Ohio Republicans going after Strickland

Published 10:20 am Tuesday, April 14, 2009

For perhaps the first time in Gov. Ted Strickland’s term, Ohio Republicans sense a golden opportunity to damage the popular Democratic governor’s credibility with the public.

Republicans have begun a legal and public relations battle with the veteran politician over the openness of his administration’s development of his school funding plan. Strickland has dismissed the Republican tactics as opportunist and purely political.

Republicans are pursuing Strickland where his political stakes are highest. During his campaign for governor, Strickland said he would be a failure if he didn’t propose a solution to Ohio’s school-funding problem and promised to conduct his affairs with the utmost transparency.

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State Rep. Seth Morgan, of Huber Heights, sued Strickland in the Ohio Supreme Court last week, alleging the administration had ignored two public records requests for studies, research and e-mail communications used to create the plan. The all-Republican court’s decision will likely determine the success of the GOP’s public relations efforts to damage Strickland ahead of the 2010 election. A legal victory would simultaneously give Republicans credibility to undermine the governor on both transparency and school funding.

Last Tuesday, a day after Morgan filed the lawsuit, Strickland provided agendas and reports, copies of meeting notes, and correspondence between various state agencies about the creation of his plan, along with thousands of comments gathered during public forums. On Friday, Strickland handed over thousands more documents to Morgan.

Strickland’s plan would require schools to use programs based on research findings and would set standards for students, teachers and districts. It would also increase the state’s share of education funding to rely less on local property taxes.

So far, the two sides have been engaging in a barrage of recriminations. Republicans smell blood because of the bumpy roll out of the plan, and questions over whether it uses more than $900 million in federal economic stimulus money in a manner acceptable to the federal government.

Strickland called the lawsuit pure politics.

‘‘We have tried to respond in a timely manner and an appropriate manner,’’ Strickland said. ‘‘I’m going to trust the Supreme Court to not allow themselves to be used as a political tool for what I consider to be a blatant, raw political maneuver,’’ he said.

Strickland also called Morgan’s actions ‘‘immature’’ during a media interview, setting off Republicans.

‘‘While, as you know, I have great respect for you and your efforts to improve Ohio’s education system, I regret that you have indicated that somehow Representative Morgan’s pursuit of these matters is not the ’mature’ effort of a very dedicated and dynamic legislator,’’ House Minority Bill Batchelder wrote in a letter to Strickland.

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine was more aggressive.

‘‘Gov. Strickland owes Rep. Morgan an apology,’’ DeWine said in a statement. ‘‘Calling an elected state representative immature for doing his job is not only disrespectful but it’s also beneath the dignity of the governor’s office.’’

Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck said he doubts that the legal and public relations battle has left any imprint on public opinion so far.

‘‘Unless there’s some kind of smoking gun there in terms of unethical behavior, the public isn’t going to be very concerned with this,’’ Beck said. ‘‘It struck me as a fishing expedition to be quite frank.’’

This isn’t the first time a lawmaker has aggressively pursued public records from a governor of the opposing party or the first time such a case has reached the Ohio Supreme Court.

In 2006, then state Sen. Marc Dann sought documents related to unorthodox rare-coin investments by the state Bureau of Workers’ Compensation that engulfed the administration of Republican Bob Taft.

The court generally sided with Taft’s claims of executive privilege.

Strickland has waived executive privilege in the current case, although he told Morgan in a letter that he reserves the right to reclaim it in the future.

Stephen Majors is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.