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The Governor's Sub-rosa Plot to Subvert an Election in Ohio


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       Ohio Governor Bob Taft and the highest reaches of his administration have embarked on a concerted, months-long effort to subvert the state's electoral process. With overall control of budgets, jobs and sentencing policy at stake, the Taft administration has organized a sophisticated, sub-rosa campaign to defeat a drug treatment rather than incarceration amendment likely to appear on the ballot in November. Starting last spring, Gov. Taft himself, First Lady Hope Taft, his chief of staff, Brian Hicks, two of his cabinet members and numerous senior and support staff have - while on the clock, ostensibly serving the public - conceived and directed a partisan political campaign.

       A four-month long Institute for Policy Studies investigation by freelance journalist Daniel Forbes details political malfeasance, the misuse of public funds and the inappropriate use of government resources in Ohio. The effort has been aided by federal officials, including President Bush's publicly announced nominee to be deputy director of the White House drug czar's office (since confirmed), and a senior U.S. Senate staffer. The drug czars of Florida and Michigan and a senior Drug Enforcement Administration agent also participated in the scheme.

       Ohio officials consulted with and enlisted the aid of the wife of the former finance chair of the Republican National Committee, who herself has played a key political role for Jeb Bush, as well as several taxpayer-supported, staunch anti-drug organizations, including the supposedly apolitical Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

       The Partnership was slated to produce TV ads to sway public opinion in favor of the Ohio drug-policy status quo. Its four top executives advised the Taft administration during a day-long strategy session hosted by that Senate staffer and held in the U.S. Capitol building itself. A representative of New York-based treatment provider Phoenix House and one from the federally supported Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America also attended.

       A mid-October strategy session held at the governor's residence in Columbus was attended by 19 senior officials and private executives from Ohio, Michigan and Florida. (A similar referendum will likely be on the ballot in Michigan; in Florida, proponents have postponed their effort.) Obtained through Ohio's Freedom of Information process, a five-page memo summarizing the day's thinking features such overt political exhortations as: "Beat the Initiative back in the entire country, not just in each state."

       Ohio spent $106 million on "community-based treatment" in FY 2000; overall control of vast sums of money and vast numbers of jobs underlies the political struggle. One Ohio official worried that the state will lose both "its ability to control sentencing policy" and "control of its own budget."

       The effort has entailed hundreds of staff-hours of state-paid time. Last fall, Ohio's first lady, cabinet officials and senior staffers in the governor's office attended weekly strategy sessions on the public's dime. State funds paid for out of town trips and overnight lodging, and the administration even proposed to divert U.S. Department of Justice crime-fighting grants to fund their nascent campaign's eventual polling, focus groups and advertising.

       Modeled on a similar measure, Proposition 36, that passed overwhelmingly in California in 2000, the Ohio amendment proposes to offer treatment rather than prison to defendants charged with a first or second instance of simple drug possession. Judges may approve a few other types of nonviolent offender, but typically any crime beyond possession precludes participation. The measure is backed by the same rich trio - billionaires, George Soros and Peter Lewis, and multimillionaire John Sperling - who have successfully financed drug reform initiatives since 1996, including Prop. 36, and several medical marijuana measures.

       Should the Taft effort succeed, it will work to maintain the Ohio status quo of incarcerating a disproportionate number of racial minorities for possessing small, personal use amounts of drugs. According to Ohio State Senator, Robert F. Hagan, though an estimated 13% of Ohio's drug users are African-American, "77 percent of the people sent to prison for drug possession last year were black. This brings shame to us all."

       The revelations from Ohio question the probity of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which partners with the White House in a controversial, nearly $2-billion (total-value) anti-drug advertising and media content campaign. The media campaign has recently come under attack from Drug Czar John P. Walters himself as being ineffectual.
Its second, five-year appropriation is currently under consideration in Congress. As the Drug Czar foists the equation that Drugs = Terrorism upon the land, will Congress now take another look at a program whose private strategic partner, the PDFA, was willing to insert itself improperly into an election in Ohio?

       Inertia, resentment of liberal outsiders trying to force change, money-and-jobs turf protecting and both state and national political calculation explain much of the Taft administration effort. Yet, the administration also seems to think the very citizens who elected it possess scant faculties to decide for themselves. So it endeavored to keep the amendment from the ballot. Such contempt towards the electorate serves only to erode faith in democracy. As previously proven in print and discussed in the report, the White House has at least indirectly meddled with state ballot initiatives for years. In fact, the effort in Ohio is just a more sophisticated - and wildly blatant - manifestation of the sort of public funding of partisan drug-war politicking that has long befouled the nation's electoral landscape.

New York freelancer Daniel Forbes ([email protected]) writes on politics and social policy. He testified before both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives regarding his series in Salon on sub rosa White House payments rewarding anti-drug content in the media. He subsequently detailed the paid media campaign's origins as an attempt to influence voters on state medical marijuana initiatives. (See: Fighting "Cheech and Chong" Medicine, Salon, 7/27/00.)


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