Redfern/Bennett Road Show - Part Two
Four days ago I wrote a post about a panel discussion featuring ODP Chair Chris Redfern and ORP Chair Bob Bennett in Beachwood, Ohio on November 21st. That entry covered the introduction and opening remarks. This part reports on most of the question-and-answer session, including a few bombshells (like Bennett quantifying how many GOP
Alan Melamed started the Q & A by asking each to give the other party advice about how to proceed under the changed conditions of the next few years. Bennett advised Democrats that "when you control so many offices, you need to keep the in-fighting down." The problem stems not so much from the officeholders themselves as from their "agents," i.e., "hired help and campaign managers." It is "inevitable" to have "clashing ambitions" among these players, and the resulting squabbles and turf battles are counterproductive to governance. Redfern advised the Republicans to "serve with humility" and "listen to the people on Main Street first."
Redfern said of the next two years that "our work is not done." In 2008 there will be 16 Ohio Senate seats up for election, of which 16 are held by the Republicans and 6 of those are swing districts. In the Ohio House, 7 Republicans were elected or re-elected by less than 1,400 votes. Thus, the party plans to push hard to make more electoral gains. However, the two parties have the "shared goal" of "bringing jobs and attracting corporations to Ohio," so Redfern hopes the parties can advance a legislative agenda toward these ends. Bennett remarked that as painful as it may be to hear, "manufacturing jobs are not coming back." Ohio therefore needs to address jobs of the future." The "Third Frontier" initiative was a good start, he said.
Asked about the idea of bipartisan (or non-partisan) redistricting, Bennett issued a strikingly pointed denunciation of the current partisan redistricting process. Control of the Apportionment Board (which consists of the Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, and appointees of the majority and minority parties in the General Assembly) and the scientific use of computers to create precisely tailored districts "has not helped the Republican Party," he declared. "I have some complete idiots in those 75% Republican districts." There are better legislators in close districts than in districts packed with partisan voters of one stripe, he said, because in the latter kind the candidates "don't have to listen to anyone" to get elected. The bipartisan redistricting bill that was introduced into the Ohio House in 2005 (House joint Resolution 13), he said, could be a good bill "if tweaked." The problem with the Reform Ohio Now redistricting plan (defeated at the ballot box in 2005) was that competitiveness was the only criterion, at the expense of community of interest.
Redfern responded by attacking HJR 13 because the final arbiter would have been the Ohio Supreme Court, a body now staffed entirely by Republicans. Redfern said he hopes to push a three-part reform plan:
1) No elected officials on the Apportionment Board;Bennett shot back that 75% of the public opposes public financing of political campaigns, but Redfern replied that 75% opposed term limits. It takes "courage and political capital" to implement unpopular but needed reforms, he added.
2) Extend term limits from 8 to 12 years; and,
3) Public financing of General Assembly and Congressional races, because "we have to take the money out of this process."
On the topic of reforming how public education is financed, Redfern said he believes that Ohio deserves a public debate on the matter. As the legislature becomes closer, it is "easier to agree on 95% of issues," he said. It will be very difficult to fix school funding in 4 years (i.e., Strickland's first term), because "people don't want to pay more taxes." However, the state needs to put more money into education. What Ohio needs first, however, is "to have the discussion on how much we need to put in," a discussion that has not yet occurred. In response, Bennett made the odd point that previous Democratic tax increases have been sustained by Republicans during their control of state government, and said that the parties are going to have to work together to address the school funding problem.
Asked if negative campaigning has gone too far and how it could be curtailed, Bennett said that Republican ads were 80% negative and Democratic ads were 70% negative, and that the proportions probably would have been equal if you took Ted Strickland out (i.e, he was so far ahead he didn't need to run them). He pointed out that mailings are just as much of a problem as TV ads. (He also explained that political parties generally handle mailers on behalf of individual candidates because they get to use bulk mailing rates.) Bennett identified robo-calls as something that particularly needs to be controlled, but pointed out that they are mostly generated by independent groups. In general, Bennett expects negative ads to continue "because consultants say they work." He advocated a bipartisan panel to look into the issue of controlling negative ads.
Redfern made an interesting point, asking how many in the audience had donated to campaigns (nearly everyone) and asserting that contributors have an obligation to contact campaigns and express displeasure when their contributions are used for negative advertising. He said that he and Director of Operations David Duffey looked at each ad and piece of literature "with my name on it" (i.e., funded by the Ohio Democratic Party) to check that it was factual and "defensible back home." At that point Redfern launched into a rant against Bennett's suggestion that negative advertising is a problem shared equally by the parties (i.e., with his 80%/70% remark). The ODP was outspent by the ORP on Ohio House races by a ratio of 7:1, he said, and "80% of $7.2 million is a lot more than 70% of $1 million." He then alluded to particular Republican smear ads by joking that one thing he learned during this campaign is you can't run for office if you've "ever been a defense lawyer," or "have an Italian surname, or "certainly not if you are gay." Warming to his topic, he objected to the TV ad against State Auditor Barbara Sykes, an "outspoken African-American woman," for using tape of her in a debate saying that she was proud to have supported a tax increase supported by Gov. Bob Taft. Redfern noted that Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate Tom Raga voted for both of Taft's tax increases while Sykes only voted for one, implying that the film clip of Sykes was really used to highlight her race.
Bennett rejected the idea that the anti-Sykes ad was based on racial prejudice, and noted that he has recruited African American candidates to run for office. He said that the tax comment by Sykes was a legitimate subject for a political ad. Redfern then brought up the ugly ad run by the Republican Party against Ohio House candidate Dan Dodd, which juxtaposed a small image of the white Dodd with an enormous image of a black convict on death row and claimed that Dodd would release death row inmates like the convict into the community. Redfern demanded to know why there was no press conference by the GOP the day after that ad came out, denouncing it as atrocious.
Asked about the domination of the Ohio Republican Party by the far right, Bennett observed that "the great leveler is when you lose." He conceded that the far right can't win by itself, and that in this election the GOP lost independent and "soft Republican" votes. This, he said, is why most politicians move to the center when they switch from campaigning to governing. It is also why Bennett "hates primaries." Independent voters don't vote in primaries, so candidates are driven to the far right (or far left). Bennett agrees that the ORP has focused too much on social issues and not enough on fiscal issues. (To illustrate fiscal issues, he brought up retirees wanting to leave Ohio for Florida because of Ohio's burdensome taxes.) At this point Bennett said that he doesn't get involved in social issues the way "some of my colleagues do." He said that three, "maybe four," of his 88 County Republican Chairmen are gay and it has never bothered him. They are "among my best chairmen," he said.
Asked about partisanship on the part of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Redfern pointed out that Jennifer Brunner is committed to not being involved in any race (or issue campaign) while she holds that office. If she runs for re-election, she will appoint a "master" within the Secretary of State's office who will oversee elections without any direction from her. Bennett responded by saying that the 2006 election "reform" law House Bill 3 took the Secretary of State "out of the political arena" by prohibiting that official from acting as a campaign chairman. Bennett noted that he has served on two presidential commissions on the primary process, and that in almost every case Secretaries of State he has met have expressed admiration for Ohio's system of bipartisan election oversight. Ohio has the best election system in the country, he said, but it has been "trashed by activists who didn't like the outcome" of particular elections. "People don't want to recognize that there's no such thing as a perfect election," he said.
The next questioner referred to Ohio as having the third heaviest tax burden in the nation, and Redfern attacked that statistic as incorrect and misleading. Redfern said that he would oppose repealing the Ohio estate tax or cutting it back to federal limits, but would instead support tax cuts that benefit the working class and middle class. Bennett said that the Ohio estate tax should be made consistent with the federal estate tax, as other states have done. He again brought up retirees who move to Florida because of the difference in tax burdens (Florida has no income tax), and suggested that the impact of losing seniors is very great because Ohio loses their charitable giving. At that point someone in the audience pointed out that "you can't change the weather," and thus that people will continue to go to Florida to retire even if the tax code is altered.
I had to miss the tail end of the program. Jill has some interesting comments about it here.
[Cross-posted at Ohio Daily Blog]