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GOP's Blackwell Eyes Ohio Governor's Office

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell is in a tight race for governor of his state. Like NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania and Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele in Maryland, Blackwell represents a growing number of black Republicans who are running for statewide office and are seen by some pundits as the best of both worlds: color and conservatism.

Kenneth Blackwell boasts impeccable credentials. A former mayor of Cincinnati, he was also under secretary of HUD for the first President Bush. But he's as controversial as he is qualified. He played a key role in the 2004 presidential election when Democrats accused him of vote suppression. And he's irked fellow Republicans by pulling his party to the right, potentially alienating swing voters.

Blackwell recently joined me by phone to discuss his political agenda, his critics, and a new poll that shows him trailing Democrat Ted Strickland.

Secretary of State KENNETH BLACKWELL (Republican, Ohio): Well, we're in very, very strong position. We came out of a very robust and competitive campaign. It was bitterly fought and we anticipated that we would probably be lagging by double digits and that we would be way behind in terms of money because we had to spend down the $5 million that we had raised in that primary contest.

And Mr. Strickland had virtually no contest and we thought that he would be light years ahead of us, in terms of fundraising. But to be almost within the margin of error, which means that this race, right now, is about a dead heat and to be what we think is relatively close to him and cash on hand, we're sitting in a very competitive position; much better off than we had anticipated coming out of a toughly fought primary.

GORDON: How much do you believe your support from the black community can be what puts you over the top?

Sec. BLACKWELL: Oh, I think that if it's consistent with what I've received in the last three statewide races, averaging out around 40 percent, if we're in that neighborhood, we're going to be victorious in November. So we look to maintain our share of the African-American vote.

GORDON: Are you bothered at all by the fact that there is going to be some support for you that is solely based on race versus politics?

Sec. BLACKWELL: Well, I always said that no one should vote for me solely because of my skin color, just as no one should vote against me solely because of my skin color. I think that my share of the African-American vote has been based on those things that I advocate and a track record of success in building an ownership society within the African-American community.

I thought it was noteworthy that Radio One endorsed my candidacy based on the fact that I have a track record with urban policy and I have a track record in breaking down barriers to access to capital for expanded home ownership and business ownership; and that I actually have been part of a business enterprise that hired black people and helped them to build their assets to create wealth. So my share of the African-American vote won't be on the basis of skin color, but on the basis of my track record of having advocated for the interests that are shared by a good number of African-American voters across the State of Ohio.

GORDON: We're going to get into that track record in just a moment. We should note that Radio One is a network of radio stations, a conglomerate owned by an African-American woman, Cathy Hughes.

That being said, let me ask you, as relates to what we could see, and that's an unprecedented number of African-Americans winning statewide office. We have Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, Michael Steele and Kweisi Mfume in Maryland, yourself in Ohio, but what does this say if all of you lose? How much pressure do you feel, if at all, that this will be a referendum, to a great degree, on the statewide ability for African-Americans to run, at least as relates to how the parties look at it?

Sec. BLACKWELL: Ed, I have to have a different perspective than my other colleagues. I have won in my own right three statewide elections by a comfortable margin - 12, 14, and 20 percent - against white and black opponents. I just came out of a tough statewide primary where I ran against a formidable opponent, Jim Petro, the present attorney general.

So I think, given that I was the first African-American to win a statewide office in 1994, given that the first African-American Representative was a Republican, given the fact that the first African-American to sit on the elected state Supreme Court was a Republican, I think that the statement has been made that in Ohio, history would prove that the Republican party has been the party of opportunity and the party of breakthrough effects in the political arena.

GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about your track record. You talk about entrepreneurship for African-Americans, that's something that you've preached for a long time. But there are going to be those, Ken Blackwell, you know better than I, who are going to look at the state of Ohio, look at the economic situation it's in and suggest that your view of the market doesn't always sit well with a blue collar state like yours.

There are those who suggest, hey, I got up every morning. I worked hard. My company folded. There's nothing that I can do about that.

Sec. BLACKWELL: Right. I think that's why, you know, I'm looked upon as the candidate that has a program that would expand our economy and create jobs and create opportunity. My message of expanded economic growth and job creation speaks directly to blue collar Ohio and to African-Americans in particular. They want folks who will break down barriers to opportunities, to higher education, and my work with Wilberforce University as a trustee for ten years, my advocacy for Central State University.

People will look at that track record and say, hey, here's a guy that understands something that Bobby Kennedy understood in the 1960s...

GORDON: But Ken, what of those who suggest that that's just being naïve?

Sec. BLACKWELL: (Unintelligible) - Bobby Kennedy said, look, you can't win the war on poverty if you leave the tools of marketplace capitalism on the sideline.

GORDON: All right, what do you say to those who say that that's being naïve, that opportunity is not there on a whole for African-Americans to go get the loans to start their own businesses?

Sec. BLACKWELL: Well, the fact is, I think they then look at my track record and Cincinnati as mayor and as chairman of the finance committee, I took on the financial community and basically said, I see African American taxpayers as being shareholders in the city enterprise, and unless you can show us what your track record was in home ownerships and in expanding opportunities for business development, we weren't going to let you hold our account.

You know what? We've got the most aggressive citywide community reinvestment act in the country.

GORDON: What of those who find it hard to balance your track record versus your support for George Bush?

Sec. BLACKWELL: Well, I think people tend to look at their pocketbooks and I think, you know, in the final analysis, people are going to say, look, he's running against a guy who has no track record. He's running against a guy who was in Congress for a decade and had no African-American staffers, who voted against even Clinton, you know, welfare reform that was geared toward infusing some personal responsibility, so African-Americans could climb up the ladder of economic opportunity.

You know, I'm not running in a vacuum. I'm running against an opponent, and my track record will be compared against his, and I look forward to that...

GORDON: All right, but let me take you back to the Bush question. How do you soften the blow that many African-Americans feel, in terms of Bush being negligent to our community and your steadfast support of him?

Sec. BLACKWELL: Well, the fact is, is that in Ohio, Ed, George Bush got 17 percent of the African-American vote, which was a - and that's in 2004 - which doubled his share of the African-American vote in 2000. So, here in Ohio, African-Americans took a look at his record - took a look at his advocacy on issues that matter to him, and he doubled his share of the African-American vote.

And so, at the end of the day, they're going to sort out what they like about George Bush, what they dislike about George Bush - what they like about Ken Blackwell, what they dislike about Ken Blackwell, and I'm going to get compared against Ted Strickland, who has no record. And, unless you're telling me that African-American voters are going to vote against their interests, and against a track record that reflects an advocacy for their interests, you know, then I have a different view of African-American voters than you do.

GORDON: Let me take you to a concern that some African-Americans have, and quite frankly, some Republicans have with you, and that is the question of whether or not you're taking, quote, “the Republican side of Ohio to the right.” You're against gay marriage. You're against abortion even when the mother's life is at stake. There's a question of whether or not…

Sec. BLACKWELL: Okay, back up for a minute. Let me just stop you right there…

GORDON: Okay, please do.

Sec. BLACKWELL: (Unintelligible) I'm against in terms of abortion. Medical advances now don't provide that option to doctors where they have to make a decision between taking the life of the mother, or intentionally taking the life of the child.

Modern day medical advances allow doctors to try to save the life of both. If the baby dies in the attempt to save the life of both of them, that is neither immoral or illegal. I am against the intentional killing of babies, and that is what the act of abortion is, and thank God He has allowed us to advance medically, where that option is not an option for doctors (unintelligible)…

GORDON: In fact, you've called it nothing short of genocide waged against black America by the political left…

Sec. BLACKWELL: Say that again…

GORDON: …abortion.

Sec. BLACKWELL: Say that again.

GORDON: You have called abortion nothing short of genocide…

Sec. BLACKWELL: Oh, absolutely…

GORDON: …waged against black Americas.

Sec. BLACKWELL: …look, all you have to do is go back and take a look at Margaret Sanger. Margaret Sanger had what she called The Negro Project. You know what it was? It was eugenics. It deemed African-Americans to be an inferior race, and that what she had was a purification process of the human race by eliminating black people. That meets every definition of genocide that I've ever had, and I've argued the case of genocide, you know, in the United Nations.

GORDON: All right. You have summertime to go, and then November will be right around the corner. I suspect you fully expect and anticipate taking the gubernatorial race there in Ohio. What's your first move if you do, as my exit question here?

Sec. BLACKWELL: Well, what we're going to do is to reform our tax codes so that we can actually jumpstart our economy and create jobs. The number one issue facing Ohioans is job creation. We're 47th among the 50 states, and we're 50th among the 50 states in new small business start-ups, and we know that 80 percent of the new jobs will come from small businesses, and so we have to jumpstart our economy and we have to do that by reforming our confiscatory tax codes.

GORDON: All right. Tight race, Kenneth Blackwell. You're in the midst of it, and we will continue to watch and talk to you in November.

Sec. BLACKWELL: Thank you, sir.

GORDON: Thank you. Sec. BLACKWELL: All right.

GORDON: One note: We've extended an invitation to Mr. Blackwell's opponent, Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland. We expect to have him on the program next week.

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GORDON: Coming up, a new lawsuit seeks to ban black only college courses, and the high court says no to special protection for whistle-blowers. We'll discuss these topics and more on our roundtable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.