Better Off Ted 

Last year Ted Strickland said he wouldn't run for governor. Now we need him to.

Fund-raising is probably Ted Strickland's least favorite thing. This afternoon at the Euclid library, it's his job to tell a few dozen politicians, labor reps, and interest groups why he should be Ohio's next governor, and his words manage only to limp forward.

"We are reaching the point in Ohio where class matters, in terms of affording higher education," Strickland says and then pauses uncertainly. In 10 minutes at the podium, he has mustered little excitement and even less momentum. With regular folks, he never hesitates, never stumbles. He'll spin off anecdotes and one-liners effortlessly, gesturing for emphasis as he paces the stage.

The guy is damn near an institution in his southeastern Ohio district, where poverty runs rampant, and where Strickland is viewed by voters as one of their own. The local boy who has made very good, he's now six terms into a congressional career that's been marked by nary a whiff of scandal or impropriety. In Ohio politics, that's batting 1.000.

He takes pride in not sloughing off his duties in Washington, where he usually spends each Tuesday through Thursday, before racing back to Ohio to keep up appearances. The rigorous schedule is bound to sap his energy, and today in Euclid, before a friendly crowd hungering for a candidate to support, Strickland is flat.

After the speech, he shakes off his sluggishness, chatting with anyone who approaches him in a corner of the room. When the occasion calls for it, he'll pick up little kids and play the old-fashioned politician's game. But conjuring a larger-than-life personality or dominating conversation isn't in the Strickland playbook.

"Ted's a throwback to the way congressmen used to be, when you would have the farmer, the commoner, run for Congress and never lose touch with the people," says Rich Stoner, a friend and former co-worker of Strickland's.

Put another way: "Strickland is a liberal, but he's good at hiding it," says Mike Azinger, Strickland's Republican challenger in 2000.

Strickland has two months before the May primary to see that all of Ohio knows his name the way his congressional district has for years. The challenge is nothing Strickland hasn't overcome before. After all, he didn't make it to Congress by going through the usual channels in the first place. He's not a lawyer or a businessman, and he's certainly not a career politician. He's been a prison psychologist, a minister, a professor, a director of a children's home. In 1992, he became the first Democrat in 34 years to get elected in his district. And it took a lot of work -- including three failed campaigns in the 1970s -- to convince voters he'd be on their side. Now that he's running for Ohio's top office, he can't win people over the way he did in Appalachia -- he can't meet them all. But he might not need to.

Outgoing Governor Bob Taft boasts approval ratings comparable to malaria, while the Republicans dueling to succeed him, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Attorney General Jim Petro, are slinging mud while fending off ties to scandals of their own.

For once, Ohio Democrats don't need a miracle worker to win. Somebody who can gain the ears of moderates and conservatives will do fine; someone with actual convictions wouldn't hurt. Observers say you can't hold statewide office until you've been defeated in the attempt. But Strickland might be the guy to break the mold. Lord knows, Ohio needs him to.

By the time Strickland found politics, he had already accumulated a lifetime of experience, albeit not the variety most common to lawmakers.

He grew up on Duck Run Road in Lucasville, 10 miles north of the Kentucky border. Dad was a steelworker, and the money was stretched thin, thanks to the Great Depression, the Ohio River flood that devastated southern Ohio in 1937, and a fire a few years later that destroyed the Strickland family home, forcing them to live in a chicken shack until the barn could be converted into a dwelling. Ted was the youngest of nine children.

"It seems like in our family, when tragedy happened, everyone looked to Ted," says his brother Roger. "If he was there, they felt it would be OK."

The Stricklands weren't religious, but Ted became involved in church activities by his early teens, taking missionary trips to Austria and the Bahamas, where he delivered his first sermon in an infirmary. In 1963, he became the first Strickland to complete college. He added a master's of divinity degree four years later, then was appointed minister at a Methodist church in Portsmouth. When he arrived, he posted a phrase on the bulletin board: "Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever color you are, you are welcome at this church."

"I spent a lot of my time trying to reach out to different groups in the community," Strickland recalls. "I was concerned that my work in the church should reflect what I perceived to be the teachings in the New Testament -- that you should be concerned with helping other people and the poor and the dispossessed."

He was eventually reassigned to the Kentucky United Methodist Children's Home, where he helped what had been merely a custodial facility become more active in matching children with adoptive families. While there, he enrolled in the doctoral counseling program at the University of Kentucky, where he met his wife, Frances.

Among the moments that stand out in his memory was a pilgrimage he led to the nation's capital. "I took a yellow school bus with about 19 of those kids on a trip to D.C.," he says, laughing as he recalls the difficulty of navigating the city and keeping track of his eager tourists. "I was young and didn't know any better." But he remembered well the trip he had taken as a schoolboy -- the only real trip he had taken anywhere. It planted the seeds of his interest in politics, which were nurtured by the events of his years in college.

"The civil rights movement, as it unfolded in earlier years. The Vietnam War and its impact upon me and on the country. The Nixon administration and Watergate episode and all that. I just think all those things were causing a change within me and sparked an interest within me."

Though his passion for politics developed over time, there was a moment of sudden recognition. "I recall lying in bed one night, reading a Time or a Newsweek -- one of those magazines -- and thinking to myself, 'I can do this,'" he says with a laugh. "I had no clue. I didn't know the boundaries of the district. I didn't do anything in politics except vote."

To Strickland, entering politics was merely a logical extension of his hands-on work during missionary trips or at the children's home -- a chance to make a bigger difference. His family saw it differently.

"He said, 'I'm coming home to run for Congress,' and our mouths all flew open, because we didn't have any money," says Helen Hurst, Ted's oldest sister.

Attaching plywood election signs to his pickup truck, Roger and Ted drove to every town parade they could find, while the sisters wooed voters door to door. It was a modest effort, and it yielded only modest results: Strickland got pounded in three straight elections, from 1976 through 1980.

Feeling the sting of defeat, he left politics to resume post-doctoral studies, while holding counseling workshops in the Columbus area on such topics as holiday depression. One session was attended by employees of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, the maximum-security prison in Strickland's hometown of Lucasville. They told him the prison needed a counseling psychologist and offered Strickland the job. "It wasn't something that I planned to do," he admits. "Life kind of unfolds. Sometimes one experience leads to other experiences."

But Lucasville changed Strickland. He began working there just one day a week, but gradually increased his time. Today, talk of the prison elicits his most passionate memories, his most animated conversation. Rather than explaining what drew him to working with inmates, he darts from anecdote to anecdote, using each one to capture something he can't seem to explain otherwise. He talks about the need for psychiatric care broadly, then narrows it down to an HIV-positive inmate he counseled, who went through fits of self-abuse and threatened other inmates. Spending time with him daily, Strickland helped the man address his problems through art.

Strickland remained at Lucasville for more than a decade, even after becoming an assistant professor of psychology at Shawnee State University in 1989. Juggling the two jobs forced him to manage vastly different experiences simultaneously -- on the same day, he often counseled inmates and undergraduates alike. Prisoners, though, were the real test. "I think, when you work with a population that is that difficult," he says, "it gives you a sense of confidence that you can deal with about any situation you find yourself in."

In November 1992, on his fourth try, Strickland won his first term in Congress.

At Paul's Restaurant, a bustling mom-and-pop just a few miles outside Columbus, nobody is paying much attention to Strickland, though he's the only guy in sight wearing a suit on this Saturday morning. It's just past nine, and he has two campaign stops on the schedule.

Between forkfuls of eggs, Strickland expresses dismay at the way religion has increasingly encroached upon politics. "I think it's OK to talk about values," he says, creases forming below his sandy hair as his eyebrows rise. "But I get uncomfortable, and think we should be uncomfortable, if religious views are used in a way that's divisive."

Strickland doesn't want to exploit his faith. Even during extended speeches, he mentions religion only in passing. He'd rather talk about the future and what he wants to accomplish as governor. "I think the first thing we need to do is respect people who feel deeply, regardless of the issue."

Strickland's lifelong home in Scioto County might not be the deepest red on the electoral map, but it's part of a red swath that sweeps across southern Ohio. Democrats don't usually fare well in these parts: Taft won Scioto in 2002, as did George Voinovich and George Bush in 2004. Yet Strickland has held his seat for six of the last seven terms, winning his last three in routs and running unopposed in 2004.

"For eight years I represented a district that was hugely Republican, and they voted for me in many cases knowing full well that certain views [of mine] were different from theirs," Strickland says. "But I hope they knew that I cared for them and was going to work for them."

Strickland won support by keeping his focus close to home. He expanded health insurance for children of the impoverished and the working poor, and he led the federal government to an about-face on the issue of radiation exposure among workers at an energy plant in Piketon. He won respect from liberals with his vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iraq war, both of which ran counter to political tides when they were cast.

But he's always had enough in common with Republican voters to keep them listening. He's a friend of the National Rifle Association, and he supported a ban on "partial-birth" abortions. In an era when personal morality keeps conservative campaign coffers filled, being a minister doesn't hurt Strickland either.

"People going down the Republican ticket will cross over to the other side because of the values he shows through practice, not just talk," says Stoner.

"It's that combination of personal love of the people he represents and the spine that people respect, even if they disagree with him," says Washington State Congressman Jay Inslee, who shares an apartment in D.C. with Strickland. "I think people can accept differences of opinion, as long as you attempt to understand their point of view."

A few hundred folks have packed the Commercial Building near the back of the Scioto County Fairgrounds for Strickland's 64th birthday party, a Lucasville tradition since 1992.

The festivities aren't strictly political or family. Bouquets of red, white, and blue balloons decorate covered picnic tables, and grandmotherly women cut endless slices of birthday cake. Once the food lines have thinned, Strickland bounds into the room, smiling broadly, exchanging greetings, and shaking hands as he makes his way to the low stage at the front. Hardly a person misses the chance to greet him.

Strickland's voice crackles with energy this time, his words peppered with references his longtime supporters pick up -- talk of a difficult childhood and of the lessons learned through failed campaigns. But even when he's hammering away at Taft, Strickland's measured tones and easygoing humility soften the well-aimed blows. He's mastered the art of values talk, too, relating his personal narrative and convictions. Occasionally he'll indulge in pulpit-style rhetorical flourishes; it's something he can get away with, especially in front of hometown crowds. He's earned their trust.

But today, even at his own party, Strickland plays only the second fiddle. A few minutes after he takes the stage, his wife joins him with her acoustic guitar, and she begins to strum gently.

"Republicans, Republicans, will you vote for Ken Blackwell?" sings Frances, whose prim appearance and mannerisms suggest a less Stepford-style version of Laura Bush. The lyrics slide from Blackwell to Jim Petro to onetime candidate Betty Montgomery, taking soft jabs at all three. At the end of each line, she implores Republicans to vote for her husband. Hoots of approval rise from the crowd.

This isn't the year Ted Strickland had in mind. For months in early 2005, rumors swirled that he would run for Ohio's top job. As early as November 2004, he was introduced to a crowd in Athens as "Ohio's next governor." But Strickland said no. Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman was already in the running and had garnered early momentum -- particularly in urban areas, the source of most primary voters.

Then in May, Strickland suddenly reversed course. With Republicans bickering amid growing accusations of scandal, the door opened wide for a Democrat with a clean slate. To Strickland, it was time to step away from gay marriage and other controversial issues, which are good for firing up interest groups, but score no points with everyday voters. "We've been fighting about things that have little to do with the lives of most people," he says.

In entering the race, he surrendered a congressional seat that seemed likely to be his for as long as he wanted it and took up instead a tireless schedule of campaigning. If Strickland was a hero to a sliver of rural Ohio, he was still a nobody to just about everyone else.

Meanwhile, Coleman's candidacy was troubled almost from the start. In April, he got into an on-air argument with syndicated radio host Glen Beck. One of his top advisers was arrested for drunken driving; then Coleman's wife was picked up for the same offense. If those demons didn't revisit Coleman in the primary, they surely would in a November run. Though polls had him in a dead heat with Strickland, Coleman jumped out of the race in December.

A few weeks later, state Senator Eric Fingerhut, crushed by George Voinovich in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, entered the ring. But it was already too late: Strickland was gaining momentum by the day. He had already shored up support in Cleveland and Ohio's other big cities, where for years the name "Ted Strickland" might have been mistaken for an infielder in the Tribe's farm system. Less than a month after entering the race, Fingerhut dropped out, citing funding problems and noting that many of his longtime backers had already endorsed Strickland.

The down-home preacher from downstate has rallied support in unlikely places. "He's not well known, but he's gotten people excited in Cleveland," says John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO. "So many groups that would [normally] not get committed to someone from southern Ohio are not only committed, but enthusiastic. The last time I saw someone making this much progress this early was 1981, Dick Celeste."

Indeed, Strickland's odds of winning look better than any Democrat's since Celeste. That's thanks in part to Republican scandals and backbiting, and to the fact that Strickland has built up the largest war chest in the state. But Strickland is also the only Ohio Democrat to pull together anything remotely resembling a vision that will appeal to more than his own fan club.

He's pushing what he calls his "Turnaround Ohio" package, designed to lift the state from the lower rungs of economic and educational rankings. His focus is on early childhood education and health care, citing studies that show that investment in early years helps to avert health, educational, and behavioral problems -- not to mention further government spending -- down the road.

"We have no choice but to face the State of Ohio's education system, as it has been declared unconstitutional," he says. "This problem must be solved if we want Ohio to have a future, if we want our economy to thrive." The state's dependence on local and industrial property taxes to fund schools leads to inequality, he says, and the only way to fix it is to distribute the money more evenly at the state level.

On the job front, he's announced a plan to make $250 million of tax-exempt bonds available each year for private investment in "next generation" energy technology, which he says will create an estimated 22,000 new jobs.

Strickland knows that his ideas are likely to face opposition from the Republican-controlled legislature, but he also knows that he must float moderate plans if he wants both sides to listen -- something he's already achieved in Congress, most notably in his battle for the irradiated energy-plant workers in his district.

Strickland has earned a reputation as a clean campaigner, which seems almost a waste, in light of his scandal-plagued opposition. But even his Republican opponents can't help but like the guy. "I think a great deal of him," says Bob McEwen, who beat Strickland in 1980, then lost to him in 1992. "I would consider him a friend. He cares passionately about government, and he has a good heart."

And as the May primary draws nearer, Strickland is gaining confidence. "I think I can actually win this election as a Democrat," he says. And he might be right. A recent poll shows Strickland beating both Blackwell and Petro in head-to-head matchups.

It's the Morgan County Hog Roast in Stockport, and Strickland is campaigning again at another 15-bucks-a-plate dinner. Depending on the event, his wardrobe varies between Mr. Rogers sweaters, collared shirts, and stylish -- but never slick -- suits. This should have been a collared-shirt day. But even in his finest hog-roast formalwear, Strickland still looks every bit the prison counselor, every bit the minister. There's no flash, no razzle-dazzle -- just an unmistakable earnestness.

The hog roast is in the dining room of an old waterwheel-run mill that's been converted to a bed-and-breakfast. There are representatives from the board of elections to demonstrate the new voting machines, but most in the crowd seem like regular Joes and Janes, just there to hear Strickland sell himself.

Today, he's in top form, weaving between tables as his words flow breezily. He vows to stay away from divisive social topics, promising to focus on the "bread-and-butter" issues. Toward the end, he brings the policy talk to a close with an anecdote about the time he met a Cleveland banker who suggested that the retirement age should be raised 10 years to take the strain off Social Security.

That would be fine for bankers and congressmen, Strickland told the man. But it wouldn't work for everyone.

"You can't finish concrete when you're 75 years old," he says, as if delivering a punch line.

All around the room, Joes and Janes nod in agreement. They know exactly what he means.

More by Josh Mound


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