Times Reporter

August 8, 2006

On his way out, GOP leaders praise Ney – Democrats trying to discredit Padgett

By Paul E. Kostyu and Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

COLUMBUS – In January, no Republican wanted to express an interest in replacing U.S. Rep. Bob Ney or talk about who should if he resigned or dropped his bid for re-election.

They knew “dancing on his grave” then could mean their own political death because of Ney’s power. Popular among constituents, Ney, R-Heath, even defied early private calls to step aside before the May primary by Republican Party leaders, including Ohio GOP Chairman Robert Bennett.

Now the embattled Ney is getting praise from party leaders. And of the two candidates named at the beginning of the year as contenders to replace Ney, state Sen. Joy Padgett, R-Coshocton, has emerged as the clear favorite over state Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark. Also in the running, however, is financial consultant James Brodbelt Harris of Zanesville, who challenged Ney in the May primary and received 32 percent of the vote.

Harris said the “race remains open. Rather than fighting out a problematic end game and putting our party’s hold on Congress in jeopardy, Ney will generously withdraw.”

“Bob Ney made a difficult decision on behalf of his family and his constituents, but it’s the right decision,” Bennett said. “He understands that it’s nearly impossible to run a full-time campaign under such intense scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have attacked Padgett for her connection to Ney and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

Notably silent, however, are key state leaders, including Taft, for whom Padgett worked as director of his Office of Appalachia before she was appointed to the Senate.

“We have nothing really to say,” said Taft spokesman Mark L. Rickel. “Congressman Ney was a good legislator, and the governor wishes him well.”

Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted, R-Kettering, refused to comment. Ohio Senate President Bill Harris, R-Ashland, and Hottinger did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Bennett said it is party policy not to endorse a non-incumbent in a primary election, though it is unclear yet whether there will be a need for one.

“We will follow the lead of our county party leaders in the district,” Bennett said. “If they are in agreement and wish to endorse a candidate, we will respect that decision and consult with the state committee.”

Democrats wasted no time trying to set the terms of the debate over the battle to succeed Ney.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, blasted Padgett for her connection to Taft, who was convicted last year of violating state ethics law, and for her being Ney’s hand-picked choice to succeed him.

“I think she will continue the rubber-stamping of President Bush’s agenda,” Ryan said. “This would be a continuation of everything that’s gone on in Washington – the culture of corruption, the cronyism and the incompetence.”

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said Ney was just one example of “cronyism problems fueled by one-party Republican rule in Washington, D.C., and Ohio.”

He called Ney the “poster child for the culture of corruption that emerged in Ohio and became a viral epidemic in Washington, D.C.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Ney’s withdrawal “welcome news in our fight to end the Republican culture of corruption, which continues to cost the American people at the gas pump, at the pharmacy and in their home energy bills.”

Top Republicans rallied around Padgett.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-West Chester, said he supported Padgett, who is serving in her first full term. “(She) is a hard-working and experienced public servant with a record of support for the issues closest to the people of her district,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, said Padgett has a “good chance” of winning in November. “She’s popular and a good campaigner and her Senate district overlaps much of his congressional district,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lisbon, the Democratic nominee for Ohio governor, said he didn’t think Ney’s decision would impact his race.

“I take no joy in what’s happened here,” he said. “He’s a fellow Appalachian and his background is not that terribly dissimilar to mine. In many ways, he was an effective congressman. “

Still, Strickland said, “people are sick and tired of the stink of arrogance of one-party rule and will vote for change” in November.

Strickland said he believes Ney got “considerable pressure” from Republican leaders to get out of the race because his Democratic opponent, Zack Space of Dover, was gaining in the polls and beating him in fundraising.

Ryan said Space now has an even better chance of winning.

“We’ve actually had a sitting member of Congress step down,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”

But Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, now is rating the race as a toss up after earlier saying it leaned Democratic if Ney stayed in the race.

“Padgett’s got a better shot of consolidating the natural Republican vote,” he said. “But this is a Democratic year in Ohio. There could be enough coat tails from Strickland to elect Space and several other Democratic candidates.”

Sabato criticized Space’s performance as a campaigner so far, saying he would be a “classical one-term wonder if he gets in.” But he said Padgett’s late start in the race will be a disadvantage.