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Governor's winning streak rapidly spirals downward



Published: Sat, June 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS

AP STATEHOUSE CORRESPONDENT

COLUMBUS -- What should have been a time of triumph for Ohio's governor after a tepid six years in office has become a professional nightmare of investment losses in the millions and charges of political favoritism and cover-up.

Gov. Bob Taft, a member of one of the country's best-known political families, had hoped to spend this spring focusing on lawmakers' approval of his sweeping proposal to update Ohio's Depression-era tax system and in the process spark the state's economy.

Instead, he's mired in a scandal that started with a questionable state investment in rare coins and has Republicans all the way to President Bush scrambling to give away potentially tainted campaign contributions.

Each day brought new front page headlines of resignations of Taft appointees, questionable decisions and investigations, including an unprecedented deep look into the governor's own office.

Making matters worse, Taft's approval ratings are at record lows and the state, once an economic and political powerhouse, is on target to begin losing population for the first time beginning in 2020.

"His political service is over to the state," said Charles Burke, a political science professor at Baldwin-Wallace College. "I don't think he could be elected dog catcher in Cincinnati."

Family legacy

Taft's lack of a legacy invites comparisons to his great-grandfather William Howard Taft, a 50-year public servant and the only man to serve as president and chief justice.

Yet the 27th president didn't even carry his home state when losing re-election in 1912 and today is best recalled only as the answer to a trivia question: What president was so fat he couldn't get out of his bathtub?

The long line of political service extended through Taft's father and grandfather, both named Robert and U.S. senators. His grandfather was known as "Mr. Republican" and tried several times to get the party's nomination for president.

Things had been looking up for their descendant.

Republican lawmakers finally lined up with Taft this year on tax changes, tired of bad economic news. The plan replaces a business tax that had high rates and low collection levels with a very low tax on sales instead of profits.

"It was clear from an outsider's view at least, this was really an attempt to give Taft a legacy," said Gene Beaupre, a political scientist at Xavier University in Taft's hometown of Cincinnati.

That success seems all the sweeter given Taft's lukewarm history of dealings with the Legislature. Lawmakers rejected his plan to let patients sue their HMOs and to require the safe storage of guns, despite Taft's personal plea at a crucial committee hearing. They forced him to cut school funding to fill a budget gap instead of raising cigarette and alcohol taxes.

At this point, Taft's greatest accomplishment is likely a 10-year, $23 billion plan to renovate many of Ohio's schools, an important gesture for someone whose great-grandfather's name adorns school buildings across the country.

Coin scandal

The coin scandal at the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation broke just as lawmakers were considering Taft's proposed tax changes.

Democrats, fuming at a decade of GOP control, charged that coin dealer Tom Noe got the state's business because he was a reliable Republican donor. Taft at first defended the investment as a moneymaker but later said he was outraged at the revelation that up to $12 million was missing.

He suffered another embarrassment when a top aide acknowledged he knew in October of a $215 million hedge fund loss at Workers' Compensation but didn't tell Taft. Democrats started questioning the timing and charging cover-up.

Politically, the scandal may not matter to Taft, who has all but ruled out seeking another office when his term ends next year.

Personally he appears to be weathering the upheaval. Two weeks ago, the strain was evident as he announced the departure of the workers' compensation director. At another news conference this week Taft walked in with a half smile and kept his cool during a 19-minute free-for-all with reporters.

He sidestepped a question about his legacy's fate, saying only he was working hard on the tax plan, the budget and the investment problems.

Though frustrated, Taft will keep things in perspective, said Richard Finan, a lobbyist and former Republican Senate president who butted heads with Taft.




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