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Tanzania RPCV Bob Taft: Political history helps define Ohio governorís race
Tanzania RPCV Bob Taft: Political history helps define Ohio governorís race
Political history helps define Ohio governorís race
Taft reaches beyond namesake
By William Hershey
Dayton Daily News
CINCINNATI | The usual suspects for a Republican rally had gathered outside the Hamilton County Courthouse to help Gov. Bob Taft kick off his re-election campaign.
Business suits, briefcases and neatly trimmed hair predominated on the warm September morning. Many of the well-wishers worked for Republican officeholders.
Then Jim Price showed up, with his goatee, ponytail and sunglasses.
"Heís a real person," Price, 55, said of the governor. "You can talk to him. He never forgets you."
Price met Taft in the early 1980s. Taft was a Hamilton County commissioner. Price and others in the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club wanted to put up a POW-MIA monument. A request to put the monument in a local park had been rejected, Price said.
Taft helped find a spot outside the courthouse.
"He was very instrumental," said Price, an Army veteran who served 3 years in Vietnam as a light weapons infantry paratrooper.
Since then, members of the club have provided Taft with motorcycle escorts in parades, Price said.
Price, a receptionist at a Cincinnati law firm, is a burly guy who weighs in at about 280 pounds. Thereís not much room for a passenger on his Harley but all Taft has to do is ask.
"He would be welcome," Price said.
Robert Alphonso Taft II on a Harley? Probably not. The governor rides bicycles. He also prefers to be called "Bob."
Heís not shucking his past, just staking out a clear identity for himself. His grandfather, a U.S. senator known as "Mr. Republican," was Robert A. Taft. His father, also a U.S. senator, was Robert (no middle initial) Taft Jr.
"I thought it was very confusing and very complicated," said Taft, 60, whose great-grandfather was William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States and also chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The name sequence is very complicated."
Besides, said the governor, he is "a lot more informal than maybe my father and grandfather were."
"I just feel that itís the simplest way to communicate who I am. Thatís what I want people to call me. It avoids confusion," Taft said.
Of course, when it comes to names, the governor's last name is more of an issue than his first.
"There are expectations that people have because they knew your dad or they knew your grandfather. You have to deal with those expectations," Taft said. "On the other hand, from the standpoint of opportunity, it helped me a great deal."
The Tafts have been part of America since colonial days. Historian James T. Patterson, in his book, Mr. Republican, A Biography of Robert A. Taft, has written that the "first Taft known to be in America was also named Robert, a carpenter who settled in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1678 and moved to the nearby Mendon. He became a selectman, acquired property and died a man of substance in 1725."
Gov. Taft has also been a state legislator, county commissioner and Ohio secretary of state. He ran for lieutenant governor in 1986 on the losing ticket headed by James A. Rhodes. The longer you hold public office, he said, the less people talk about how your name might have helped.
"Iíve built my own career based on my own accomplishments, so obviously I feel good about what Iíve achieved," he said.
Fans have their adjectives to describe Taft ó thoughtful, intelligent, honest. Critics have theirs ó plodding, unimaginative, overly cautious. Fans and critics, even Tim Hagan, Taft's Democratic opponent, agree on one ó decent.
Melissa Manning, 30, a fraud investigator at Fifth Third Bank in Dayton, occupies a front-row seat on the Taft bandwagon.
"We canít have anybody more honest and genuine in office," she said.
Manning was a 17-year-old high school student in Cincinnati in 1990 when Taft and his wife, Hope, hired her to be the live-in babysitter for their daughter, Anna, then 10. Manning came from a broken home. Her mother was raising four children on her own. There had not been much structure in the teenagerís life, Manning said.
At the Tafts, she shared family meals. She had spent lots of time watching television. Taft turned her into a reader. Hope Taft set curfews. For the first time, she came to feel like she was part of a real family.
After high school, she enrolled in Wright State University. Hope Taft went to orientation with her; Bob Taft helped out if a problem came up at school.
"I never had that type of support," Manning said.
Manning described Taft as "basically the constant in my life as a father." Her fiance asked both Taft and her biological father when he got the courage to propose. Taft gave her away at the wedding.
The Tafts still send birthday cards addressed "to a dear daughter."
The governor has not always been considered a "dear" colleague by fellow Republicans, even in his own family. He raised suspicion when he graduated from Yale in 1963 and joined the Peace Corps, established by Democratic President John F. Kennedy.
Then in 1969 Taft went to work in the budget office of Illinois Gov. Richard Ogilvie. Ogilvie was a moderate Republican who pushed a state income tax through the legislature, an act that doomed his re-election bid in 1972.
Taftís Peace Corps service and service with Ogilvie came up in 1976 when Ohio House Republicans considered appointing Taft to a vacant seat, said Columbus attorney Charles "Rocky" Saxbe, a Republican member of the legislature at the time.
"A couple of the conservatives were worked up that Bob had been in the Peace Corps," Saxbe said. "He had worked for Gov. Ogilvie, a moderate ó spelled liberal. They felt this guy would not be sure to adhere to his grandfatherís legacy, his fatherís legacy."
One member made a speech about how the Republicans shouldnít be swayed by Taftís famous name.
"Thereís no birthright there, and this guy certainly doesnít look like heís the kind of conservative we want," Saxbe recalled the member saying.
That upset Saxbe, who has a famous name of his own. His father, William Saxbe, served as U.S. and Ohio attorney general, a U.S. senator and speaker of the Ohio House.
"I stood up and (said) I kind of personally take offense. Should a famous name operate at some kind of disadvantage? I chewed this guy out. Here we have an opportunity to bring in a new generation of Tafts. We would be foolish not to welcome him to the cause," Saxbe said.
Taft got the appointment, but has remained under suspicion by conservatives.
This year their suspicions were confirmed again when he named Columbus City Councilwoman Jennette Bradley, an abortion rights supporter, as his lieutenant governor running mate. Taft opposes abortion and said that will be the policy of his administration.
The governor also has reached out to labor unions, establishing a labor advisory council headed by Ted Brown, a former Dayton resident and member of the millwrightsí union.
Taft's grandfather was co-author of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted some union activities and gave the president authority to intervene in labor disputes. President Bush this month invoked the act to halt an employersí lockout of longshoremen on the West Coast.
Reaching out is part of being governor, Taft said.
"Iím going to be as effective as the quality of information I receive," he said. "So itís important to have strong channels of information with all major groups in Ohio."
Strong channels of communications, however, donít ensure strong leadership at a time when, both Taft and Hagan agree, the state is undergoing a sometimes painful transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy. And Taft has been criticized for appearing to take a back seat to powerful leaders in his own party, such as House Speaker Larry Householder or Senate President Richard Finan.
Historian George Knepper, who has observed Ohio governors for more than half a century, said he considers Taft a nice person with good intentions. But, like his father and grandfather, Taft doesnít like to push and shove very much, Knepper suggested.
"Boat-rocking is generally a little out of character for a Taft," Knepper said.
Taft will concede that he moves methodically.
"You can call me a little cautious on taking positions because I donít like to change my mind," he said.
That doesnít mean, Taft said, that he doesnít lead.
"My strategy is one of putting forth a program, putting forth a new idea, then working with the legislative leaders to get it done. Where necessary, weíve had to wage campaigns to accomplish some of our goals," he said.
One example, he said, was keeping the legislature from balancing the budget with national tobacco settlement money that had been set aside for biomedical research.
"We went to war on that," Taft said. "We talked to the press. We talked to legislators and we were able to preserve that through a very tough budgetary situation."
Brian Hicks, Taftís chief of staff, said another controversy showed how Taft exerts leadership without giving the appearance of rocking the boat.
In March of last year, Taft was in South America on a trade mission when Householder unveiled a budget proposal aimed at settling the 11-year-old lawsuit over school funding. The plan included raising money by expanding the Ohio Lottery to put video lottery terminals ó slot machines ó at racetracks, which Taft opposes.
When Taft returned to Ohio, he didnít pound on tables or lash out at Householder.
"He called people together. It was a private meeting. He reached a consensus on the direction he wanted to go," Hicks said.
Then, Taft, Householder and Finan appeared jointly at a news conference to announce that they would work together to come up with a school funding plan and that it would not include slot machines.
The school-funding plan the legislature and Taft adopted didnít meet the approval of the Ohio Supreme Court. The decision in September 2001 marked the third time the high court found the funding system unconstitutional. The court, at the request of Taft and other state officials, is reconsidering the decision.
Taft remains upbeat and says he and the legislature have done most of what the court has asked. He is campaigning for governor boasting that during his first four years in office he has helped improve Ohio schools. Achievement is up and his $23 billion, 12-year school building program is under way, Taft said.
He said he canít think of anything that heís changed his mind on since becoming governor, but said, "Iíve talked about things I wish I would have done more of or better . . . higher education and moving toward the knowledge economy."
In a second term, Taft said, he would push harder to advance Ohio in the knowledge economy through his $1.6 billion Third Frontier Project, which is aimed at promoting research and creating high-paying high-technology jobs. A key part of the plan next year would be asking voters to approve a $500 million bond issue.
To critics, it may seem like a slow and not even sure approach, but if they doubt the governorís resolve they should check with his wife.
The couple met by chance in an airport in Guatemala in 1966. Romance bloomed and by Thanksgiving of that year Hope invited Taft to Arkansas to meet her family. Taft was studying at Princeton University in New Jersey.
The night before Taft was to fly to Arkansas, "he went to a bachelor party and stayed out too late," Hope recalled. "He overslept and missed the first flight."
The traffic was heavy from Princeton to LaGuardia Airport in New York and Taft arrived too late for the second flight. He called Hope, "I missed the flight. I got another one. Iíll be out at 9 oíclock at night."
"Sure enough, my father drove two hours from Camden (Arkansas) to Little Rock to pick him up," Hope said. "They arrived in Camden and Bob began to charm the whole family."
They married the following June. Taftís charm so far has worked 35 years.
"He really had perseverance and was good to his word," his wife said.
[From the Dayton Daily News: 10.12.2002]