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Former Ohio Governors Weigh in on Death Penalty, Gun Control

photo of death penalty gavel
Both Bob Taft and Ted Strickland now have reservations about implementing the death penalty.

There’s an ongoing and uncivil war between many Republicans and Democrats. But two former Ohio governors have called a truce and created a friendship. And though they’re from different parties, Republican Bob Taft and Democrat Ted Strickland have a lot of views in common.

Bob Taft became governor in 1999. His first year in office, Cleveland killer Wilford Berry became the first inmate to die since Ohio revised its death penalty after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and resumed executions.  Two dozen people were put to death in Taft’s eight years in office. But he said he felt it was part of the job.

“I felt that unless there really was a mistake in law or evidence that it should proceed pursuant to law. But having gone through that experience and having examined the death penalty after being out of office, I’m developing growing reservations about it,” Taft said.

Taft’s successor Ted Strickland took over in 2007. Seventeen people were executed during his four years – including eight in 2010, the largest number in a single year since 1963. Strickland is a former prison psychologist, and now says he wishes he’d declared a moratorium on capital punishment.

“I think the death penalty is wrong for a lot of reasons. It’s unevenly applied. I think there’s always the danger of an innocent person being killed by the state,” Strickland said.

Execution numbers droppedunder Strickland’s Republican successor John Kasich. And current Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has said that no executions will proceed until there’s a protocol for lethal injection that is upheld by the federal courts – but he’s added he doesn’t see a path for that to happen under state law.

Both Taft and Strickland are also watching DeWine as he deals with gun violence. As he left office in 2006, Taft vetoed the law that keeps local communities from passing their own gun control laws – the legislature overrode him.  He said it’s now time for some reforms.

“We need very tight background checks in particular. Gov. DeWine’s program is a good program. I hope the legislature will adopt that program. The ‘red flag’ laws make a lot of sense to me so long as you have proper procedural safeguards. But clearly, we need to keep guns from getting into the hands of wrong people,” Taft said.

Strickland had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association in 2006 and in 2010, when he was defeated by Kasich. But when Strickland ran his unsuccessful campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman in 2016, he had changed his position and now advocates for what he calls reasonable restrictions.

“The NRA, I think, has gone completely off the rails. I think it’s become a reactionary organization that’s not concerned about hunting or sportsmen. It’s concerned about the gun manufacturers,” Strickland said. “And there’s an extreme element within our state and within our nation when it comes to this gun issue. And they will not even consider reasonable efforts to prevent gun deaths.”

Taft and Strickland say they have a good relationship – unlike many Republican and Democratic politicians. And Taft, who has long been considered a moderate, admits he’s no fan of President Trump.

“I have concerns with policies on immigration, on trade, on divisiveness as a political strategy. As governor, I tried to bring people together. I thought I should represent all Ohioans, whether or not they voted for me. So I’m not a fan of a divisive strategy which I think, it seems to me, that President Trump is following now,” Taft said.

Strickland goes further. “Donald Trump is an embarrassment – certainly to the Republican Party – but he’s an embarrassment to this country. He’s unfit and unworthy to be president, and I cannot wait to get in there and do everything I can to help whoever runs against him,” Strickland said. And he added, “Just some random person out on the street corner would be a more competent president for this country than is Donald Trump.”

But one thing they strongly agree on is Mike DeWine, who they say reached out to them after his election to the office they both once held. Taft said he likes DeWine’s focus on kids and Lake Erie, and that he has great respect and admiration for DeWine’s long career.

Strickland, who serves on DeWine’s RecoveryOhio mental health and substance abuse advisory board, said DeWine is like a breath of fresh air compared to Strickland’s former opponent Kasich. And Strickland added that it’s critical for people in office to be genuinely concerned about serving and not about promoting themselves.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.