Private Lives and Public Campaigns

When I first saw the television ad on Feb. 16, I was startled -- not just by its audacity but its conclusions based on a kind of connect-the-dots that seemed to reach well beyond what little had b

Mar 3, 2004 at 2:06 pm

When I first saw the television ad on Feb. 16, I was startled — not just by its audacity but its conclusions based on a kind of connect-the-dots that seemed to reach well beyond what little had been published, and even then only sporadically. The commercial had a grainy, docudrama texture, an almost caught naked — gotcha! — hidden camera quality to it.

Where did John Dowlin and his campaign staff come up with Pat DeWine's marital problems? Not only that, but where did they then connect the marital problems to an affair that led to the breakup of the marriage and political chicanery that included DeWine having cast a deciding vote in a huge sweetheart deal based on his romantic liaison?

The results of the March 2 primary election are, of course, known by now.

Regardless of the outcome, in just the past two weeks the ad and issue dominated political discourse, becoming so explosive and divisive within the GOP that even Community Press suggested a vote for DeWine, even though the newspaper chain is more attuned and sympathetic to politics and politicians outside the city of Cincinnati, which is where DeWine serves.

What had become a short campaign — since Feb. 16 — turned into a publicly bitter, internecine and altogether surprising race that pitted two conservative Republicans, an incumbent and a challenger, against each other in a primary to be the GOP candidate for Hamilton County Commissioner.

So where did the charges of DeWine leaving his wife and family and pursuing romantic involvement with another woman come from, accusations that ultimately made their way into the Dowlin ad? In private, the gossip mill of City Hall and Cincinnati politics fueled it.

Publicly, in print, CityBeat contributed.

But CityBeat didn't connect the dots; Dowlin's campaign did. The CityBeat references, as best I can tell, are three. A Porkopolis column, edited by Greg Flannery, in October 2002; a Jene Galvin column in October 2003; and a story by April Martin on Election Night published Nov. 5, 2003.

All three pieces made mention of DeWine's marriage breakup. Flannery wrote that gossip about the break-up had been going on for weeks but was made public at a Sept. 25, 2002 City Council meeting by activist Nate Livingston Jr., who said DeWine was having an extramarital affair with a proponent of a ballot issue and that it should be investigated. DeWine declined to comment when asked about Livingston's allegation.

Galvin wrote about the hypocrisy of conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Bennett who trumpet family values, then threw DeWine in with the lot.

"DeWine has always laced his campaign materials with family-values rhetoric and style," Galvin wrote. "... It seems that Pat DeWine is now getting his own family values shoved up his political butt."

Martin's piece made a passing reference to DeWine on Election Night 2003. "Two years ago, he ran on a campaign of family values," she wrote. "This night, in the wake of the breakup of his marriage, no wife and kids were on hand to celebrate his re-election."

Flannery defended the CityBeat coverage, which did not connect dots but only noted the apparent hypocrisy. There is no mention of DeWine leaving his family for a Convergys lobbyist, no mention of how his was the swing vote in the Convergys deal based on that relationship.

"It was newsworthy because it was done in a public forum," Flannery says of the initial 2002 Porkopolis column. "And DeWine's family was prominent in his (2001) campaign ads. One could argue that DeWine's 'family values' conservatism makes the allegation relevant to voters. This was something that had been talked about pretty openly, but not publicly. People in City Hall talked about it, people we knew as reliable sources. To me, that was not enough. That was just gossip. It wasn't a public issue until it was brought up in city council."

There are some who have a problem with personal trials making their way into newsprint or on news broadcasts, even when they involve public officials. I place myself among them. As one who came of age in the 1960s, for instance, I was — and continue to be — less interested in JFK's romantic indiscretions than in how he handled the Cuban missile crisis. I thought President Clinton's impeachment a constitutional embarrassment over a blowjob.

Peter Bronson, the Cincinnati Enquirer columnist who seemed to relish the news when the source of indiscretions involved a Democrat (Clinton), had trouble with the Dowlin ad, and rightfully so.

"It's a myth that the press loves a sex scandal," he wrote Feb. 19. "To most of us, those things are the clogged kitchen sink of the news business. We try to ignore it as long as we can until it overflows, because nobody wants to reach into the garbage disposal and fish around for the slippery chicken-bone details."

Bronson went on to write that the DeWine rumor was well known but ignored. Most media didn't deal with it because it didn't seem a clear conflict. He continued that he left it alone because "mucking around in private lives gives me the creeps."

A belief in family values doesn't necessarily translate into a trouble-free marriage; one could espouse the former and fail to make the latter work personally. DeWine says his relationship was subsequent to his separation and not coincident with his marriage.

Both candidates appeared last week on Dan Hurley's Newsmakers (WKRC, Channel 12). Seven minutes into the broadcast, the Dowlin ad reared its ugly head. Hurley brought it up. Dowlin never looked at DeWine; DeWine leaned in his chair and looked directly at Dowlin, who never returned his gaze. They bantered about the ad. Yes, it was true; no, it wasn't.

Finally, Hurley, a historian by training and a good news person, asked if this whole campaign is really about control of the Republican Party in Hamilton County. He suggested as much, with the question whether a DeWine victory means a shift from the traditional leadership in the county to one more Cincinnati-oriented. If DeWine wins the primary and the general election, he would join former City Councilmen Phil Heimlich and Todd Portune on the board of county commissioners.

The answers were not memorable. The question was. Maybe the media should have taken a harder look at this, more than the whole blinding issue of family values and who has them.

Lew Moores worked 30 years as a reporter for The Cincinnati Post and The Cincinnati Enquirer. Contact him at [email protected]