Perry on Politics: Ohio's big swingers

Published by Tim McNulty on .

By James M. Perry

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are running in such a dead heat these days in Ohio that Mr. Romney, in his latest TV ad, slips into low gear by suggesting to voters that Chrysler plans to move production of Jeeps from a plant in Toledo to a plant in China. Not true, says Chrysler. It is in fact planning to add 1,000 jobs at the Toledo plant.

The ad is an attempt by the Romney camp to take down the one accomplishment by the president that resonates best with voters here in Ohio -- his bailout of Chrysler and General Motors that Mr. Romney opposed. Democrats are willing to remind anyone willing to listen that Mr. Romney wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times that carried the headline, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," not an appealing notion in car country.

nixonrhodesWhy-o, why-o, why-o are they all campaigning so intensively in Ohio?

It only has 18 electoral votes (it had 26 not so long ago), but in a close race that could be decisive. And it does swing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. It seems to have a knack for picking the winner -- the last time it voted for the losing candidate was 1960, when it picked Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy.

But the proof of just how big a swinger Ohio is in its politics can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Republican James A. Rhodes -- Jim to almost everyone -- was elected governor in 1963 and again in 1967. He wanted to run for a third term in 1971 but was told he was limited to two consecutive terms. That set the stage for Democrat John J. Gilligan; he defeated the state auditor, Roger Cloud.

I don't suppose it's possible to envision two more starkly differerent politicians -- human beings, even -- than Jim Rhodes and Jack Gilligan.

Rhodes was the son of a coal mine superintendent. He played a little football in high school and won a modest scholarship at Ohio State University, but dropped out after his first semester. He opened a fast-food joint called Jim's Place near the campus, where, it was said, you could bet on the numbers or munch on a burger. He entered politics at the bottom, as a ward committeman, and worked his way up -- school board member, mayor of Columbus, state auditor.

His idea of politicking was attending fairs -- local, county, and state.


Jack Gilligan was a Catholic intellectual -- with a devastating sense of humor. He graduated from Notre Dame and the University of Cincinnati Law School. He served in the Navy during World War 2 and won the Silver Star during those Japanese kamikaze attacks on the fleet off Okinawa. After the war, he taught literature -- literature! -- at Xavier University. He served briefly as a Cincinnati councilman and as a member of Congress.

He succeeded Jim Rhodes and was defeated by Rhodes when he sought re-election four years later. Some people said he was too smart and too scathingly funny for his own good. His daughter, Kathleen Sebelius (at right in 1971 portrait above), is Mr. Obama"s secretary of Health and Human Services.

Rhodes and Gilligan. Not many states could have elected two such disparate characters, one after another. Ohio did.

The only fly in this swinger ointment is Ohio's record in producing presidents. Ohio has given us eight of them, if you count William Henry Harrison, who was born in Virginia. In order, they are Harrison (he lived in North Bend when he took office), Ulysses S. Grant (Point Pleasant), Rutherford B. Hayes (Delaware), James A. Garfield (Orange), Benjamin Harrison (North Bend), William McKinley (Niles), William Howard Taft (Cincinnati), and Warren G. Harding (Blooming Grove).

Except for William Henry Harrison, a whig, they were all Republicans, and not very good ones. Two of them, Benjamin Harrison and Harding, were really bad.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for during the presidential election. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

Photos: NPR/Columbus Dispatch

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