I want to shrink it.”

Responding to GOP criticism that he’s too conservative to win in a “50-50 state,” Blackwell argues that “voters don’t want 50-50 leadership.”

In the face of opposition from within both of Ohio’s major parties, Blackwell, a National Taxpayers Union board member, is running a singular effort to energize Ohio’s taxpayers for the 2006 elections by stoking their anger over the state’s tax-and-spend ways. He has collected enough signatures to put an initiative on the 2006 ballot to limit Ohio’s spending growth to inflation plus population increase. After a decade in which Ohio’s state spending increased by 71 percent, one of the fastest growth rates among the states and some two and a half times faster than inflation plus population growth, a poll last year found strong voter sentiment for fiscal restraint. Nearly eight out of ten Ohioans polled said that they favored constitutional spending limits, while 86 percent said that the state should solve its budget shortfalls with spending cuts, not tax hikes. Blackwell calls his constitutional amendment to limit spending “a reasonable diet for an obese government; we’re not proposing something as radical as stomach staples, just a low-carb menu.” Still, much of the state’s GOP leadership opposes the amendment, as does the Democratic Party and the state’s public-sector unions and social-services providers.

Blackwell would use the breathing room that a slower-growing budget would provide to cut Ohio’s tax rates to ignite economic revival. Blackwell begins his standard stump speech before business and taxpayer groups by arguing that both capital and residents flow to low-tax states: Ohio, he points out, is now challenging high-tax states like New York and New Jersey for the lead in driving away citizens. “For 229 years, Americans have protected their own interests and lowered their taxes by moving across state lines,” Blackwell says. “In every 24-hour period, on average, 250 Ohio residents move to Florida alone.” To combat this drain, Blackwell is proposing a single-rate, flat income and corporate tax rate, a rollback of the 2003 sales-tax increase, and the elimination of Ohio’s estate tax.

To counter claims that spending limits and tax cuts would starve essential services, Blackwell is also proposing a host of government efficiencies. He likes to point out that when he served on a committee at his alma mater, charged with making Xavier’s operations more cost-effective, one recommendation was that the school contract out its food-service operations, then being run by the Jesuits. “We pointed out to the Fathers that they were good at prayer and teaching but not food service, an idea that was not popular with them at the time,” Blackwell says.

He promises to make the same kind of tough decisions about Ohio public spending, and the cornerstone of his agenda is a constitutional amendment that he is trying to get on the ballot to require public school systems to direct at least 65 cents of every education dollar into the classroom, instead of the 57 percent that now gets there—the fourth-worst performance among states. Blackwell has teamed up with Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com and founder of First Class Education, to promote the so-called 65-cent solution, which would funnel an additional $1.2 billion into the state’s classrooms.

Despite this broad fiscal agenda, Blackwell says that his candidacy is about more than taxes and spending. His early lead in the 2006 gubernatorial race is as much a product of support for his cultural agenda from the state’s increasingly active religious organizations, an agenda that places him even further out of step with the Ohio GOP than his fiscal agenda. He strongly supported a 2004 ballot initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman, vigorously opposed by most key state Republican figures and by some business groups, who clearly misread voter sentiment. The initiative, pundits say, sparked record turnout in the 2004 election, drawing out Christian voters and other cultural conservatives, who helped give President Bush a 119,000-vote margin in a state where the race seemed much tighter. The amendment had far broader appeal than the president did: it attracted half a million more votes in Ohio than Bush and won with a 62 to 38 percent margin.

Since then, leaders of several largely white Christian groups have lined up behind Blackwell’s bid, including the head of the Ohio Restoration Project, Pastor Russell Johnson. The project aims to recruit some 2,000 pastors statewide and register some 500,000 new voters for 2006. Johnson hopes that by vigorously supporting Blackwell, he will help tilt the Ohio GOP rightward. “The Ohio Republican Party is out of step with its base,” he says, pointing to the lopsided 2004 vote in favor of the marriage amendment, which 73 percent of GOP voters supported. “Ken Blackwell is closer to the values of the rank and file than those who now run the party.”

It hasn’t hurt Blackwell’s reputation with the rank and file that his deep religious convictions have drawn fire from noted liberal interest groups, winning him some extraordinary publicity. Several years ago, he opened a meeting with state employees by asking them to pause for a moment of prayer and reflection, prompting a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union. What particularly irked the ACLU was that Blackwell actually seemed to be in earnest: he didn’t “want them to just go through the motions of praying,” the ACLU complained, “but wanted it to be a sincere and thoughtful prayer.” After the well-publicized episode, Blackwell asked state employees in his next meeting to sing “God Bless America” before getting down to business.

Such incidents play well with Blackwell’s typical voter—a “German-American farmer from rural Ohio,” he says. The truly intriguing question, however, is: Can Ken Blackwell, running for governor on the same kind of platform, also attract African-American voters? If so, he will assemble a powerful and unusual coalition of middle-class taxpayers, Christian conservatives, and minority voters. Blackwell is fond of pointing out (as others have) that there is considerable overlap among these groups, especially since many blacks have entered the middle class and are socially conservative; indeed, polls show that African-American voters backed the Ohio marriage amendment in about the same proportions as other voters. When he speaks to black groups, Blackwell emphasizes his cultural positions as well as the common stake that all citizens have in the country’s economic success, something that today’s crop of civil rights activists rarely acknowledge. Speaking before an Ohio NAACP chapter several years ago, Blackwell quoted Booker T. Washington on the shared destiny of blacks and whites: “We are one in this country. We rise as you rise. We fall when you fall. . . . There is no power that can separate our destiny.”

Blackwell is betting that many black Americans may be ready for a candidate, like him, who doesn’t preach victimology and doesn’t see the world almost entirely in racial terms. Blackwell is a post-racial, post-civil rights campaigner; race rarely enters into his speeches and is barely a part of his political platform. And even when Blackwell does address racial issues—the achievement gap between black and white students, for instance—it’s to tout free-market solutions like vouchers and charter schools. So far, this approach has resonated with black voters, attracting 40 to 50 percent of them in his statewide elections, even though he runs on the GOP line. And his strong support of Bush in 2004, analysts say, helped the president double his black vote in Ohio over the 2000 election. Bush won 17 percent of African-American votes in Ohio in 2004, compared with 11 percent nationally.

With that kind of track record, Blackwell has become a growing target of left-wing blacks like Jesse Jackson, aghast that the first black governor of a major midwestern state might actually turn out to be a conservative who doesn’t trade on race. Though Blackwell has yet to suffer the kind of indignities of Maryland’s Steele—pelted with Oreo cookies in his campaign appearances—black Democrats have dismissed him as an opportunist for joining the GOP and accused him of trying to “disenfranchise” blacks to help elect George Bush president. In the midst of the campaign, one Ohio Democrat compared Blackwell to a “children’s Transformer toy,” because he wore an Afro in college and today is a conservative. Jackson showed up in the state just before the 2004 vote and denounced “beneficiaries of our work engaging in election schemes to undermine the right to vote,” a reference to Blackwell’s role as the state’s chief election officer. Mindful that many people found it hard to swallow the notion that a black was disenfranchising other blacks, Blackwell shot back, “I am Jesse Jackson’s worst nightmare.”

Blackwell’s opponents hoped that the 2004 elections would undo him, but instead his assured performance as the state’s top election official buoyed his prospects. Prognosticators warned that Ohio would be “the new Florida” in 2004—a state where a close tally and voting problems would throw the presidential race into doubt and then into court. Indeed, after the election, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, everyone from high school students to professors, civil rights lawyers, party activists, and journalists descended on the state to pore over election records, many of them “looking for a smoking gun,” in the newspaper’s words. But although the state had an unusually high 70 percent turnout, and though long lines prompted Blackwell to order some polling places to stay open well after the announced closing time, recounts showed that the vast majority of ballots were counted correctly, and only the most extreme conspiracy theorists tried to press the case that Republicans had somehow stolen the race. Ohio voters in particular seem unimpressed by such claims. A host of national left-leaning groups poured money into the state’s 2005 elections backing ballot proposals to diffuse some of the power of Blackwell’s office and to change state election procedures, ostensibly to “cure” some of the problems from 2004. But Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposals, against which Blackwell had campaigned vigorously.

Heading into the 2006 elections, Blackwell is clearly on a roll. But as the election draws closer, he will have to deal with increasingly insistent accusations from within his own party that he is too conservative for Ohio, while Democrats, public-employee unions, and social-services advocacy groups try to paint him as an extremist. Indeed, already signs of how the campaign will play out are visible in the state’s mainstream press, which celebrated Blackwell’s early successes as an up-and-coming black politician but now increasingly dismisses him as outside the political mainstream. The Cleveland Plain Dealer praised his appointment as treasurer as a “stroke of genius” in 1994 and said that Governor Voinovich “could scarcely have found a better candidate,” but a Plain Dealer columnist recently sneered that Blackwell’s supporters are “far-right religious zealots and anti-tax fanatics,” while the Akron Beacon Journal has branded his ideas “reckless” and said they would destroy the state. The local press’s favorite mantra is that Blackwell is the “darling of right-wing conservative” leaders nationally, as if his campaign represents some plot to hijack the state. “This is what happens to you when you are a politician like Ken, who is more interested in change than in playing along with the old-boy network,” says former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, who enlisted Blackwell to serve on one of his advisory groups in the mid-1990s. “Ken Blackwell is a guy who pursues big ideas.”

Blackwell’s biggest idea to date is to attempt finally to bring the Reagan revolution to Ohio, opposing not only the Democratic Party but also much of the power structure within his own state party. If he succeeds by building the kind of broad political coalition that has worked for him in the past, Blackwell may not only transform Ohio but also point the way forward for Republicans nationwide.

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