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Ohio's Strickland Eyes Governor's Mansion

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

When it comes to politics, Ohio has a habit of keeping the rest of America on the edge of its seats. In 2000 and 2004, some political experts suggest George W. Bush's success hinged on narrow and controversial victories there. This November, the governor's seat is up for grabs, and a new poll shows Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland narrowly ahead of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

Last week, we spoke with Blackwell about his plans for The Buckeye State. Today, we're joined by Congressman Strickland. Congressman, welcome.

Representative TED STRICKLAND (Democrat, Ohio): It's good to be with you.

GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about, first and foremost, the problems that your state is having. I know a number of people who live in Ohio, in particular in Cleveland. And we all know the dire straits economically that that city has seen. How do you plan to rescue not only that central city, but the state in and of itself?

Rep. STRICKLAND: Well, first of all, we invest in the earliest years of a child's life, and I have suggested that we invest an additional $50 million per year into early childcare and education. We are going to address the cost of higher education. Today, in Ohio, it costs about twice as much to send one's son or daughter to a public college or university as it would cost in several other states, including some of the states surrounding Ohio.

It has been said, and I believe this deeply, that there is an unbreakable link between educational achievement and attainment and economic growth and prosperity.

GORDON: You're a white Democratic Congressman going against a conservative black Republican. There is a need, obviously, to win over - particularly for a Democrat - portions of the black community. But there is this hesitancy by some that don't know where their allegiance should like politically or from a racial standpoint. What are you doing to combat that?

Rep. STRICKLAND: Well, I hear that, but I see no evidence of it. I see no evidence that in the primary election that more African-American precincts voted for Republicans than they have in the past. I'm waiting for the evidence that there is any erosion within the African-American community away from the Democratic message and away from me as the Democratic nominee towards Mr. Blackwell.

But I will say this, that I am very aware that the minority community and the inner cities of our state have been neglected by the Republican leadership in Ohio for the last decade and a half, and my opponent in this governor's race has been a part of that Republican leadership. So I believe when it comes right down to the final decision to be made this November, that the African-American community will support me in huge numbers, as they usually support Democrats.

GORDON: What do you say to those who suggest -- and I'm talking not only of African-Americans in Ohio, but African-Americans across the board in this country, who suggest that not only Republican leadership but Democratic leadership has left them behind, has not paid attention to the ills in their community and talked about what is of import to most black Americans?

Rep. STRICKLAND: Well, I think there is some level of truth to that. And over the last 12 years, I have represented an Appalachian district in Ohio that has very, very few minority constituents in it. But the problems that are faced by poor Appalachians in Ohio and by poor members of the minority community are quite similar.

We have failed, for example, to provide an appropriate high quality education to many of the young African-American children who live in our cities; and that's also true of many of the white Appalachian children who live in Appalachia, Ohio.

I have fought for increased access to healthcare. I have fought for increased funding for education. I have fought for a society that is more fair and just in the way its resources are utilized. And so I do not concede in any way to any degree that simply because I am from the southern part of Ohio that I am not aware of and concerned about the problems that face all of Ohio citizens, including the citizens who live in our large urban centers.

GORDON: So politically speaking only, you're comfortable with a minority community?

Rep. STRICKLAND: Oh, of course, I am. I have received the endorsement of Congresswoman Tubbs Jones; I have the endorsement of the major large city mayors; I have the endorsement of African-American legislative leaders in Ohio. I feel very, very secure and confident in the support I have within the African-American leadership within and throughout Ohio.

GORDON: All right. As we said earlier, we had Kenneth Blackwell on the program with us last week. We, of course, talked about your race, and he had an opportunity to talk about you. Let me let you hear this, and then respond.

(Soundbite of previous NPR Broadcast)

Secretary KENNETH BLACKWELL (Secretary of State, Ohio): I think people tend to look at their pocketbook, and I think in the final analysis, people are going to say, look, he is running against a guy who has no track record. He is running against a guy who was in Congress for a decade and had no African-American staffers, who voted against even Clinton welfare reform that was geared towards infusing some personal responsibility so African-Americans could climb up the ladder of economic opportunity.

GORDON: All right, Congressman, your response.

Rep. STRICKLAND: Mr. Blackwell just did not tell the truth about my not having African-American staff members. So he was obviously not informed, or I hope he was not informed when he made that statement. Otherwise, he knowingly said something that was false.

GORDON: In the last decade, you have had African-Americans on your staff?

Rep. STRICKLAND: Of course, I have. And, in fact, when I was first elected to the Congress, coming from a district with probably less than two-percent African-American constituencies, I offered the chief of staff position, which is the top position in any Congressional office, to an African-American individual. He accepted that position and a couple of weeks later informed me that another Congressman from his home town of Chicago, Illinois had asked if he would consider being his chief of staff. So I, obviously willingly, relieved him of his commitment to me. But I am very proud of the fact that the very first person that I offered a top position to in my Congressional office was to an African-American.

GORDON: And his second point of economic development and opportunity for African-Americans.

Rep. STRICKLAND: And he specifically mentioned welfare reform. I was not in the Congress when the welfare reform bill was passed into law. So I don't know if Mr. Blackwell was aware of that. I was elected to the Congress in '92 and I was defeated in '94; and then I came back in '96. And the welfare reform legislation was passed during that session of Congress that --

GORDON: But there are reports that you've been on record and saying that you were not in favor of that reform, is that fair?

Rep. STRICKLAND: I was not in favor of that reform in some aspects of it. Let me tell you, I believe that welfare reform has worked for some people and in some circumstances. But if we look at welfare reform, in terms of its ability to move people to self-sufficiency and to enable people to have a job and live a high quality of life, then for many minority individuals in Ohio and throughout our country, it has been a dismal failure.

I believe in personal responsibility, but I also believe that when you require personal responsibility, you also have to provide opportunity. And there are people in Ohio who are working hard and are continuing to live in poverty, because the jobs that are available to them are minimum wage jobs, and although they may work full-time, they still find themselves consigned to a life of poverty. That's one of the reasons that I am strongly supporting an increase in the minimum wage in Ohio, and I think that issue is likely to also point to a major difference between Mr. Blackwell and myself.

GORDON: When we talk Ohio, we're really talking dollars, dollars, dollars; economics, economics, economics; jobs, jobs, jobs. Point Seven of your turnaround program is to retain, create, and attract jobs worthy of Ohio workers by focusing on industry sectors in which Ohio companies are growing. But there is also a reality in the world of outsourcing and the fact that much of the Midwest, many of these states that have seen prosperity over the years, will not see it as they knew it before. No matter how many jobs you attract, the sheer numbers won't cover those unemployed. What do you tell those who understand that that is a growing reality in the country today?

Rep. STRICKLAND: Well, there are three things that we need to do. We need to try to maintain the jobs we have. We need to expand the companies that exist in Ohio, and we've got to work to create the jobs of the future - the new and emerging jobs. This past week, I was in Cleveland, Ohio, and I met with 25 or 30 entrepreneurs, CEOs of emerging technology companies; companies that are producing the jobs of the future, and quite frankly, companies that have employees that received incomes averaging probably more than 60 to $65,000 per year - well above, you know, the median income of most Ohioans. These are efforts that must be undertaken with gusto by the next governor of Ohio, and we can do that by using the economic development resources in Ohio, which are considerable.

One of the exciting things that I am proposing to create jobs in Ohio is an alternative energy initiative that will make available some $250 million per year in tax free federal bonding authority for the purpose of encouraging innovation, research, and the production of alternative energies in Ohio, drawing upon our manufacturing capability, our vast natural resources, and making Ohio a leader in terms of innovation when it comes to alternative fuels. These are the kinds of targeted, focused efforts that must be undertaken by the next governor and the next administration, if Ohio is to have a bright economic future.

GORDON: Well, certainly so many people, political eyes, will be on Ohio and continue to watch as you all stump and watch this November as the people go to the polls. U.S. Congressman Ted Strickland represents Ohio's sixth district. He's currently the state's Democratic Candidate for governor, and we appreciate your time.

Rep. STRICKLAND: Thank you, Ed.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, cultural pride or racism, the fight over one L.A. charter school. And New Orleans' road to recovery includes a new multi-million dollar jazz park, but could that money be better spent elsewhere? We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.