Cover Story: Outstanding in His Fields

From bible college student to prison psychologist to Congressman, Ted Strickland has been a leader; now he seeks to test his skills as Ohio governor

 
Ryan Greis


Outstanding In His Field



In his days as a prison psychologist, Ted Strickland used to work with a disturbed inmate who had the habit of chucking vials of his HIV-infected blood at staffers.

That experience, recalled in a 2001 article for Corrections Today magazine, was probably good training for some of the attacks Strickland has weathered since then as a politician. Once you've been sprayed with potentially lethal body fluids, after all, a gob of political mud must seem anti-climactic.

It's also the kind of experience you might not expect to find in a congressman's background. But then much of Strickland's life could fit in that category. It's full of odd chapters that have shaped him as man and elected official, giving him an outlook that's hard to fit neatly on popular templates of left, right and center.

"These are the major things that I've done in my life," he recounted recently. "I've been in the active ministry, I've worked in child care, I've worked in community mental health, I've taught in a university and I have served in Congress."

Not your typical candidate's resume — though Ohio's voters don't seem to mind. Unless something happens to seriously damage Strickland's poll numbers, come Nov. 7 he'll be adding "governor of Ohio" to that list of career milestones.

His campaign gets a boost, no doubt, from the intense reaction many voters of both parties seem to be having against his Republican opponent, Ken Blackwell, and the Taft administration in general. Perhaps any Democrat would be doing as well as Strickland right now.

"The recipe for electing the Democrat governor is, in my mind, six tablespoons of 'I really hate Bob Taft,' two tablespoons of 'I'm really sick and tired of the religious right,' one tablespoon of 'the state never went anywhere in the last eight years' and another tablespoon of 'I want change,' " figures Neil Clark, a Republican and probably Ohio's most influential lobbyist. "I think you're going to see a lot of people are voting because they're mad at Bob Taft. You don't have to go much deeper here (in Ohio)."

But whether voters outside his district know it, Strickland is hardly "any Democrat." In his 12 years in Congress, he's carved a distinctive political niche, blending economic populism with religious fervor, the soft empathy of the hand-holding professions and a sprinkling of backwoods conservatism on issues like flag burning and gun control.

As a package, Strickland's viewpoints might seem muddled, even jerry-rigged — if you take it on faith that liberals are gentle secular humanists, conservatives are well-armed Bible-thumpers and never the twain shall meet.

Columbus Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo, for example, has mocked the candidate for allegedly trying to play "some kind of hybrid Democrat (like a Volvo station wagon that runs on red meat) who owns guns and believes in God."

Down in the 6th Congressional District, however, where plenty of Democrats hold both guns and God in high esteem, Strickland's views come off less discordant than they probably do in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland. But it's fair enough to call him a bit of a paradox.

He's devoutly religious and a bugbear of the religious right. He's warmly liked and respected by his constituents, and he's been hit with some of the nastiest allegations imaginable. He's a champion of gay rights, abortion rights and the right to bear arms. In a national atmosphere thick with loyalty-oath paranoia, he voted against invading Iraq and in favor of outlawing U.S. flag desecration.

He insists that, from where he's sitting, it all fits together. And to understand how that might be true, you need to know a little about the path he's traveled to the brink of the governor's mansion.

'A new kind of awakening'
Like Blackwell, Strickland, now 65, grew up in borderline poverty. He was the eighth of nine children of a Lucasville steelworker father with a fifth-grade education.

On his daddy's knee, he imbibed two items of sacred dogma: Franklin D. Roosevelt had saved the country from destruction, and the steelworkers' union had kept the Strickland family from the poorhouse. And Strickland has always made clear that his old-school, labor-Democrat economic views — commitment to a social safety net, distrust of big corporate power — are at the core of his identity as a legislator.

It's not that his positions on issues like guns and gay marriage are window dressing. They're just not his central concerns.

While he denounced a state ban on same-sex marriage, for example, the way he figures it GOP leaders are far more interested in economic than in bedroom issues and see measures like the Defense of Marriage Act mainly as a way to pull right-wing voters to the polls.

"Oh, of course!" he says. "These big conservative think tanks, who are really concerned about having economic control of this country, have used these kinds of issues in a most cynical, manipulative way."

The only one of his siblings who went to college, Strickland recalled in a 1996 article that "in a way, it felt like I was going to college for all of them." In that essay, published in a book on psychology and public policy, he portrays himself as driven by a young man's religious zeal.

Determined to attend a "conservative Christian college," he chose Asbury College in Kentucky, where students had to go to chapel three times a week and every class began with prayer.

Strickland earned a bachelor's degree from Asbury in 1963, a master's from the University of Kentucky in 1966 and then, planning to become a minister, a master's in divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary in 1967.

He pastored a Methodist church in Ohio for a year before being appointed to work in a children's home in Kentucky, where he saw child victims of sex abuse and teens with serious drug habits.

"It did not take me long to realize that these children needed a level of help and expertise beyond my Thursday night chapel service," he wrote.

So it was off to UK again to earn a doctorate in psychology.

As a grad student in psych, Strickland remained a fundamentalist Christian who preached to those around him with "evangelical zeal," he admits. He spent one summer handing out religious pamphlets door-to-door in Germany, learning to say "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" in the native tongue. He shunned alcohol and dirty words. In short, a perfect candidate for the Moral Majority.

So what happened? As Strickland pondered in his 1996 article: "How did a socially and theologically conservative Methodist minister become a psychologist and a congressman with a decidedly left-of-center political philosophy?"

The short answer, apparently, is that the '60s and a liberal education happened.

"I observed the Civil Rights movement as it unfolded," Strickland explained in a recent interview. "I watched the (Vietnam) war and our involvement there and its effect upon our country. I was fascinated by the Watergate hearings and the fact that we had a government that was corrupt. And that, and then my involvement with the graduate school and being exposed to challenging new ideas and thoughts and ways of seeing the world. All of those things in combination brought about a kind of awakening in terms of freeing me up, making me less rigid in my thinking and in my worldview."

It was in graduate school that Strickland met his wife-to-be, Frances Smith, another PhD candidate. The two soon formed a working team, and from the earliest days Frances has been a major player in his political campaigns. (She's largely put on hold a promising professional career of her own to do so.) The two finally married in 1987.

Between the Age of Aquarius and his doctoral studies, something apparently clicked inside Strickland around this time, creating what he later called a "Eureka experience" that sent his life caroming in a new direction. He embraced the humanistic principles of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow over the reproaches of Christian friends who considered humanism anti-religious. And he realized that, in a political setting, another word for humanism is liberalism.

"I came to believe that John Kennedy was right when he said, 'On this earth, God's work must truly be our own,' " Strickland wrote.

Losing campaigns, gaining knowledge
As his first divine mission, Strickland chose to re-stage the biblical drama of David and Goliath, with the Philistine giant played by U.S. Rep. William H. Harsha of Ohio's 6th Congressional District.

An entrenched GOP incumbent from Portsmouth first elected in 1961, Harsha had risen by 1976 to ranking minority member on the powerful House Public Works and Transportation Committee. Strickland was a 35-year-old grad student who by his own admission "didn't know the district boundaries, didn't know a single prominent political person and didn't know how to run for office."

He called on every Democratic Party chair in 12 counties, each of whom told him he didn't have a chance.

"This is something that Ted did on his own," recalls Bob Walton, an early supporter who now runs the Scioto County Community Action Agency. "The local party did not recruit him to run just to have a candidate to feed to Harsha."

In the 1976 election, Strickland spent less than $21,000 to Harsha's $31,000 and lost by nearly 41,000 votes. He came back in 1978 and spent around $40,000; Harsha, smelling a threat, upped his spending to more than $107,000 and crushed him again.

Media accounts suggest Strickland took an aggressive "liberal" tack against Harsha. Walton recalls Strickland's campaigns as focused on social-welfare issues like health care and old-age benefits. His ads called for a balanced federal budget, identified inflation as "the most serious issue facing the country today" and insisted that "we must overhaul the welfare system. It is costing too much."

After his second defeat, Strickland returned to grad school to finish his dissertation. On the morning he defended it, he got a call from a reporter, telling him Harsha was retiring. He promptly signed up to run in 1980 against state Rep. Bob McEwen of Hillsboro, Harsha's campaign manager and anointed heir. Strickland apparently toned down his message against the new Republican.

"As he campaigns in the neighborhoods this year, the Strickland style has changed from the 1976 or 1978 contests," reported the Gannett News Service. "The liberal image he once carried in his races against Harsha is being replaced with a '6th District conservative Democrat' image."

Mike Azinger, a Marietta Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Strickland in 2000, says he believes Strickland softened his liberal edge considerably to get elected in southern Ohio.

"I know that in the early days when he ran and lost all the time, he was far left," Azinger says. "And then he modified his opinions, and he was elected without exception."

Swept up by the 1980 Reagan landslide, McEwen made Strickland a three-time loser, winning seven of 12 counties in the district and 54 percent of the vote. At that point Strickland left politics, he thought forever.

Then he began his 40 years in the wilderness. Actually, it was a dozen years practicing psychology in community mental health centers, the Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital and the maximum security prison at Lucasville in Scioto County.

Terry Morris, jail administrator for the Ross County Sheriff's Office, was warden at the Southeast Ohio Correctional Facility during Strickland's stint there in the mid-1980s.

"We had a lot of guys at the time, and probably still do, who are seriously mentally ill," Morris says. "You're the bottom of the pit for the state of Ohio at that time. Everything rolls downhill, and the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at that time was the last stop. When you work in a prison like that and have daily contact with prisoners with those kinds of problems, obviously it's going to make an impression."

Strickland wrote later about a caseload of more than 300 severely disturbed inmates, including "a young man who had more than 20 abdominal operations after repeated self-mutilations," and one "who covered his head with feces because the 'voices' were calling him a 'shithead.' "

Did his experiences there make Strickland more liberal on law-and-order issues?

"I don't know about liberal," Morris says. "He kept an open mind. He's not a do-gooder ... but he has compassion for people regardless of their station in life."

In practical terms, Strickland's time at Lucasville seems to have turned him into a champion for the prison-guard lobby (he has called corrections officers "America's unsung heroes") and a supporter of programs to help ex-cons make a new life — even if they're controversial.

He has supported Pell grants for prisoners, for example. And at a private meeting in March with political and African-American leaders in Toledo, Strickland said he was willing to hire ex-convicts for state jobs. Those remarks, reported in The Toledo Blade to a state racked with unemployment, set off a flurry of outrage on conservative blogs.

Up, down and up again
By 1992, redistricting cleared the way for Strickland to finally reach Congress. Falling Census numbers meant Ohio lost a seat in the U.S. House; Republicans had to sacrifice an incumbent and chose Clarence Miller, an obscure but popular representative from Fairfield County.

Miller's old district was split among two others, and Miller ran against McEwen in the primary for the new 6th. The final outcome, observed Congressional Quarterly, was "not so much a win by Strickland as a loss by two fatally wounded Republican incumbents."

The primary was nasty and expensive, and though McEwen won by an eyelash he came out of it drained of cash, his image battered. After easily beating Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer in the Democratic Primary, Strickland faced McEwen in a district that, once a GOP stronghold, now was more balanced between the two parties.

By 1992, there's evidence that Strickland the candidate was evolving. McEwen attacked him on abortion and gun control, claiming he had flip-flopped on the issues.

Since he first entered politics, Strickland's positions on these issues have in fact changed. Once suspect in the eyes of the National Rifle Association, he now earns top ratings from that group.

In 1980, he said he opposed abortion but could "see both sides of the issue." Since getting to Congress, he's been a reliable pro-choice vote, though he has split with the choice camp on topics like partial-birth abortion and parental notification.

Former campaign opponent Azinger sees the Democrat's stance on gun rights as pure calculation.

"The only issue he was conservative on was the gun issue, and that was obviously — to me, anyway — a position that he had to take, living in southern Ohio," he says. "I don't think he could have won without that issue."

The head of a major statewide gun-rights group acknowledges that some of its members don't fully trust Strickland's commitment to the cause.

"I think some people have skepticism about Strickland," says Jim Irvine, chair of the Buckeye Firearms Association. "I do not. I think it goes ultimately to his core values. ... I've heard a lot of comments that Mr. Strickland's going to cave once he's elected and let the big-city, anti-gun mayors determine his policies. But I can't really see him becoming the most powerful elected official in Ohio and then caving to the mayor of Akron or Toledo."

On abortion, the executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, Pro-Choice Ohio, firmly believes that Strickland's commitment to choice goes all the way down.

"I do, and that comes out of working with him through our differing positions and speaking with him personally, talking about the tough issues," Kelly Copeland says. "I think he's sincerely committed to protecting reproductive rights. I think he sincerely believes that these choices are personal."

Strickland won in 1992 by a slender margin. In truth, McEwen might have beaten himself with a series of well-publicized overdrafts on his House bank account.

In a freshman profile, Congressional Quarterly warned that the GOP considered the 6th District seat its personal property and that Strickland "may have trouble holding onto it given the region's conservative leanings." This can't have escaped Strickland's notice and must have played some role in shaping his political profile.

A good foot soldier for President Clinton, Strickland has always said that health-care reform was the main reason he ran in 1992, and he got strongly behind the president's ultimately failed effort to achieve it — a failure Strickland calls his biggest disappointment.

In 1994, the GOP came after him, fielding a candidate of troglodytic conservatism. Gallia County businessman Frank Cremeans' defining campaign moment, by general consensus, was when he suggested to a group of ministers that "a social disease like AIDS" might have caused the downfall of those homoerotic Greeks and Romans. In its endorsement of Strickland, The Dayton Daily News called Cremeans "a bad joke."

The punch line, however, was that eight of 14 counties went for Cremeans. As the returns came in election night, Strickland railed at the Christian Coalition for passing out literature in churches that accused him of supporting pornography. (He had voted to fund the National Endowment for the Arts.)

He had slammed the Coalition on the House floor in July 1993 for running radio spots against him and other reps who supported Clinton's deficit-reduction package.

"Since when is there a correlation between Christian belief and protecting tax breaks for the wealthy?" he demanded.

He'd also shot his own toes off by stating, in a debate a week before Election Day, that "we may have to raise some taxes" to pay for universal health coverage.

Two days later, Cremeans' ads were repeating the fatal sound-bite ad nauseam, and Strickland lost his seat by a 51-49 margin.

Perhaps remembering 1994, Strickland — though not well-liked by anti-tax groups — is antsy about even whispering the T-word in his gubernatorial campaign. When asked about his economic plans for Ohio, he insists he can fund his commitments to improving education and health care by rooting out waste and corruption, accessing federal funds the GOP leadership has been unable or unwilling to get and improving the economy to generate more taxable revenue.

"What I want to do is cut the waste, get rid of what I call the 'corruption tax,' the state dollars that are being absolutely wasted as a result of the kind of leadership that we've had in this state," Strickland says. "And once we get this economy going, then we will have the kinds of resources we need for education and health care and those kinds of things. ... I don't think that we need to (raise taxes). I think if we have a growing economy and an expanding tax base, those resources will be there."

In a position that hasn't hurt his ability to draw supporters from the GOP camp, he's also said he won't mess with the comprehensive rewrite of the tax code enacted during the Taft years, which significantly reduced the tax burden on business.

"I've said this tax reform should be allowed to work, until we have the data necessary to determine whether or not it is in fact accomplishing what it was intended to accomplish," he says. "And there are some early positive signs, as a matter of fact."

His 'most important vote' ever
Two years out of office, Strickland came back to oust Cremeans in 1996. By this time he was perhaps not jaded but certainly more realistic.

"The other evening, I heard an adult say to a child who was upset about losing a ball game that old, so-familiar expression: 'It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game,' " Strickland wrote in an essay called "A Second Chance," published in a psychology journal. "That is not the way it is in Congress. Winning is everything because it determines who has the ultimate power to distribute wealth."

And from that point on, Strickland hasn't lost again. He's solidified his incumbency and easily fended off challenges from hard-line conservatives like Azinger and moderates like former Marietta Mayor Nancy Hollister. Part of this involved tailoring his positions on selected issues, to give the right a smaller target.

He told The Athens News in July 2003 that he sometimes ran afoul of other Democrats with his votes on issues like flag burning. But with the specter of another Cremeans waiting in the wings to take his seat, he said, he'll go against the party grain when he needs to. He even reveled a bit in the frustration his voting record causes the GOP.

"I have tried to keep them from putting me in a pigeonhole," he noted. "And, quite frankly, it drives them nuts."

In his years in Congress, Strickland has earned high ratings from pro-choice, gun rights, anti-war, public-education and public-health-care advocates and low numbers from business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. The National Taxpayers Union rated him a "big spender" in 2003. He's gotten mixed reviews from the ACLU on civil rights and fairly good ratings from environmentalists — though his green instincts don't keep him from supporting old, heavy industries when district jobs are at stake.

He was fighting for expansion of the Piketon uranium enrichment plant, for example, as early as the late 1970s and helped pressure the White House to approve an emergency loan to save Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel from collapse.

He has gradually become, by his own estimate, something less of a bomb-thrower, compared to his first term when he once called on Congress to "tell the big oil lobbyists to go straight to hell" and declared, "When the insurance industry talks about health care, it makes me sick."

He can still rise to the occasion for a good opposition fight, however, as he's done in recent years against issues including the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Medicare reform and, most notably, the invasion of Iraq, which he once likened in a House speech to "a kid taking a stick and starting to beat a hornet's nest."

Speaking on CAFTA in May 2005, he focused on the exploitation of low-wage labor outside U.S. borders.

"I think it is immoral, quite frankly, for us to enter into an agreement that results in the exploitation of poor Mexicans or poor people from Costa Rica or elsewhere," he told his House colleagues. "I think it is immoral for a working mother to be paid 12 cents for a garment that is ultimately sold for $20 or $25."

As for Iraq, Strickland joined his five in-state party colleagues in the House to make Ohio the only big state whose entire Democratic delegation voted against giving the president authority to invade. Though fighting the War on Terror seems to have become the GOP's last, best campaign trump card, Strickland says he's never looked back.

"It's one of the most important votes — probably the most important vote — I have ever had, and I am so glad that I made that decision," he says now. "I think the president's decision to take us into this war was a bad decision, and I'm glad I'm one of those who opposed giving him that authority. An authority, by the way, that I think the Constitution gives the Congress, not the executive branch."

The vote hasn't seemed to hurt him in his district, and even some voters who support the war apparently respect his position.

"At the time I cast it, I thought it would be (damaging)," Strickland admits. "But, quite frankly, I have taken almost no criticism for that vote from my congressional district."

He has continued to hammer at the Bush administration for its conduct of the war while also crusading on issues such as getting better equipment and health coverage for soldiers in Iraq. And before Michael Moore posed the question in Fahrenheit 9/11, Strickland was in Congress in April 2004 asking why, right after the Sept. 11 attacks, "planes went all over this country picking up Saudi citizens and some relatives of Osama bin Laden and flew them out of this country before they were thoroughly questioned and vetted by the FBI."

'A good man' on the verge
It might be that, for most Ohioans planning to vote for Strickland, his biggest attractions are that he seems generally non-corrupt and isn't Bob Taft or Ken Blackwell. But for the sake of those outside his district meeting him for the first time, there are probably two major points about him to grasp.

First, the weight of the evidence suggests he's a deeply decent human being driven by a genuine desire to serve others. Even some of his detractors admit this, and among his staunch supporters it's not uncommon to hear something embarrassingly close to reverence expressed for the man's personal qualities. (Whether being a good person is either necessary or sufficient for being a good governor is, of course, open to debate.)

"This is the kind of candidate America's been waiting for," declares Jim Parker, a Pike County health-care administrator who has run for Congress as a Democrat.

Naturally not everyone is equally dazzled, especially among "values" voters. Asked to explain Strickland's remarkable poll numbers, however, GOP consultant Neil Clark doesn't hesitate and doesn't talk about issues.

"You know what he is? Simply put? He's a good man," Clark says. "You don't have to have all the labels. ... If he doesn't get himself corrupted by the people that he ends up employing, he's going to have a great career."

The other point to remember is that Strickland, whatever his positions on guns and flags, is probably still more solidly aligned with the traditional Democrat agenda and voter base than many of his better-known party colleagues.

Strickland's potent secret weapon might be his willingness to call harsh realities by their real names and to focus on fundamental power issues that are ultimately more important than whether you can own an Uzi or marry someone of the same sex. He's not a radical by any stretch, but when you ask him what his struggle has been about he sometimes speaks with startling frankness.

"I believe that there's class warfare going on in this country," he told The Athens News in 2003. "But I believe it is the corporate world and the super-wealthy waging war on the poor."



JIM PHILLIPS writes for The Athens News, where a version of this article first appeared. This concludes our series of major candidate profiles; the profile of Ken Blackwell appeared in CityBeat's issue of Aug. 16, and the profile of Senate candidate Sherrod Brown appeared in CityBeat's issue of Sept. 27. Find them and more than 40 other articles, columns, editorials and blog entries related to the upcoming elections at

 
Ryan Greis


Outstanding In His Field



In his days as a prison psychologist, Ted Strickland used to work with a disturbed inmate who had the habit of chucking vials of his HIV-infected blood at staffers.

That experience, recalled in a 2001 article for Corrections Today magazine, was probably good training for some of the attacks Strickland has weathered since then as a politician. Once you've been sprayed with potentially lethal body fluids, after all, a gob of political mud must seem anti-climactic.

It's also the kind of experience you might not expect to find in a congressman's background. But then much of Strickland's life could fit in that category. It's full of odd chapters that have shaped him as man and elected official, giving him an outlook that's hard to fit neatly on popular templates of left, right and center.

"These are the major things that I've done in my life," he recounted recently. "I've been in the active ministry, I've worked in child care, I've worked in community mental health, I've taught in a university and I have served in Congress."

Not your typical candidate's resume — though Ohio's voters don't seem to mind. Unless something happens to seriously damage Strickland's poll numbers, come Nov. 7 he'll be adding "governor of Ohio" to that list of career milestones.

His campaign gets a boost, no doubt, from the intense reaction many voters of both parties seem to be having against his Republican opponent, Ken Blackwell, and the Taft administration in general. Perhaps any Democrat would be doing as well as Strickland right now.

"The recipe for electing the Democrat governor is, in my mind, six tablespoons of 'I really hate Bob Taft,' two tablespoons of 'I'm really sick and tired of the religious right,' one tablespoon of 'the state never went anywhere in the last eight years' and another tablespoon of 'I want change,' " figures Neil Clark, a Republican and probably Ohio's most influential lobbyist. "I think you're going to see a lot of people are voting because they're mad at Bob Taft. You don't have to go much deeper here (in Ohio)."

But whether voters outside his district know it, Strickland is hardly "any Democrat." In his 12 years in Congress, he's carved a distinctive political niche, blending economic populism with religious fervor, the soft empathy of the hand-holding professions and a sprinkling of backwoods conservatism on issues like flag burning and gun control.

As a package, Strickland's viewpoints might seem muddled, even jerry-rigged — if you take it on faith that liberals are gentle secular humanists, conservatives are well-armed Bible-thumpers and never the twain shall meet.

Columbus Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo, for example, has mocked the candidate for allegedly trying to play "some kind of hybrid Democrat (like a Volvo station wagon that runs on red meat) who owns guns and believes in God."

Down in the 6th Congressional District, however, where plenty of Democrats hold both guns and God in high esteem, Strickland's views come off less discordant than they probably do in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland. But it's fair enough to call him a bit of a paradox.

He's devoutly religious and a bugbear of the religious right. He's warmly liked and respected by his constituents, and he's been hit with some of the nastiest allegations imaginable. He's a champion of gay rights, abortion rights and the right to bear arms. In a national atmosphere thick with loyalty-oath paranoia, he voted against invading Iraq and in favor of outlawing U.S. flag desecration.

He insists that, from where he's sitting, it all fits together. And to understand how that might be true, you need to know a little about the path he's traveled to the brink of the governor's mansion.

'A new kind of awakening'
Like Blackwell, Strickland, now 65, grew up in borderline poverty. He was the eighth of nine children of a Lucasville steelworker father with a fifth-grade education.

On his daddy's knee, he imbibed two items of sacred dogma: Franklin D. Roosevelt had saved the country from destruction, and the steelworkers' union had kept the Strickland family from the poorhouse. And Strickland has always made clear that his old-school, labor-Democrat economic views — commitment to a social safety net, distrust of big corporate power — are at the core of his identity as a legislator.

It's not that his positions on issues like guns and gay marriage are window dressing. They're just not his central concerns.

While he denounced a state ban on same-sex marriage, for example, the way he figures it GOP leaders are far more interested in economic than in bedroom issues and see measures like the Defense of Marriage Act mainly as a way to pull right-wing voters to the polls.

"Oh, of course!" he says. "These big conservative think tanks, who are really concerned about having economic control of this country, have used these kinds of issues in a most cynical, manipulative way."

The only one of his siblings who went to college, Strickland recalled in a 1996 article that "in a way, it felt like I was going to college for all of them." In that essay, published in a book on psychology and public policy, he portrays himself as driven by a young man's religious zeal.

Determined to attend a "conservative Christian college," he chose Asbury College in Kentucky, where students had to go to chapel three times a week and every class began with prayer.

Strickland earned a bachelor's degree from Asbury in 1963, a master's from the University of Kentucky in 1966 and then, planning to become a minister, a master's in divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary in 1967.

He pastored a Methodist church in Ohio for a year before being appointed to work in a children's home in Kentucky, where he saw child victims of sex abuse and teens with serious drug habits.

"It did not take me long to realize that these children needed a level of help and expertise beyond my Thursday night chapel service," he wrote.

So it was off to UK again to earn a doctorate in psychology.

As a grad student in psych, Strickland remained a fundamentalist Christian who preached to those around him with "evangelical zeal," he admits. He spent one summer handing out religious pamphlets door-to-door in Germany, learning to say "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" in the native tongue. He shunned alcohol and dirty words. In short, a perfect candidate for the Moral Majority.

So what happened? As Strickland pondered in his 1996 article: "How did a socially and theologically conservative Methodist minister become a psychologist and a congressman with a decidedly left-of-center political philosophy?"

The short answer, apparently, is that the '60s and a liberal education happened.

"I observed the Civil Rights movement as it unfolded," Strickland explained in a recent interview. "I watched the (Vietnam) war and our involvement there and its effect upon our country. I was fascinated by the Watergate hearings and the fact that we had a government that was corrupt. And that, and then my involvement with the graduate school and being exposed to challenging new ideas and thoughts and ways of seeing the world. All of those things in combination brought about a kind of awakening in terms of freeing me up, making me less rigid in my thinking and in my worldview."

It was in graduate school that Strickland met his wife-to-be, Frances Smith, another PhD candidate. The two soon formed a working team, and from the earliest days Frances has been a major player in his political campaigns. (She's largely put on hold a promising professional career of her own to do so.) The two finally married in 1987.

Between the Age of Aquarius and his doctoral studies, something apparently clicked inside Strickland around this time, creating what he later called a "Eureka experience" that sent his life caroming in a new direction. He embraced the humanistic principles of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow over the reproaches of Christian friends who considered humanism anti-religious. And he realized that, in a political setting, another word for humanism is liberalism.

"I came to believe that John Kennedy was right when he said, 'On this earth, God's work must truly be our own,' " Strickland wrote.

Losing campaigns, gaining knowledge
As his first divine mission, Strickland chose to re-stage the biblical drama of David and Goliath, with the Philistine giant played by U.S. Rep. William H. Harsha of Ohio's 6th Congressional District.

An entrenched GOP incumbent from Portsmouth first elected in 1961, Harsha had risen by 1976 to ranking minority member on the powerful House Public Works and Transportation Committee. Strickland was a 35-year-old grad student who by his own admission "didn't know the district boundaries, didn't know a single prominent political person and didn't know how to run for office."

He called on every Democratic Party chair in 12 counties, each of whom told him he didn't have a chance.

"This is something that Ted did on his own," recalls Bob Walton, an early supporter who now runs the Scioto County Community Action Agency. "The local party did not recruit him to run just to have a candidate to feed to Harsha."

In the 1976 election, Strickland spent less than $21,000 to Harsha's $31,000 and lost by nearly 41,000 votes. He came back in 1978 and spent around $40,000; Harsha, smelling a threat, upped his spending to more than $107,000 and crushed him again.

Media accounts suggest Strickland took an aggressive "liberal" tack against Harsha. Walton recalls Strickland's campaigns as focused on social-welfare issues like health care and old-age benefits. His ads called for a balanced federal budget, identified inflation as "the most serious issue facing the country today" and insisted that "we must overhaul the welfare system. It is costing too much."

After his second defeat, Strickland returned to grad school to finish his dissertation. On the morning he defended it, he got a call from a reporter, telling him Harsha was retiring. He promptly signed up to run in 1980 against state Rep. Bob McEwen of Hillsboro, Harsha's campaign manager and anointed heir. Strickland apparently toned down his message against the new Republican.

"As he campaigns in the neighborhoods this year, the Strickland style has changed from the 1976 or 1978 contests," reported the Gannett News Service. "The liberal image he once carried in his races against Harsha is being replaced with a '6th District conservative Democrat' image."

Mike Azinger, a Marietta Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Strickland in 2000, says he believes Strickland softened his liberal edge considerably to get elected in southern Ohio.

"I know that in the early days when he ran and lost all the time, he was far left," Azinger says. "And then he modified his opinions, and he was elected without exception."

Swept up by the 1980 Reagan landslide, McEwen made Strickland a three-time loser, winning seven of 12 counties in the district and 54 percent of the vote. At that point Strickland left politics, he thought forever.

Then he began his 40 years in the wilderness. Actually, it was a dozen years practicing psychology in community mental health centers, the Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital and the maximum security prison at Lucasville in Scioto County.

Terry Morris, jail administrator for the Ross County Sheriff's Office, was warden at the Southeast Ohio Correctional Facility during Strickland's stint there in the mid-1980s.

"We had a lot of guys at the time, and probably still do, who are seriously mentally ill," Morris says. "You're the bottom of the pit for the state of Ohio at that time. Everything rolls downhill, and the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at that time was the last stop. When you work in a prison like that and have daily contact with prisoners with those kinds of problems, obviously it's going to make an impression."

Strickland wrote later about a caseload of more than 300 severely disturbed inmates, including "a young man who had more than 20 abdominal operations after repeated self-mutilations," and one "who covered his head with feces because the 'voices' were calling him a 'shithead.' "

Did his experiences there make Strickland more liberal on law-and-order issues?

"I don't know about liberal," Morris says. "He kept an open mind. He's not a do-gooder ... but he has compassion for people regardless of their station in life."

In practical terms, Strickland's time at Lucasville seems to have turned him into a champion for the prison-guard lobby (he has called corrections officers "America's unsung heroes") and a supporter of programs to help ex-cons make a new life — even if they're controversial.

He has supported Pell grants for prisoners, for example. And at a private meeting in March with political and African-American leaders in Toledo, Strickland said he was willing to hire ex-convicts for state jobs. Those remarks, reported in The Toledo Blade to a state racked with unemployment, set off a flurry of outrage on conservative blogs.

Up, down and up again
By 1992, redistricting cleared the way for Strickland to finally reach Congress. Falling Census numbers meant Ohio lost a seat in the U.S. House; Republicans had to sacrifice an incumbent and chose Clarence Miller, an obscure but popular representative from Fairfield County.

Miller's old district was split among two others, and Miller ran against McEwen in the primary for the new 6th. The final outcome, observed Congressional Quarterly, was "not so much a win by Strickland as a loss by two fatally wounded Republican incumbents."

The primary was nasty and expensive, and though McEwen won by an eyelash he came out of it drained of cash, his image battered. After easily beating Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer in the Democratic Primary, Strickland faced McEwen in a district that, once a GOP stronghold, now was more balanced between the two parties.

By 1992, there's evidence that Strickland the candidate was evolving. McEwen attacked him on abortion and gun control, claiming he had flip-flopped on the issues.

Since he first entered politics, Strickland's positions on these issues have in fact changed. Once suspect in the eyes of the National Rifle Association, he now earns top ratings from that group.

In 1980, he said he opposed abortion but could "see both sides of the issue." Since getting to Congress, he's been a reliable pro-choice vote, though he has split with the choice camp on topics like partial-birth abortion and parental notification.

Former campaign opponent Azinger sees the Democrat's stance on gun rights as pure calculation.

"The only issue he was conservative on was the gun issue, and that was obviously — to me, anyway — a position that he had to take, living in southern Ohio," he says. "I don't think he could have won without that issue."

The head of a major statewide gun-rights group acknowledges that some of its members don't fully trust Strickland's commitment to the cause.

"I think some people have skepticism about Strickland," says Jim Irvine, chair of the Buckeye Firearms Association. "I do not. I think it goes ultimately to his core values. ... I've heard a lot of comments that Mr. Strickland's going to cave once he's elected and let the big-city, anti-gun mayors determine his policies. But I can't really see him becoming the most powerful elected official in Ohio and then caving to the mayor of Akron or Toledo."

On abortion, the executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, Pro-Choice Ohio, firmly believes that Strickland's commitment to choice goes all the way down.

"I do, and that comes out of working with him through our differing positions and speaking with him personally, talking about the tough issues," Kelly Copeland says. "I think he's sincerely committed to protecting reproductive rights. I think he sincerely believes that these choices are personal."

Strickland won in 1992 by a slender margin. In truth, McEwen might have beaten himself with a series of well-publicized overdrafts on his House bank account.

In a freshman profile, Congressional Quarterly warned that the GOP considered the 6th District seat its personal property and that Strickland "may have trouble holding onto it given the region's conservative leanings." This can't have escaped Strickland's notice and must have played some role in shaping his political profile.

A good foot soldier for President Clinton, Strickland has always said that health-care reform was the main reason he ran in 1992, and he got strongly behind the president's ultimately failed effort to achieve it — a failure Strickland calls his biggest disappointment.

In 1994, the GOP came after him, fielding a candidate of troglodytic conservatism. Gallia County businessman Frank Cremeans' defining campaign moment, by general consensus, was when he suggested to a group of ministers that "a social disease like AIDS" might have caused the downfall of those homoerotic Greeks and Romans. In its endorsement of Strickland, The Dayton Daily News called Cremeans "a bad joke."

The punch line, however, was that eight of 14 counties went for Cremeans. As the returns came in election night, Strickland railed at the Christian Coalition for passing out literature in churches that accused him of supporting pornography. (He had voted to fund the National Endowment for the Arts.)

He had slammed the Coalition on the House floor in July 1993 for running radio spots against him and other reps who supported Clinton's deficit-reduction package.

"Since when is there a correlation between Christian belief and protecting tax breaks for the wealthy?" he demanded.

He'd also shot his own toes off by stating, in a debate a week before Election Day, that "we may have to raise some taxes" to pay for universal health coverage.

Two days later, Cremeans' ads were repeating the fatal sound-bite ad nauseam, and Strickland lost his seat by a 51-49 margin.

Perhaps remembering 1994, Strickland — though not well-liked by anti-tax groups — is antsy about even whispering the T-word in his gubernatorial campaign. When asked about his economic plans for Ohio, he insists he can fund his commitments to improving education and health care by rooting out waste and corruption, accessing federal funds the GOP leadership has been unable or unwilling to get and improving the economy to generate more taxable revenue.

"What I want to do is cut the waste, get rid of what I call the 'corruption tax,' the state dollars that are being absolutely wasted as a result of the kind of leadership that we've had in this state," Strickland says. "And once we get this economy going, then we will have the kinds of resources we need for education and health care and those kinds of things. ... I don't think that we need to (raise taxes). I think if we have a growing economy and an expanding tax base, those resources will be there."

In a position that hasn't hurt his ability to draw supporters from the GOP camp, he's also said he won't mess with the comprehensive rewrite of the tax code enacted during the Taft years, which significantly reduced the tax burden on business.

"I've said this tax reform should be allowed to work, until we have the data necessary to determine whether or not it is in fact accomplishing what it was intended to accomplish," he says. "And there are some early positive signs, as a matter of fact."

His 'most important vote' ever
Two years out of office, Strickland came back to oust Cremeans in 1996. By this time he was perhaps not jaded but certainly more realistic.

"The other evening, I heard an adult say to a child who was upset about losing a ball game that old, so-familiar expression: 'It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game,' " Strickland wrote in an essay called "A Second Chance," published in a psychology journal. "That is not the way it is in Congress. Winning is everything because it determines who has the ultimate power to distribute wealth."

And from that point on, Strickland hasn't lost again. He's solidified his incumbency and easily fended off challenges from hard-line conservatives like Azinger and moderates like former Marietta Mayor Nancy Hollister. Part of this involved tailoring his positions on selected issues, to give the right a smaller target.

He told The Athens News in July 2003 that he sometimes ran afoul of other Democrats with his votes on issues like flag burning. But with the specter of another Cremeans waiting in the wings to take his seat, he said, he'll go against the party grain when he needs to. He even reveled a bit in the frustration his voting record causes the GOP.

"I have tried to keep them from putting me in a pigeonhole," he noted. "And, quite frankly, it drives them nuts."

In his years in Congress, Strickland has earned high ratings from pro-choice, gun rights, anti-war, public-education and public-health-care advocates and low numbers from business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. The National Taxpayers Union rated him a "big spender" in 2003. He's gotten mixed reviews from the ACLU on civil rights and fairly good ratings from environmentalists — though his green instincts don't keep him from supporting old, heavy industries when district jobs are at stake.

He was fighting for expansion of the Piketon uranium enrichment plant, for example, as early as the late 1970s and helped pressure the White House to approve an emergency loan to save Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel from collapse.

He has gradually become, by his own estimate, something less of a bomb-thrower, compared to his first term when he once called on Congress to "tell the big oil lobbyists to go straight to hell" and declared, "When the insurance industry talks about health care, it makes me sick."

He can still rise to the occasion for a good opposition fight, however, as he's done in recent years against issues including the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Medicare reform and, most notably, the invasion of Iraq, which he once likened in a House speech to "a kid taking a stick and starting to beat a hornet's nest."

Speaking on CAFTA in May 2005, he focused on the exploitation of low-wage labor outside U.S. borders.

"I think it is immoral, quite frankly, for us to enter into an agreement that results in the exploitation of poor Mexicans or poor people from Costa Rica or elsewhere," he told his House colleagues. "I think it is immoral for a working mother to be paid 12 cents for a garment that is ultimately sold for $20 or $25."

As for Iraq, Strickland joined his five in-state party colleagues in the House to make Ohio the only big state whose entire Democratic delegation voted against giving the president authority to invade. Though fighting the War on Terror seems to have become the GOP's last, best campaign trump card, Strickland says he's never looked back.

"It's one of the most important votes — probably the most important vote — I have ever had, and I am so glad that I made that decision," he says now. "I think the president's decision to take us into this war was a bad decision, and I'm glad I'm one of those who opposed giving him that authority. An authority, by the way, that I think the Constitution gives the Congress, not the executive branch."

The vote hasn't seemed to hurt him in his district, and even some voters who support the war apparently respect his position.

"At the time I cast it, I thought it would be (damaging)," Strickland admits. "But, quite frankly, I have taken almost no criticism for that vote from my congressional district."

He has continued to hammer at the Bush administration for its conduct of the war while also crusading on issues such as getting better equipment and health coverage for soldiers in Iraq. And before Michael Moore posed the question in Fahrenheit 9/11, Strickland was in Congress in April 2004 asking why, right after the Sept. 11 attacks, "planes went all over this country picking up Saudi citizens and some relatives of Osama bin Laden and flew them out of this country before they were thoroughly questioned and vetted by the FBI."

'A good man' on the verge
It might be that, for most Ohioans planning to vote for Strickland, his biggest attractions are that he seems generally non-corrupt and isn't Bob Taft or Ken Blackwell. But for the sake of those outside his district meeting him for the first time, there are probably two major points about him to grasp.

First, the weight of the evidence suggests he's a deeply decent human being driven by a genuine desire to serve others. Even some of his detractors admit this, and among his staunch supporters it's not uncommon to hear something embarrassingly close to reverence expressed for the man's personal qualities. (Whether being a good person is either necessary or sufficient for being a good governor is, of course, open to debate.)

"This is the kind of candidate America's been waiting for," declares Jim Parker, a Pike County health-care administrator who has run for Congress as a Democrat.

Naturally not everyone is equally dazzled, especially among "values" voters. Asked to explain Strickland's remarkable poll numbers, however, GOP consultant Neil Clark doesn't hesitate and doesn't talk about issues.

"You know what he is? Simply put? He's a good man," Clark says. "You don't have to have all the labels. ... If he doesn't get himself corrupted by the people that he ends up employing, he's going to have a great career."

The other point to remember is that Strickland, whatever his positions on guns and flags, is probably still more solidly aligned with the traditional Democrat agenda and voter base than many of his better-known party colleagues.

Strickland's potent secret weapon might be his willingness to call harsh realities by their real names and to focus on fundamental power issues that are ultimately more important than whether you can own an Uzi or marry someone of the same sex. He's not a radical by any stretch, but when you ask him what his struggle has been about he sometimes speaks with startling frankness.

"I believe that there's class warfare going on in this country," he told The Athens News in 2003. "But I believe it is the corporate world and the super-wealthy waging war on the poor."



JIM PHILLIPS writes for The Athens News, where a version of this article first appeared. This concludes our series of major candidate profiles; the profile of Ken Blackwell appeared in CityBeat's issue of Aug. 16, and the profile of Senate candidate Sherrod Brown appeared in CityBeat's issue of Sept. 27. Find them and more than 40 other articles, columns, editorials and blog entries related to the upcoming elections at www.citybeat.com/election.

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