Democrats turn eye toward Petro as their new target

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The heat in Gov. Bob Taft's office has been turned down a little.

Now, Statehouse Democrats have their sights on the Republican who wants to replace Taft next year - Attorney General Jim Petro.

For months, Democrats in the Ohio House and Senate have ravaged Taft over the investment scandal that has been emerging since April. But in the last two weeks, they have found plenty to fire at Petro, one of three statewide officeholders seeking the GOP nomination next year, along with Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and Auditor Betty Montgomery.

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Petro has noticed.

''It's not my favorite position to be in,'' Petro said last week.

Democrats, who haven't won a statewide executive office in 15 years, believe the scandal gives them their best chance since another investment scandal 35 years ago swept them into office, led by Gov. John Gilligan.

This time, the state has lost at least $300 million in investments made by the Bureau of Workers' Compensation, the state insurance program for on-the-job injuries. Taft has been convicted and fined $4,000 for failing to report gifts that included free golf outings.

Petro has been criticized for not investigating the investment funds last year when he received a letter from the Securities and Exchange Commission that said stockbrokers were charging the bureau exorbitant fees. Petro said he asked the commission for more information that never was provided.

That didn't stop the Democrats.

''He had the responsibility to act when the first hint of a scandal came out in … 2004,'' House Democratic leader Chris Redfern said. ''He failed to act quickly and do his job.''

A Democrat-leaning coalition that wants to put three issues on the statewide ballot that would alter election law is upset that Petro has sided with its opponents over the validity of some of the signatures they collected using out-of-state circulators.

Reform Ohio Now pointed out that lawyers for three law firms representing the opponents had been heavy contributors to Petro campaigns and had received special counsel contracts from his office.

Petro said he did not know who was representing the opponents when he wrote a brief supporting them. He said he did so on the advice of his agency's lawyers. He blames the closeness of next May's primaries for all the sniping.

''There's so much politics in the air, so much politics directed at the next elections. I think they're immediately looking for ways to try to discredit anyone who has an 'R' next to their name. I've become a very convenient target,'' Petro said.

Not so, said Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown-area Democrat who has been one of the scandal's biggest critics. He said the heat is off Taft for now because no new evidence moving Taft closer to the scandal has surfaced.

''It has absolutely nothing to do with it. If anybody is allowing people to loot our state I'm going to yell and scream,'' Dann said.

Petro said it's part of the ever-lengthening political season.

''I'm not whining about it. It's flattering a little bit because I believe they perceive that I'm the most challenging candidate for the candidate of the Democrat Party in the next election,'' Petro said.

Redfern said that if the Petro and other Republicans don't fix a broken system, the voters will.

''The wholesale changes we're seeking are going to occur in November of 2006,'' he said.

John McCarthy is a correspondent

for the Ohio Associated Press in Columbus.