Ohio2006 Blog

News, analysis, and comments on Ohio elections.

Tuesday, August 15

Ohio House 98th: Ku (D) Challenges Dolan (R)

Yesterday morning I sat for an hour at a busy Starbucks with law professor Raymond Ku (D-Bainbridge Township), who is campaigning hard to unseat incumbent Rep. Matthew J. Dolan (R-Novelty) in the 98th Ohio House District. Ku is an energetic, smart, likeable guy, and we had a great time talking about issues, politics, and our mutual alma mater. (I'm in the Class of '82 at New York University School of Law, Ku is Class of '95, and we had many of the same professors.) The strongly Republican 98th District combines "exurban" and rural Geauga County with a small piece of suburban northeast Cuyahoga County, and Ku was heading out for door-to-door canvassing in the latter area after our talk. I remarked on his running shoes as appropriate equipment for pounding the pavement, and he said that it's easier in suburban Highland Heights than in Bainbridge Township with its five-acre lots, where Ku sometimes rides a bicycle from door to door.

Ku is the son of Chinese immigrants who settled on Long Island, New York. He excelled in high school, where he was class president, captain of the soccer team, and a theater performer, and at Brown University, where his thesis on public school financing won a prize, he captained the fencing team (competing twice in the NCAA championships), and he graduated with honors in political science, all while working odd jobs such as grocery clerk, warehouse stock boy, and file clerk. At NYU he was a Leonard Boudin First Amendment Fellow in the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program (which I can attest is a very big deal), starred in moot court, and graduated with honors. That was followed by a distinguished federal judicial clerkship and several years practicing at top-flight law firms in Washington. A leading scholar on internet law, Ku now teaches constitutional law and intellectual property at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Ku is close friends with fellow professor Lewis Katz (D-Pepper Pike), now running for Congress against Rep. Stephen LaTourette (R-Painesville). He lives in Bainbridge Township with wife Melissa Pantel-Ku and their two young children.

Ku says he was inspired to run by the desperate need to change the direction of Ohio. "Retro" is the "nice way" to describe the policies driving this state, he says. "What the mainstream Ohio Republican Party is pursuing is really a kind of medieval feudalism. They want to erase everything from the Enlightment forward. Theocracy is in, meritocracy is out." He also desires to change the Ohio Democratic Party, whose "message has been lost" because the party's "focus is on interest groups, not what unites them." These political passions flow from a man who says he was an "Alex P.Keaton-style" Young Republican in high school in the 1980's. He broke with the Republicans at the end of that decade, disillusioned with his former idol Ronald Reagan.

Ku has not held public office before. He says that "public service is something I've always been interested in, but politics never." After moving to Ohio in 2003, he reached out to the local Democratic party during the Kerry campaign but was frustrated that little was done to reach Democratic voters in Geauga County. Ku "must have been contacted ten times by the Bush campaign, but nothing from Kerry." (Despite the lack of effort, Kerry lost by only about 5% of the vote in the 98th District, a much better showing than any Democratic candidate for state legislature in many years.) Recruited by local party leaders to challenge Dolan, Ku is pouring his considerable talents and energy into the race. He has about 60 campaign volunteers and has focused on personal appearances and canvassing. He cares more deeply about "getting the word out" on change and cleaning up government than he does about getting elected. His told me his "basic message" on the difference between Republicans and Democrats is that everyone cares about children, but Republicans care "only about their own children." Ku wants his two children to have "a chance to compete" in a system that is fair and works for everyone, not special advantages while others suffer.

Ku says that his role models as a public official are Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Both were "willing to stand up for their principles regardless of the cost," referring to the Civil War in the case of Lincoln and for Roosevelt "taking on big business" as the nation's first progressive leader, "regardless of the political consequences."

Going door to door, Ku finds that "people are fed up." While most people don't seem to know who their current state representative is, Ku says that their "top concern is government corruption" and voters agree that "single party rule has corrupted Ohio." The next biggest concern is schools, a topic closely tied to the property tax burden. In addition, voters talk about the "drain of jobs and young people away from Ohio," because "everyone sees their kids and friends are leaving." A realtor told Ku that twice as many homes in the area Ku lives are for sale than last year, and most of the sales are career-related.

We talked at some length about public school financing, the topic of Ku's early scholarly writing. The way we fund schools "forces the issue on taxpayers," who are "constantly" faced with property tax levies. Even Ku's opponent and State Sen. Tim Grendell (R) conceded at a public forum that the voters are suffering "levy fatigue." (Ku says that they are considering the absurd idea of "low interest loans" to help seniors on fixed incomes pay increased property taxes, which Ku likens to a "reverse mortgage.") The solution to the school funding crisis "is simple," Ku says, "just make it the priority." If national security is the country's first priority, "education should be the state's." Although "we've underfunded schools for 30 years," still much could be improved without raising taxes if spending priorities were changed. Drawing on his scholarly interest in school funding, Ku argues that the state "shouldn't focus on equality of funding but equality of outcomes," acknowledging for example that the cost of education is different between urban and rural districts. He attacks the $5,000-per-student figure in Grendell's proposed constitutional amendment on school funding as "an arbitrary number."

Ku's opponent is the son of Larry Dolan, wealthy owner of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. The younger Dolan ran for state representative as a Democrat in 1992. He lost to Diane Grendell, wife of the state senator and now a judge. Dolan switched parties and also "changed his stripes" on issues such as abortion and gun control, according to Ku. He won election in 2002 and re-election in 2004. In the latter year, some Democrats called for an investigation of the Dolan family for allegedly circumventing political contribution limits by funnelling money intended for individual candidates through the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, but the matter was not pursued.

Ku has been endorsed by Jim Mueller, a Russell Township Trustee and the last Democratic state representative in the district, as well as the Ohio Civil Services Employees Association, AFSCME Local 11, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, the Ohio Education Association Fund for Children and Public Education, Teamsters Ohio D.R.I.V.E., and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Ohio. Ku and his family will host an ice cream social at River Road Park in Bainbridge Township on Sunday, August 20th, from 3:00 to 6:00 pm. Swifty the Clown will entertain the kids and Ku will speak on issues that matter to the voters. RSVP to Janet Carson by email at janet-at-insurancediversified-dot-com.


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