Saturday, August 04, 2007

Jack Gilligan Retires from Politics

Eighty-six year old former governor of Ohio, John Gilligan, is retiring from the Cincinnati School Board, fifty-four years after first seeking elective office. In a career that included teaching English at Xavier University and Politics at Notre Dame, as well as a term in Congress and a stint as head of the US Agency for International Development, Gilligan once had realistic hopes for a White House bid.

But, in a move for which some Ohioans have still not forgiven him, he imposed a state spending austerity program, most notoriously including a shutdown of the state's parks to camping and fishing, and in 1974, he lost in his re-election bid by only 11,000-votes statewide.

Still, Gilligan might have won re-election in 1974 and credibly run for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination had he not been pitted against perhaps the savviest politician in Ohio history, Jim Rhodes.

Rhodes had done much for the state and was extremely popular. He was prohibited from seeking a third consecutive term in 1970, the year when Gilligan was elected to the governorship.

It should be said that had Rhodes been eligible, he might not have won anyway. Just before the May, 1970 primary, in which Rhodes was a candidate for the GOP nomination for the US Senate, Ohio National Guardsmen were called onto the campus of Kent State University. Rhodes bore much of the public blame for the tragic deaths of four KSU students memorialized in a famous Neil Young's song.

As a result, his fellow Republicans spurned Rhodes, nominating Robert Taft, great-grandson of a 19th-century US Secretary of War, grandson of a President and Supreme Court chief justice, son of the 1940s-50s US Senate minority leader, and father of the Bob Taft whose recent gubernatorial tenure came to a bad end.

During his 1971 to 1975 tenure as governor, Gilligan pushed through and successfully defended the first state income tax. That made his austerity program all the more difficult for some Ohioans to swallow.

But it turned out that, while dramatically enhancing life in Ohio with new highways, vocational and techincal schools, new businesses, and airports, Jim Rhodes had also been exhausting state resources. The state was nearly broke. Gilligan's income tax probably saved the state treasury. But an austerity program that may have had a few touches of the cosmetic cost him re-election and consideration for the presidency.

It's often little things that trip up a candidate headed for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, things that in other times, might be overlooked. But Jim Rhodes' expansion of the state's park system had given Ohioans recreational and vacation options they wouldn't have otherwise enjoyed. Closing those parks steamed a lot of voters.

Of course, there's no way of knowing whether it was Gilligan's austerity program, his income tax, or what else caused Ohioans to spurn him in 1974. It's harder to identify the reasons for a political loss when it comes by a whisker than when it's by a furlong.

John Gilligan was one of the most eloquent speakers and intelligent people to become governor of Ohio.

[Also, see here.]

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