Friday, July 20, 2001 at 7:12 AM
The Ohio state government is firmly under Republican control, but it wasn't that long ago when the reverse was true. In 1986 Democrats held majorities in both the House and the Senate, and democrat Richard Celeste held the governor's seat. Less than a decade later Republicans had taken over both legislative chambers and the governorship, and today they hold virtually all the elected executive offices as well. But no one - Democrat or Republican - takes it for granted that the GOP's dominance is here to stay. Ohio politics is volatile, and both sides say any number of things could turn the political tide by the 2002 election. In the first of two reports on state party politics in Ohio, 90.3 WCPN's Bill Rice looks at how Republicans are preparing to maintain their control in Columbus.
Bill Rice- At a gathering in downtown Cleveland to celebrate the birthday of U.S. Senator George Voinovich, State Republican Party Chairman Robert Bennett is confident his party will continue to shape Ohio's future. The Republican grip on Columbus, now a decade old, is not in any imminent danger, Bennett says. But the tension of the recent budget process indicates that it won't be an easy skate.
Robert Bennett- I always tell my budget friends it's easy to put a budget together when you have rising revenues and everyone can get what they want and you're returning money to the taxpayers. It's more difficult when you have a manufacturing recession back over a year ago and has hit Ohio pretty hard and affected state revenues.
BR- In fact, a lot of people are disappointed in the budget allocations for this year. The school funding issue has diverted money away from many programs: social services, higher education, growth and job development. And the economic slowdown is a big concern, since elections often turn on pocketbook issues.
RB- If the national economic picture bottoms out and we're on an upswing going into the election we'll be fine. If it gets any worse than generally the people like to vote the party out of power.
BR- That wouldn't be unusual here in Ohio, says John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron. He says Ohio has a history of turning around political power every 8-12 years or so, and the turbulence of the past year, with the school funding issue, trouble at the Department of Children and Family Services and continuing decline of manufacturing, could be a sign that the power pendulum is reversing course.
John Green- Once a party's been in power for a long time it begins to become exhausted. The allies in the party look at each other with a certain amt of tension. Ambitious politicians begin to fight with each other. They're no longer a cohesive team.
BR- That's been the case to some degree in Columbus recently. There have been reports of dissatisfaction on the part of some conservatives with Governor Taft, and others who just feel conservative principles are going by the wayside. State Representative Tom Lendrum of Huron says he'd like to see a course change by the Republican leadership.
Tom Lendrum- I think it's unfortunate that over the last ten years the Republicans have been in power, the size of government has grown consistently. This is showing that we are not exercising our true conservative position and eliminating waste in state government.
BR- State Representative Timothy Grendell of Chesterland also has reservations.
Timothy Grendell- My concern is that coming out of the school funding case there's going to be some kind of effort to raise taxes, or because the state coffers are low they're going to raise taxes. That would be a bad policy decision and a bad political decision.
BR- Lean government and lower taxes are the mainstays of Republican philosophy. But the historical flexibility of the Ohio electorate, according to University of Akron Professor John Green, casts some doubt on how long those principals will sustain the party's control. He says it's true that Republicans continue to have talented candidates and attract a lot of money from PACS and other wealthy interests; that's true of any controlling party.
JG- But eventually that pattern runs its course. People get tired of those particular politicians, or people retire from politics or new issues arise, and then the other party gets a chance.
BR- That's a typical scenario in Ohio, Green says, but will it hold true in the immediate future, the 2002 election. Probably not in the legislature, since those seats don't tend to turn over on a mass scale. What Republicans should worry about most, Green says, is the Governors' race, and Governor Taft could be vulnerable if Democrats can field a compelling enough candidate to sway voters. Neither Taft nor his predecessor, George Voinovich, were as inclined to cut government expenditures as many of their more conservative colleagues. But Green says there is a sense that Ohioans may, at some future point, be ready to see more money pumped into things like higher education and business development - agendas that gained little in the new state budget.
JG- At some point it is in the interest of everyone to expand the pie so more can get accomplished. Republicans have been very successful at running against taxes, but its possible the political winds will change and we'll enter an era in which tax increases are in fact not as unpopular as they've been in the past.
BR- Republicans like party chairman Bob Bennett say they'll be ready.
RB- Sometimes the voters just come out and say we're going to make a change for the sake of change. We recognize that and we're going to have to guard against that.
BR- In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.