COLUMBUS, Ohio – He’s the enforcer of an archaic rule requiring voter registration forms to be printed on 80-pound paper. He’s been accused of trying to suppress the black vote by rejecting ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
But on Nov. 2, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell – and obscure officials like him in other key states around the country – will decide which votes count, in a race where every vote counts.
And because the race in Ohio between President Bush and John Kerry is too close to call, Blackwell could easily become the next Katherine Harris. Harris was the Florida secretary of state whose rulings in the 2000 recount helped give Bush a narrow electoral victory over Al Gore. Blackwell could end up in a similar position in this swing state, where the margin of victory for either Kerry or Bush could be so small that it is a matter of dispute.
Critics view Blackwell – a conservative black Republican who has crusaded against everything from taxes to gay marriage – as a willing pawn of the GOP. “It’s important to point out that Secretary Blackwell was sworn to uphold and defend the constitution, not the Republican Party,” said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. “He has a constitutional obligation to try to find a way to increase the ability of people to exercise their rights to vote and not decrease them.”
But a look at his past, his record and his ambitions reveals Blackwell as more maverick than pawn, willing to take on anyone – Republican or Democrat, black or white – who gets in his way.
“If you get pushed around,” says Blackwell, “people will just push you around more.”
A former college football star, Blackwell lived as a child in public housing in Cincinnati’s inner-city West End. Steve Reece, a businessman who went to elementary school with him, remembers Blackwell facing down bullies who took other kids’ lunch money. “If you take him on, he’s going to fight,” Reece said.
Blackwell carried that take-no-prisoners style into politics. He knocked Ralph Nader off the Ohio ballot, which could help Democrats. He enraged state Republicans by trying to undo a penny sales tax they’d enacted to balance the budget.
But it’s his rulings on how voters are registered, and where they can vote, that have caused the most controversy
The “80-pound paper” regulation, requiring voter registration forms to be printed on heavy stock, was proof-positive to some of his critics that he was out to suppress the vote. Blackwell said the rule – an old law that had not previously been enforced – would ensure that registrations were not shredded by postal equipment. But he eventually backed off and instructed election boards to accept all forms they received.
He also successfully fought for the right to disregard provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. These ballots are backups for voters whose names do not appear on the rolls. Democrats believe they should be accepted as long as they are cast in the right county.
Initially, a U.S. district judge ruled against Blackwell, saying he “apparently seeks to accomplish the same result in Ohio in 2004 that occurred in Florida in 2000.”
But on Oct. 23, a federal appeals court decided the case in Blackwell’s favor, ruling that the provisional ballots Ohio voters cast outside the precincts where they live should not be counted.
Blackwell dismisses concerns over the issue, saying, “A lot of folks are creating a mountain crisis out of a molehill. Most of the voters will know where to vote and how to vote.”
Democrats fear black voters will be disproportionately disenfranchised by the restriction because they are more likely to be poor and more likely to have moved since registering to vote.
“Clearly, blacks are being targeted in these suppression schemes,” said Jesse Jackson, speaking in Cleveland earlier this month. Jackson went so far as to use Blackwell’s name in the same sentence as Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham, Ala., police commissioner who turned fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights marchers in 1963.
Blackwell bristles at any suggestion that he has hurt black voters. “This assumption that minorities and low-income people should be treated as mentally challenged siblings is just insulting,” Blackwell said. “The last time I checked I was African-American and proud of it, and secondly, I came from very modest means.”
Blackwell lived in the Laurel Homes housing project until his father, a meatpacker, saved enough money to buy a home. In a 1994 interview with The Columbus Dispatch, Blackwell said his father told him: “We’re not poor. Poverty is as much a state of mind as a state of pocketbook.”
On a football scholarship at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and served as president of the Black Student Association, complete with afro.
Blackwell was drafted for a short stint by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s, then went on to be a college professor, university vice president, bank director and a human rights ambassador to the United Nations. He met his wife Rosa in the fourth grade; they married as students at Xavier and have three grown children.
Blackwell is a great-nephew of DeHart Hubbard, the first black athlete to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Hubbard set a record with a long jump at the 1924 Paris games that stood until Jesse Owens broke it in 1936. But Hubbard also graduated with honors from the University of Michigan – a fact Blackwell’s father always emphasized when describing Hubbard’s feats, Blackwell told the Dispatch.
Blackwell’s mentors included Republican Jack Kemp, a former Buffalo Bills quarterback, who hired Blackwell as a deputy when he ran the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Blackwell also served on the Cincinnati City Council before becoming the city’s mayor. He was the first black to hold statewide office in Ohio when he was elected state treasurer in 1992, and he’s made no secret of his desire to become governor in 2006.
Blackwell’s imposing 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame makes it easy to imagine his football days – even if, at age 56, he is starting to thicken around the middle. A sprinkling of freckles on his face give him a boyish look, while his frequent references to the philosophies of famous men – from W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. to Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Swift – lend an erudite air.
He’s proud of his intransigence on issues he feels strongly about. “I am not a go-along to get-along guy when you’re talking about policies and practices and decisions that double-cross the taxpayers and voters,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell says he became a Republican the year President Reagan was elected, but his ideology actually puts him further right than the moderate Republicans who tend to dominate Ohio politics. He’s even delivered campaign speeches with a Bible in his hand, speaking of the “centrality of God in the life of our nation.”
He supports a flat tax, and he’s cut radio ads in support of a referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot to outlaw same-sex unions, upsetting players in both parties. Democrats worry the referendum will boost turnout among conservatives; Republicans fear that if it passes, it could hurt the state’s efforts to recruit and retain high-tech workers.
As a black conservative and chief election official in a battleground state, Blackwell is much sought-after by the national media. He’s appeared frequently on Fox, MSNBC, NPR and other outlets, and makes no apologies for pushing his agenda – or himself.
“People didn’t put me in office to be a wallflower,” he said.