Reprinted w/o permission from the Chicago Tribune.
Ohio's Bible-quoting secretary of state tests the GOP with his ultraconservative, unpredictable style
By Tim Jones
Tribune national correspondent
Published February 11, 2005
CINCINNATI -- At 6-feet-5 and 255 pounds, J. Kenneth Blackwell still is the noisy head-knocker the Dallas Cowboys brought to training camp 35 years ago.
Pro football didn't work out for Blackwell -- he insisted on being a linebacker, the Cowboys wanted him at guard -- so he walked away from a three-year pro contract and opted for the often brutish equivalent: politics.
The transition has paid off handsomely for the controversial Republican who, as Ohio's secretary of state, oversaw the election in that crucial state, which gave President Bush four more years in the White House.
Blackwell, a Bible-quoting child of Cincinnati's West End poverty pit, may be less well known beyond the borders of Ohio, but he is emerging as a national spokesman for black conservatism. Like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Ohio's Blackwell is one of a new generation of black leaders who have risen to national prominence by virtue of powerful government offices.
But in personality and politics, Ken Blackwell is the anti-Obama, a loud and persistent advocate for tax cuts, smaller government and a greater role for religion in daily life. With the cranky fiscal conservatism of H. Ross Perot, the saber-rattling chutzpah of Newt Gingrich and the volatile verbosity of Alan Keyes, Blackwell has already been elected statewide three times in Ohio. Now he is running for governor, aiming to be only the nation's second elected African-American governor.
"There are those who believe it is not my turn, but I believe it is my time," Blackwell said recently, with the unflinching self-assurance that has defined his three decades in politics.
In the ever-expanding warehouse of impatient politicians who fervidly believe their time is now, the 56-year-old Blackwell is notable because he is black, he is Republican and the tilt of his conservatism often exceeds that of a GOP that has been tacking to starboard for more than two decades. And one more thing -- Blackwell has proved to be an equal opportunity offender, angering Democrats and Republicans alike.
There are log cabin elements to Blackwell's personal story. His father, a meatpacker who never owned his own home, looked at the size of his young son's beefy fists and believed he could box his way out of the poverty of Laurel Homes, a housing project visited all too often by Cincinnati police. His mother pushed education -- there was no television, but there were books that had to be read. And the Bible. A football scholarship to Xavier University in Cincinnati led to a free agent contract with the Cowboys.
Blackwell has been married 36 years to his childhood sweetheart, Rosa, who is acting superintendent of Cincinnati public schools. Wooed by presidents of both parties for various Cabinet and ambassadorial positions, Blackwell is a portrait of hard work and success, which has rubbed off on his children. Two are professionals -- one a lawyer, another in marketing -- and a third is in law school.
Combined with pro-family homilies and tax-cutting zeal, Blackwell's personal story and strong personality comprise many of the endearing ingredients for just about any Republican.
In fact, Ohio's other top elected officials, including Bob Taft, great-grandson of the 27th president, William Howard Taft, bring to mind the stolid demeanor of Grant Wood's "American Gothic." The typical Blackwell greeting is a toothy grin and a "Hi, brother," followed by a firm hand-grasp, backslap or the occasional bear hug.
But diplomacy is not his strong suit. In a state that was home to the machinelike president maker Mark Hanna and still retains a strong hierarchical structure, Blackwell seems to revel in being a political free spirit. He enraged Republicans by denying Ralph Nader a spot on Ohio's November ballot. He said in an interview that when Ohioans elected Republican Bob Taft as governor in 1998 and 2002, they got "a pig in the poke," a governor who embraces "wooden-headed policies."
"I've never traded principle for blind obedience and I actually think that's what people like about me. I'm not a party hack. . . . I'm not in the hip pocket of anyone," said Blackwell, revealing his political strength and weakness.
Some Republicans complain Blackwell is too conservative, too unpredictable. Democrats accuse him of hijacking Ohio for Bush, comparing him with Florida's one-time secretary of state, the controversial Katherine Harris. And some blacks, in between-the-lines remarks, suggest he has abandoned his heritage and race by staking his claim in the Republican Party.
Democrats, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, have accused Blackwell of trying to disenfranchise black voters. Blackwell seems to wobble at times on his old football knees, but he loves to fight.
"I'm Jesse Jackson's worst nightmare," Blackwell said with undisguised relish. "If I get 50 percent of the [black] vote, that's the first step and Jesse Jackson can't trade on black votes."
There are no middling feelings toward Blackwell, a politician too ambitious to stray far from television lights. Reporters in Columbus, the state capital, call him "Inkwell."
"Whenever he opened the refrigerator door and the light went on, he'd stand there and give a three-minute speech," quipped Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, who has alternately worked with and against Blackwell since the 1970s. John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said, "lot of people in Ohio have a hard time figuring him out because he doesn't conform to expectations."
And that is part of the political intrigue swirling around Blackwell. When white politicians espouse archconservative views, they are usually labeled conservatives. When blacks embrace the same positions, they open themselves up to criticism whites do not face.
"To some extent he is being criticized because he does not adhere to a stereotype," Green said. "Some criticize him for being too conservative. Some criticize him for being an ambitious black man."
Elected three times to statewide office in Ohio -- once as treasurer, twice as secretary of state -- and twice persuaded by party officials to cool his gubernatorial ambitions, Blackwell is testing the Republican Party's stated-but-not-proven commitment to racial and ethnic inclusion, especially at the top of the ticket. He applauds Obama's election, but he quickly notes, "I've already accomplished what Barack did."
Although Blackwell is the ideological counterweight to Obama, his origins from the poor West End neighborhood would not seem to be the starting point for a black political pioneer choosing the less-traveled path.
There always has been incentive to succeed. Blackwell's uncle won the gold medal in the long jump in the 1924 Olympic Games. His grandfather played baseball in the Negro League. In 1965 Blackwell won a football scholarship to Xavier University, a Jesuit school in Cincinnati with an overwhelmingly white student body. Amid nationwide campus turmoil over the Vietnam War, civil rights and the 1968 assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Blackwell was noted for his dashiki and 12-inch Afro. As president of the school's nascent Afro-American Association, he persuaded university administrators to send him and two other students to King's funeral in Atlanta.
"Ken was a real leader," said Don Darby, an Xavier classmate and now a retired public school administrator. "But we didn't do anything radical, we didn't take over any buildings."
The political hell-raising would come much later. As a City Council member and later mayor of Cincinnati, Blackwell championed urban issues such as anti-redlining laws. He served on the council with Jerry Springer and, participating in a 1970s local craze, Blackwell wrestled a bear on television. On his first day as mayor in 1979, 11 people were killed during a Who concert. It became a Rudy Giuliani moment for Blackwell, who was praised for his calm demeanor in the face of tragedy.
Important people were watching. Blackwell won presidential appointments, from Jimmy Carter through the current President George Bush.
Reflecting his own bear hug of conservatism, Blackwell's 16th-floor office in Columbus is dotted with framed portraits of Blackwell and revered conservative icons -- Margaret Thatcher, Antonin Scalia, Milton Friedman, Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes, whose 2000 presidential campaign he chaired.
"I used to believe a big activist government could indeed empower people. Now I realize it only makes people more dependent," said Blackwell, who describes himself as an unabashed economic supply-sider.
There was no political epiphany, he said, noting that in the '60s he never marched against the Vietnam War and in the '70s he opposed busing as a means to integrate public schools.
Blackwell, who said he has voted for Republicans in every presidential election since 1976, usually travels alone to campaign events. He is a man in a political hurry. Just as he left the Cowboys because he didn't want to be a guard, Blackwell does things his way. Returning from a recent campaign stop in suburban Columbus, he was not wearing his seat belt, despite a state law mandating it.
Some call Blackwell a lone ranger or, more charitably, politically entrepreneurial. As flamboyant as his style is, his path up the electoral ladder is a study in determined calculation. He's prepared for attacks from both parties, calling the political elite descendents of "Tweedledum and Tweedledee."
"He really charted his own course," said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier University political scientist who was student body president while Blackwell was a student. "He went from a huge Afro and a dashiki to French cuffs and cuff links from the president."
And Blackwell, beyond Ohio, has a national platform -- he's a regular commentator on Salem Communications' 80 Christian radio stations.
Usually driving alone around the state and speaking to chambers of commerce, Christian organizations, young Republicans and others, Blackwell quotes the Scriptures but preaches the gospel of fiscal restraint. He is pushing for a rollback in the state sales tax and a constitutional amendment that would sharply limit the growth of state spending.
His position on the proposals are controversial, as are others he has taken. He complained last year about Medicaid spending, saying there are too many poor people relying on the health care program. A month before the November election he suggested partners in same-sex marriages don't have the sense of "barnyard animals."
Just let him talk
All of this has given rise to the observation that the way to defeat Blackwell is to get out of his way and let him keep talking.
A recent poll showed Blackwell leading two other Republican candidates for the 2006 gubernatorial primary.
But it's early in the game and politics-weary Ohio voters aren't thinking much about the 2006 governor's race.
The election-year long knives aren't out yet, but they are being sharpened. On a recent morning Blackwell drove to his old Cincinnati neighborhood, for a ribbon-cutting at a new grade school, built next to the one Blackwell attended in the 1950s.
Taft, the governor, was there and the two exchanged brief, if not cold, "hellos" and perfunctory handshakes. So was Mayor Luken, who introduced Blackwell to a gathering of several hundred grade-schoolers as someone "who spent three of the best years of his life in 3rd grade."
Blackwell didn't get to respond before the students, but he laughed and told Luken he was "carrying a crucifix because you are a tax-sucking vampire."
Then, after the ceremony ended, Blackwell got into his car and drove to Columbus, alone.
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Who is he?
Name: J. Kenneth Blackwell
Political party: Republican
College: Xavier University (where he was a scholarship football player)
Jobs: Ohio secretary of state (second term); commentator on Salem Communications' 80 Christian radio stations.
Previous posts: Ohio state treasurer; U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission; undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; mayor of Cincinnati.
Family: Married for 36 years to Rosa Blackwell, acting superintendent of Cincinnati public schools. They have three children