Yet he bucks the Republican establishment of Ohio, tries to distance himself from what many regard as its culture of corruption and strives to become the first African-American governor of Ohio.
On his primary victory May 2 over Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state, turned his sights on U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, who won the Democratic primary for governor.
"Message to Brother Strickland: You can run but you can't hide," he announced triumphantly, this Republican on the road to rebuilding Ohio, rebuilding America.
But in the three months since, it has been a bumpy road indeed. And Blackwell has been the one hiding.
Wife needs permission
Blackwell trails in the polls and has declined to disclose his tax returns (Strickland has), which, The Toledo Blade notes, bucks "a GOP tradition that dates back at least 35 years."
The Strickland campaign jumped all over Blackwell's refusal just last week.
"Blackwell's ongoing refusal to release his tax returns is a betrayal of the virtues he preaches," said Keith Dailey in a press release issued by the Strickland campaign that incessantly prefaces Blackwell's name with "millionaire."
In late July, Blackwell incurred the wrath of the state's gay-lesbian community by suggesting homosexuals can change in much the same way that arsonists and kleptomaniacs can.
To this day, two years later, controversy persists over the 2004 presidential election in which both Democrats and voting-rights activists have accused the Republican Party and Blackwell -- who, as secretary of state, supervised the election while he also served as co-chair of President Bush's re-election committee -- of voter suppression, notably among the poor and minorities. The controversy persists like acne on an adolescent's face: It has re-emerged this year, exacerbated by new voter registration rules that the League of Women Voters of Ohio calls the "Voter Suppression Bill."
"If you think '04 was a mess, just wait," Peg Rosenfield, election specialist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, told The Nation in its July 17 issue. "I anticipate a debacle."
A lawsuit was filed in early July over the new rules.
"The lawsuit filed challenges parts of voter registration," Rosenfield told CityBeat. "We've already seen that they've made it nearly impossible to do a voter registration drive if you're paying people. Well, that gives you an indication of where we are going."
Just two weeks ago Blackwell accepted Bush's help in raising campaign funds but did so away from the cameras and the unwelcome glare of media attention.
"Ken Blackwell can keep the cameras away from his fundraiser with President Bush's special-interest friends, but he can't hide the fact that he and the rest of the Bush Republicans in Columbus have been terrible for Ohio's working families," said a press release by Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
While Blackwell hid from Petro by refusing to debate him -- Blackwell was ahead in the polls among Republicans then -- he now trails Strickland and has agreed -- what a surprise, say Democrats -- to a series of debates.
A staff member of the Ohio Republican Party was dismissed for borrowing a page from the Karl Rove campaign book when he sent an e-mail to supporters questioning Strickland's and his wife's sexual orientations, according to the Associated Press. Gary Lankford, the staff member who was fired, coordinated the GOP's efforts to reach social conservatives.
Bob Bennett, Ohio GOP chair, wrote a letter of apology to Strickland over the incident.
"As you know, an e-mail was sent last week by one of my staff members, making inappropriate suggestions about your private life," Bennett wrote July 27. "Please accept my sincere apology for this tactic."
CityBeat has repeatedly attempted to arrange an interview with Blackwell and his wife, Rosa Blackwell, Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent, for a profile on the Cincinnati native, former city councilman and mayor. Multiple e-mails to the campaign went unanswered, phone calls not returned.
He seems to avoid the press these days, sort of surprising to those who know him, because he's been such a media hound. Judging from published print accounts, quotations of Blackwell himself are far less common than quotations of his spokesman, Carlo LoParo. Maybe he's busy.
In a recent New Yorker profile, Frances Fitzgerald pointed out Blackwell didn't speak to the press in the last two weeks of his primary campaign against Jim Petro and apparently didn't speak to her as well. In an Aug. 6 New York Times story about new voter registration rules -- not very flattering to the secretary of state -- the reporter noted Blackwell "did not respond to requests for an interview."
Some of the refusal, probably not all, might have to do with the income tax issue. "You can run..."
Rosa Blackwell, through a spokeswoman for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), referred the request to the Blackwell campaign.
"I spoke with Superintendent Blackwell about your request, and she asks that you work with Ken's communication person on this request," wrote Janet Walsh, CPS spokeswoman, in an e-mail.
While that response puzzled CityBeat editors -- why would the superintendent of one of the largest school districts in Ohio need permission from her husband to speak with the press? -- the Blackwell campaign didn't respond to the request to speak with him or his wife.
The former radical
J. Kenneth Blackwell is 58 years old, someone who has racked up national, state and local experience. Elected at the age of 29, he served for 10 years on Cincinnati City Council and was mayor in 1979-80. Elected as a Charterite, he became a Republican by 1981.
He has served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and was an under-secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 1st Congressional District in 1990 (losing to Charlie Luken, who was succeeding his father, Tom Luken), was appointed Ohio treasurer and then ran successfully for that office in 1994. He ran successfully for Ohio secretary of state in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002.
He has told the media he is of humble origins, the son of a meatpacker, his mother a nurse.
"Both worked hard to provide for me and my younger brother, but we were never able to buy the house we lived in," Blackwell wrote in a Cleveland Plain Dealer blog. "At one point we lived in public housing, a benefit to military veterans like my father."
He graduated from Hughes High School and attended Xavier University on a football scholarship -- he was tall, 6-foot-4, and weighed more than 200 pounds. But the fact that he was a jock didn't compromise his politics; he went against the stereotype of athletes being among the more conservative students on 1960s college campuses.
Tim Burke, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, attended XU as an undergraduate with Blackwell. Burke was student body president when Blackwell was president of the black students association.
"Ken was taller then because his hair was taller," Burke says. "That was 1969-70, when there was a whole hell of a lot going on on campus that year. Fall was the Vietnam moratorium. Spring was the first Earth Day. Then both Kent State and Jackson State happened. So it was a pretty remarkable year, and Ken was very active on campus, both as a highly respected football player and as a campus student leader.
"Ken made the university pay attention to issues affecting the relatively small number of African-American students on campus. Ken was a real student leader and into a lot of issues that African-American student leaders were into in those days. At one point they had their set of demands."
Gene Beaupre was an undergraduate at XU at the same time. He has worked for the city, worked for Councilman Jerry Springer when Blackwell was on council and is an observer of local and state politics.
"When he was an undergraduate, he was as radical as they get at Xavier," recalls Beaupre, who today is an assistant to the president at XU. "He wore dashikis and had a big Afro. My impression of him was he did not want to associate with white people at that point. He may want to tell that story differently. Ten years later, he's wearing French cuffs. But he was a big guy, broad-shouldered, very strong. He towered over the campus. But even then he had kind of a gentle way about him. He was soft-spoken."
Beaupre said that, while an undergrad, he worked on a student group that tried to improve relations between white and black students. Blackwell was resistant.
Burke says it was a time for confrontation, combativeness and contrariness.
"We all were in those days," he says. "There was a period where there were black demands issued that related to how black students were treated, how black workers were treated on campus, the lack of sufficient black faculty. Ken was part of promoting all of those important issues. He clearly did not hesitate to speak out."
The Rev. Charles Currie was XU president while Blackwell served on city council and also worked as vice president of community relations at XU, which is located in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Evanston.
"I really enjoyed working with him on a number of different projects," says Currie, who is president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. "We worked together on increasing volunteer activity on the part of students, faculty and staff in the community. What I remember is that Ken was very independent. He had switched from being a member of the Charter party to becoming a Republican. He was a Republican when I knew him. But very moderate.
"We used to have some friendly disagreements. I remember one time I was coordinating the response at the state level in supporting a tax initiative that was favorable to higher education. Ken was opposing it. So we had some interesting discussions. But we still had a good working relationship."
Currie, who has been president of the association for nine years, says he has lost contact with Blackwell in recent years.
"You could strongly disagree and still be friends," he says. "That's gotten so much more difficult to do today. But I enjoyed Ken. He was bright. He's very independent. No one tells Ken how to think. It was true then and it is true now, from all I hear. But he was able to work with people of different persuasions.
"I gather now that he's not considered in the moderate camp. It's more to the right. But I'm sure, if we got together tomorrow, while we may disagree on some things, we'd still enjoy one another's company."
Burke wasn't surprised by Blackwell's political estrangement with Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and some of the GOP establishment.
"Ken has always gone against the grain," Burke says. "He's always been very independent. He's always had this very stubborn streak."
Beaupre goes back a quarter-century, when Blackwell served as mayor.
"You could go to him," Beaupre says. "He would sit and listen to you. He was very good as a legislator and as a coalition-builder in that environment (when Democrats and Charterites had a coalition on council). Ken wasn't the guy to pick fights. Ken is the guy who tries to find common ground."
David Mann, a Democrat who served as Cincinnati mayor and as a one-term congressman in the 1st Congressional District and was a member of city council both before and after Blackwell's tenure, also recalls Blackwell as a collegial councilman. He points out that Blackwell became mayor just a couple of days before the tragic Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum in December 1979, when 11 concert-goers were trampled to death.
"He acquitted himself extremely well," Mann says. "A task force was appointed. Remedies were adopted to make sure it didn't happen again.
"You could always talk to Ken, you could always work with Ken. He's a marvel as a politician, high-profile and creative in terms of dramatizing what he's doing."
Mann recalls once when Blackwell turned down an automatic salary increase, opposing it because of police layoffs occurring at the same time.
"He got a lot of attention," Mann says.
'The ultimate opportunist'
Blackwell's political evolution from the left/moderate to the right, Charterite to Republican was to some -- with the exception of at least one black activist -- both stunning and confusing. Blackwell was widely thought to be a supporter of President Jimmy Carter in 1980 but who by 1981 was suddenly a Reagan Republican.
Blackwell himself addressed the question this year in the Plain Dealer blog, when asked why he became a Republican. He responded, "Early in my political career it became clear to me that big government is not only inefficient, insensitive and intrusive but it is also a big opening to big corruption. It has always been clear to me that the left, and the party dominated by the left, put their trust in government; and I wanted to be a member of the party that put its trust in God and individuals."
He goes on to explain how he was courted by both parties, but it was the influence of former GOP Congressman William Keating and former Congressman Jack Kemp (later Bob Dole's running mate in the 1996 presidential election) who had an impact on his political transformation, citing his "close relationship with Jack Kemp," who "had an especially profound impact on my economic views."
He went on to credit others, including President Reagan himself, with convincing him.
"With the Republican Party's support of the economics of personal empowerment and their long-standing advocacy of the rights of unborn children and for school choice, it became obvious to me that the GOP best represented my long-held core principles," Blackwell wrote.
Of course, it's just a blog and given to superficiality, but it is nonetheless a barely satisfying answer, especially among those who could not discern those "long-held core principles" of long ago.
There is Beaupre, who remembers Blackwell as a radical -- or as radical as one got on the XU campus in the late 1960s. And there are Burke's recollections.
"Ken's version of the story is he was always more liberal on social issues and more conservative on economic issues," Burke says. "Now he appears to be very conservative on both."
Burke recalls the late '60s.
"When you think back on it, the gay issues were not a big deal at the time," Burke says. "No clue as to what his positions were on those issues then. Nor do I know what his position was on women's issues and choice at that time. It was not subject to a lot of debate back then. I have no basis for disputing what he might say has been his position all along."
Mann said that, among the Cincinnati politicians of the 1970s and '80s, it was expected that Jerry Springer, today the infamous talk show host who was nonetheless a hugely popular and liberal councilman back then, would be the one who would advance to statewide and perhaps even national prominence as an office-holder. Instead, it is Blackwell making the run.
"Carter lost to Reagan, and a few months later Ken decided he was really a Republican," Mann says. "That stunned all of us. I think it stunned the African-American community."
Marian Spencer doesn't mince words. She is an African American, 86 years old and a civil rights warhorse of the 1950s and '60s in Cincinnati, fighting to integrate Cincinnati public places such as Coney Island amusement park and then its swimming pool. The battle lasted, incredibly enough, until 1961. In the mid-1980s, she served on city council, including a year as vice mayor.
"I'm 86 and I have thought about a lot of things over the years, and I don't need a lot of time to think about Ken," Spencer says at the get-go. "I've been around long enough to see all the changes in his life, and they have been so varied. I see him -- and this is very harsh -- but I see him as the ultimate opportunist. It's that word I'll give you again in capital letters -- it's OPPORTUNISM.
"This is the hand he has played. He has waffled, he has moved in ways that best served him at the time. I think he would be as opportunistic a governor as he was a councilman and secretary of state."
The black conservative
What is Blackwell's appeal to African-American voters?
State Rep. Tyrone Yates (D-Cincinnati), who considers Blackwell a friend, thinks the bottom line is racial pride.
"Ken is a very skillful campaigner and will attempt to have African-American voters vote for him on basis of racial pride and identification as an implicit reaction," Yates says. "His difficulty is that the party he represents is not often identified with the economic strata that African Americans fall into. I think he will make every effort to fuse an uplifting political theme with a silent call for racial identification simply on the basis of it being an historic race."
John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, conducted a state wide survey in Ohio before the May primaries, which found that a number of Ohioans were fed up with state corruption, enthused about an amendment to limit state spending, didn't want to cut social services (in spite of how they felt about the amendment) and wanted a change in state government.
"That's one of the great imponderables in the election and one of the reasons it's so interesting," Green said of the resonance of the Blackwell campaign with black voters. "You have a number of voting blocks that are being heavily contested. Historically, Republicans do not waste much effort on black voters, and Democrats tend to ignore them because they're not in play. Well, this year they're potentially in play."
Blackwell has that in play, says Green, for the same reason that Yates says he did -- black pride.
"Many of the black leaders I've talked with in northeastern Ohio begin by talking about how proud they are that an African American won a major party nomination for governor," Green says. "Now many of these leaders go on to be very critical of him."
But he does appeal to religious African Americans; he has strong connections with black pastors. He can also be attractive to the black middle class and business people.
"While the African-American community as a whole, of course, still lags behind in socioeconomic terms, there are black entrepreneurs, black business owners, black professionals, and Blackwell can speak to them pretty effectively," Green says. "Now, the problem Blackwell has with the black community is his conservatism, particularly when it comes to the size of government. They are very skeptical of people who want to dramatically reduce the scope of government."
Yates echoes those thoughts.
"He will appeal to an upper income professional African American with a strong entrepreneurship," Yates says. "He will appeal to middle-class African Americans on the basis of identification and personal uplift to the middle class themselves."
The persistent issue of voter suppression, which is perceived as affecting blacks more then anyone, also could be a factor.
"I think Ken probably got caught up in the national Republican whirlwind of policies that created obstructions for people to vote," Yates says. "The people that got caught in that mostly have been African Americans."
While the issue of voter suppression might resonate, especially among liberal Democrats and grass-roots voter registration activists, the overarching theme might be the perception of state corruption. Blackwell has worked mightily to distance himself from that.
"He has not been able to successfully cope with the negative image that the GOP has," Green says. "The hostility to Bob Taft and the Coingate scandal is palpable. It's running through the whole process. On a little more positive note, since he was not personally involved and has a reputation as something of an outsider, it's possible that in the rest of the campaign he might be able to do somewhat better on this issue. But up to this point he has not been able to."
Yates says the problem presented to Blackwell is with an ethos cast by the GOP.
"I'm not sure that he can escape it, notwithstanding his own innocence," Yates says.
Exposing the commies
Blackwell has attracted national attention on a number of levels, beginning with the 2004 presidential election, an issue that still has legs -- mostly due to Blackwell's candidacy now -- but mostly because he's among a handful of high-profile African-American Republicans running for office. Maryland's Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is running for the U.S. Senate, and NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, running for governor in Pennsylvania, are the others gaining national attention.
George F. Will, nationally syndicated conservative columnist, wrote glowingly of Blackwell in February.
"Blackwell is particularly noteworthy because he has the most varied political career -- a city councilman at 29, mayor at 31, national chairman of Steve Forbes's 2000 presidential campaign," Will wrote. "And because he is the most conservative."
In 2003, Blackwell wrote a lengthy, largely thoughtful essay on religious liberty for the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, in which he decried "relentless secularism that denies religion any place in public life," how political values "are informed by spiritual values" and recalled the nobility of the civil rights movement.
"The Declaration of Independence was required reading in our home," he wrote. "As a family, we talked about the struggle of our great country to live up to its own promise of human rights and human dignity. At the same time, millions of other Americans, black and white, were recognizing this struggle as well. We needed leadership, and we got it from Rosa Parks, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and hundreds of others."
Leaving aside how such references make some grimace -- Marian Spencer, when asked if Blackwell fits into the legacy of King, said, "No, he can't even buy his way into it; there are no similarities" -- the fact is that American political conservatives had a checkered past at best when it came to the civil rights movement. Even today, as the U.S. Senate voted to extend the Voting Rights Act, Ohio's Republican state legislators had already marched backwards in the direction of the old Jim Crow laws of the South with HB 3, aimed, says its opponents, with suppressing voters, especially minorities and the poor.
He is a darling among the religious right and social conservatives. State Rep. Tom Brinkman (R-Mount Lookout), a social and fiscal conservative who supported Petro in the primary mostly because he knew and felt comfortable with Petro, is not uncomfortable with Blackwell.
"As a conservative leader, he has certainly stood tall on a lot of issues where other Republican leaders have not," Brinkman says. "The Defense of Marriage Act (constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, passed in 2004) would be most important to them. That certainly puts him in good stead with conservatives."
Rebuilding America, recently published with co-author Jerome R. Corsi (WND Books, a division of Cumberland House Publishing Inc.), is an examination of the failure of the 40-year war on poverty, starting with President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and how to address poverty in Ohio and the country.
Over and over Blackwell and Corsi write about the failure of spending public money to solve poverty, incorporating a vast array of demographics showing where and how poverty occurs (broken families) and using anecdotal evidence such as Reagan declaring dependency on welfare, the one enduring heirloom of the 1960s. They are nonetheless especially kind to Hispanics, explaining how the new immigrants mirror the immigration patterns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with references to extended families and the dynamics involved in making those families survive and eventually thrive.
They write of court decisions that have addressed issues of segregation and inequality but maintain those decisions are a necessary but not sufficient way to attack poverty. Their thesis throughout is the strength of families.
"Without strong family structures, poverty is the inevitable result, not just for African-American communities, but for any community and all societies," the book says. "No amount of federal antipoverty spending, no army of government bureaucrats, no rewriting of Supreme Court decisions will ever eliminate poverty in a community or a society where families are deteriorating."
But along the way, even after pages of cogent analysis, Blackwell and Corsi intersperse their arguments with jarring assertions that fall more in the realm of polemics than analysis. They deliver a number of simplistic clunkers: equating the left with communists; saying liberals in effect are permitting genocide against African Americans with their support of abortion and -- incredibly -- reducing the Democrats' potential voters, since most who seek abortions, they suggest, are liberals and minorities; and completely misapprehending how abortion exacerbates the rate of poverty. (It doesn't, unless one believes somehow its legality leads to promiscuity.)
They start early, on page 34, with a nod to McCarthyism: "In today's world of cultural relativism, many on the political left attack families, arguing (as in earlier decades true socialists or communists did) that families are simply historical human structures that came into existence to socialize children into the class ideology of a bourgeois capitalist economic structure."
And this, on page 57: "Again, as we have noted, the political left has been attacking the family since the early days of communism."
They continue: "In the thinking of extreme socialists, the family is an artificial structure, man-made, designed to imprint traditional thoughts of political and social control on the young."
They move into overdrive by page 97. They write of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which they assert has meant 13 million black abortions among a population of 37 million. They continue: "In the Holocaust during World War II, Hitler's Germany exterminated 6 million Jews. The staggering number of African-American abortions since Roe v. Wade would suggest that the 'abortion upon demand' insistence of the political left is permitting genocide to be waged against blacks in America."
And this: "The impact of AIDS inflicts further violence upon the African-American community, threatening to compound the impact of abortions by advancing subtle and unspoken policy of implicit genocide."
They continue: "Our goal is to eliminate poverty, build families and eradicate deadly sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS. As we continue to note, the political left has argued since the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin that the family is an arbitrary social unit whose primary function is to socialize children into acceptance of a class society, where workers are exploited for the benefit of capitalists who lack any social consciousness. ... The human family has been the primary unit of all societies for thousands of years. Still, the left posits that homosexual and lesbian families are equivalent to traditional families composed of one woman and one man."
One page later they continue the theme: "The sexual agenda promoted by the political left has allowed AIDS to reach epidemic proportions in African-American communities. We do not believe that liberals have ever had a conscious agenda to cause black genocide in America. Instead, our concern is that the liberal policies regarding abortion and sexual freedom have had unintended genocidal consequences for African Americans."
Liberals become the new Ku Klux Klan a couple of pages later: "Statistics show that, between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 blacks were lynched in the United States. That number is bypassed by the number of African-American abortions every three days."
Since lynchings have abated, medical doctors are chomping at the bit to get in on the killing fields: "The truth is that the political left's almost religious adherence to a policy of abortion on demand has unleashed abortion doctors to kill unborn babies almost indiscriminately in the black community."
But when they wonder whether there is an agenda behind Roe and those who support abortion rights, they misapprehend the reasoning behind Roe. Arguing social benefits of abortion -- reduced crime? -- and whether the "left" embraces them misses the point, just as it would miss the point to suggest there are social benefits to striking down as unconstitutional laws prohibiting sodomy. The issue is privacy, not social benefits.
Dropping spending limits
Because access to Rosa Blackwell, Blackwell's wife and CPS superintendent, was neither granted nor explicitly denied, it could not be determined whether the couple agrees on some issues, such as her husband's advocacy of school choice and vouchers.
But she participated in an online Cincinnati Enquirer chat that lasted for two hours July 12. She was asked about her husband's gubernatorial platform and whether she agreed with it.
"I respect the work that my husband is doing and his commitment to the citizens of this wonderful state," she responded. "During the 38 years that we've been married, we've had the opportunity to discuss many things. He retains the right to make decisions in the work that he does as secretary of state and respects my right to make decisions as the superintendent of schools."
The Bliss Institute's Green believes as the campaign heats up -- and it will, he says -- social issues and religion may take a back seat to the economy.
"Frankly, I think the dominant issue in the campaign is going to be the Ohio economy and what to do about it," Green says. "The battle lines are already being drawn. Strickland is arguing for greater public investment in things like education and health care. Interestingly enough, Ken Blackwell also wants to do things differently than the current Republican leadership. He wants to reduce taxes and government and argues that he will unleash the private sector to create jobs."
The irony is that one issue that would have motivated some to come to the polls in November is missing from the ballot, Green points out. The Tax and Expenditure Limitation (TEL) amendment, which, according to published reports, would have limited both state and local spending increases according to a formula, will not be on the ballot.
The amendment, which Blackwell decided not to press to be put on the ballot in a compromise reached with the state legislature, had been roundly criticized by state and local public officials, Democratic and Republican.
Yet the amendment cut both ways, Green says.
"I think by removing the TEL the Republicans gave up a real opportunity to mobilize conservative voters," he says. "On the other hand, there had developed so much opposition to it, Republican mayors and county commissioners. Given that kind of hostility, the Blackwell campaign really had to revoke the TEL. Without a unified Republican Party, Blackwell really stands no chance of winning."
Removing the TEL bothered Brinkman.
"I've always been concerned with Ken Blackwell's follow-through," Brinkman says. "I think the TEL amendment and what has transpired since shows that my concerns were well justified. But there is nothing about Ted Strickland that is good. Nothing."
Burke says that, while Blackwell's conservatism had surprised him, his political ascendancy has not.
"If you had asked me, when I knew Ken back on campus, if he would've become what he is today, I wouldn't be surprised that he's holding high public office," Burke says. "I'd be stunned that he is holding and advocating the far right conservative beliefs that he is holding.
"Look, there is no way in hell I will vote for the conservative son of a bitch. But I still regard him as a friend." ©