Governor adept at managing the news

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2008

One thing Ohioans of both political stripes have to concede is Gov. Ted Strickland has a sure eye for the smart move.

Smart for the state, maybe, but just as smart for Strickland.

Exhibit No 1: Strickland’s announcement Wednesday that he was tapping Ohio State University law school dean Nancy Hardin Rogers to clean up the scandal-plagued attorney general’s office.

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This news won Strickland all kinds of political points, starting with the obvious but not-to-be-underestimated coup of putting a woman in charge of fixing the mess former Attorney General Marc Dann left behind in the wake of an affair with a female subordinate.

In all the speculation that buzzed around the Statehouse as pundits tried to guess Strickland’s pick, Rogers’ name never came up.

Yet as soon as the governor introduced the dean, a consensus quickly echoed through the capital: ‘’Brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that?’’

It’s headache material for Republicans trying to find a chink in the governor’s armor ahead of the 2010 election.

‘’From a Republican perspective he’s frustrating because he’s doing a lot of the right things, and making a lot of the right moves and positioning himself well politically,’’ said Jim Trakas, a former Republican state lawmaker from suburban Cleveland who’s now running for Congress.

The selection of Rogers – a squeaky clean, universally praised academic – was another coup in Strickland’s full-court press to wrestle the Dann scandal under control as it threatens to undo the gains Democrats made in their partial takeover of state government in 2006.

Strickland also led the charge threatening Dann with impeachment – a fate he avoided by resigning – and expanding the state watchdog’s power to investigate the attorney general’s office.

Strickland was viewed as a liberal during his 14 years in Congress, but as governor he’s modeled himself in the tradition of populists like Republican Gov. Jim Rhodes and Democrat Vern Riffe, who controlled the Ohio House from 1974 to 1994.

In that vein, Strickland has shown uncommon attention to the little details of middle-of-the-road governing.

Last month, he was up early on a Saturday to start the walking division of the annual Columbus Race for the Cure, a three-mile trek that raises money for breast cancer research. It was the first time in recent memory an Ohio governor attended the event, which with 40,000 participants is one of the 10 biggest breast cancer charity runs in the world. That’s right, world.

Or consider Strickland’s showdown with his own bureaucrats last June when he ordered the state transportation department to back off any threat of removing a 10-story banner featuring Cleveland Cavaliers’ star LeBron James.

‘’I would consider it art,’’ Strickland said on a visit to Cleveland, coincidentally the day before the Cavaliers played San Antonio in the first game of the NBA finals.

That gesture earned Strickland political gold: King James himself sent a thank you note and T-shirt.

Strickland, a Methodist minister, understands the value of the bully pulpit, said spokesman Keith Dailey.

‘’He recognizes at an instinctual level that a governor is most effective when he is closest to the people he represents,’’ Dailey said.

Strickland has a solid relationship with Republican legislative leaders, but it’s not all a love fest. Strickland is far too cozy with unions for many Republicans, starting with the overtures he made to teachers by bashing charter schools and the state voucher program.

Sure enough, the worst thing Republican consultant and former Senate president Richard Finan could find to say about Strickland was, ‘’He’s very union-oriented.’’

‘’Otherwise,’’ he continued, ‘’I have to admit that I think he’s doing a pretty good job.’’

Strickland hasn’t said whether he plans to run in 2010. But if his gestures in the court of public opinion are any guide, there’s a good bet he’s got his eye firmly fixed on what it will take to win him another four years in office.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a the statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.