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Performance Outweighs Lapses in Ethics for Many Ohio Voters

Chicago Tribune

Along Main Street, just about anyone older than 45 remembers Wayne Hays, the powerful Democratic congressman forced to resign his seat three decades ago after it was disclosed that he had hired a young woman on his Washington staff to do one thing: be his mistress.

Elizabeth Ray, the aide and soon-to-be trivia game answer who famously admitted she couldn’t type, was the beginning of the political end for Hays. The final nail in Hays’ coffin, though, was hammered by a young public safety director from nearby Bellaire named Bob Ney, who once defeated Hays for a state legislative seat and eventually took over Hays’ congressional district and his influential House committee.

But now, Ney appears to be in the early stages of adopting his predecessor’s legacy of scandal.

The six-term Republican, implicated but not indicted in the spreading influence-peddling investigation involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury digging into his reported acceptance of gifts from lobbyists in exchange for legislative favors.

“It sounds to me like he’s dishonest,” said Donna Shidell, a clerk at a downtown pharmacy, reacting with dismay like many here to a steady stream of news about corruption and how Ney figures into it.

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Corruption is hardly unique to Ohio. A California congressman, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, last month admitted accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes.

And Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the former House majority leader, was indicted in September on money-laundering charges. DeLay is also a focus of the Abramoff investigation.

But the sheer volume of corruption in Ohio, a state that helped decide the 2004 presidential election, offers a testing ground for the public tolerance of corruption as the midterm elections approach. Democrats are sizing up the state as an opportunity to improve their fortunes nationally in 2006.

Ohio’s governor, Republican Bob Taft, pleaded no contest in August to felony charges that he failed to report gifts and golf outings from lobbyists. An ongoing investigation related to more than $50 million in state financial losses from a rare-coin investment venture has already damaged Ohio Republicans, who control nearly every statewide office but now feel vulnerable. According to one published report, senior Ohio Republican officials decided to demand Ney’s resignation if he was indicted.

Nationally, Democrats are trying to exploit the Republicans’ legal and ethical lapses with the chorus of a “culture of corruption.” Late last week, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana said he would return about $150,000 in donations he had received from Abramoff, his clients and associates. This week, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said he was giving away $42,000 in similar donations.

The Abramoff probe has touched several Democrats too. Sens. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana have returned more than $85,000 in donations from individuals and organizations with ties to Abramoff.

In Ohio, Ney has repeatedly said he will be exonerated. But his connections to Abramoff have fanned, for some, a perception of guilt and provoked discussions of how much corruption can and should be tolerated.

“He’s always been there for the steel mill workers,” said Robyn Durante, a clerk at a flower shop. “I don’t think he could ever be voted out of office, because Bob is always there for the people of the valley.”

In the last two decades, coal mining and factory jobs have drained from the eastern area of Ney’s vast congressional district, the largest in the state. Ney has backed quotas on foreign steel and has opposed normal trade relations with China.

Jeannie Goletz, a bookkeeper at the shop, says she chooses not to read the stories about Ney because she does not want to believe they are true. She says the good things Ney has done for the district should outweigh the negatives, whatever they are.

Although this may not qualify as a blanket willingness to forgive, it is a recognition of the political reality that performance usually trumps ethics.

Years of allegations and a subsequent indictment of then-Rep. James Traficant, a Democrat of Youngstown, did not derail his 18-year congressional career. It ended only after Traficant’s 2002 conviction on bribery, tax evasion and racketeering charges, and his ouster from the House. He is serving eight years in a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

“People here still talk fondly of Jim Traficant. Virtually all of the positives of downtown Youngstown are due to Traficant,” said Paul Sracic, a professor of political science at Youngstown State University.

“In Ohio, people think of their member of Congress as someone who should bring home the bacon. As long as you’re doing that, you’ll be doing well,” Sracic said.

The risk for Ney, Sracic said, is that the gifts he allegedly accepted -- including a golf outing to the fabled St. Andrews course in Scotland -- could “play right into the worst allegations of country club Republicanism, and that doesn’t play well in blue-collar Ohio.”


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