Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: Ohio Republicans say they’re pulling the gloves off as they seek to retain U.S. Sen. Rob Portman this fall, and that means revisiting more of the record of Democratic former Gov. Ted Strickland.
At the center of Republicans’ new web ad campaign announced Monday is a largely forgotten scandal on prison workers at the Governor’s Residence that all but evaporated when Strickland lost re-election in 2010.
The party is also revisiting a controversy over Strickland’s use of state-issued airplanes to shuttle him short distances in Columbus.
Republicans have already been hammering Strickland on job losses while the Democrat was governor, and the reduction of the state’s rainy day fund to 89 cents while he was in office.
“Strickland is the definition of incompetence and cronyism in government, and we plan to ensure that every Ohioan with a TV, mailbox, tablet, iPhone or laptop knows it,” Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges said in a statement.
The online ads follow months of Democratic ads tweaking Portman for failing to distance himself from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and accusing Portman of favoring trade deals with China that cost U.S. jobs.
Strickland spokesman David Bergstein said Republicans are misrepresenting Strickland’s record in order to distract from Portman’s agenda of policies favoring the rich and powerful over working people.
“Senator Portman can’t defend his career spent championing job killing trade deals that have cost Ohio over 300,000 jobs to places like China, his efforts to raise the retirement age for seniors and cut education funding for students, or the fact that he’s bragging about a drug abuse prevention bill he voted against funding — so Republicans are throwing out wildly false claims as a pathetic attempt at a distraction,” he said.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 11 showed Portman leading Strickland 49 percent to 40 percent.
Events leading to controversy over the prison workers began when individuals in Strickland’s administration decided in early 2010 to cancel a scheduled sting operation at the governor’s residence. At issue was an “honor inmate” program that employed low-security prisoners at various household and grounds-keeping jobs for 50 years.
How and why the bust was aborted became the subject of intense questioning amid concerns it was obstructed for political purposes. Then-Public Safety Director Cathy Collins-Taylor was found responsible for the decision in a state watchdog’s investigation, though she and others close to her told another story.
Collins-Taylor’s was among three resignations resulting from ensuing investigations. Additional fallout, much of it after Strickland’s defeat and departure from office, also included a reprimand, a suspension and one person’s criminal conviction.
Meanwhile, had the operation been carried out as planned, the wife of an inmate working at the governor’s suburban mansion — instructed in a letter to drop a “six-pack” of contraband cigarettes at the property’s perimeter for her husband to smuggle behind bars — would have been arrested in what was later deemed to be “a safe, routine and well-devised law enforcement plan.” Cigarettes had become coveted contraband inside Ohio’s prisons after smoking was banned statewide in 2006.
The suspect had been scheduled to be intercepted on Jan. 10, 2010, the same night Strickland, his chief of staff John Haseley and Haseley’s 8-year-old daughter were scheduled to dine with astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn and his wife, Annie. Collins-Taylor later said she wanted to spare the governor political embarrassment should the operation go awry.
Strickland and two key advisers were cleared of playing any direct role in aborting the sting. Nonetheless, critics and editorialists at the time faulted his judgment in overseeing the inmate program and in picking Cabinet officers such as Collins-Taylor.
Exacerbating the political headache for Strickland, he hadn’t yet submitted Collins-Taylor’s appointment as Ohio’s safety director to the Republican-led state Senate for confirmation. That allowed the chamber to hold explosive public hearings on the matter that ended with her resignation.
The honor inmate program at the residence, suspended after another breach following the botched sting, has never been re-started.