Tags: Bob Bennett | Republican | GOP | chairman | Ohio

The Last Boss: Remembering Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett

By Thursday, 11 December 2014 09:34 PM Current | Bio | Archive

It was fitting that news of the death of Ohio’s longest-serving Republican state chairman, Bob Bennett, last week should make headlines and top all the political news throughout the Buckeye State.

Bennett, who died Dec. 6 at age 75 following a long illness, was perhaps the last of his kind.

In an age when "Super PACs" and the Internet have vastly diluted the strength of political parties as engines for elections, portly, plain-spoken Robert T. Bennett was nothing short of an old-fashioned political boss who rebuilt his state’s Republican Party from the ashes, helped it achieve success after success at the polls and dominated it in spite of who was governor or U.S. senator.

"Chairman Bennett was a giant of Ohio and national politics," Ohio Gov. John Kasich told the Columbus Dispatch, noting that the man who served as state Republican chairman from 1988 to 2008 "earned the respect of his Democratic opponents, even as he was beating them."

At the time of Bennett’s death, Kasich and the entire Republican slate of statewide office-holders had been re-elected by landslide margins. Republicans controlled both houses of the state Legislature and held a majority of seats in Ohio’s congressional delegation (which includes Speaker John Boehner, a close friend of Bennett’s).

Republicans under Bennett also won unanimous control of the state Supreme Court and now hold 63 percent of all county offices in Ohio.

It wasn’t always that way. In 1988, there was a Democratic governor of Ohio and Democrats controlled the state Legislature. Republicans were in a precarious financial situation and, just as it was in 1986, a divisive primary for governor seemed on the horizon in 1990.

Cleveland attorney and accountant Bennett took the party chair. Long active in politics in Cleveland, he had won high marks as campaign manager for Ralph J. Perk, who in 1971 became that city’s first Republican mayor in more than three decades.

Putting the state party headquarters on a tight budget, he gradually got it out of debt and into the black. His powers of persuasion ("Bob could use the stick and the carrot well," recalled one longtime GOP leader in Columbus) convinced Republicans who fancied themselves candidates for governor that it was wiser to run for a lower office and rally behind the clear favorite for the nomination, Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich.

With a ticket that included then-Rep. Mike DeWine for governor and Hamilton County Commissioner Robert Taft II for secretary of state, Voinovich led Republicans back into power in 1990. With the exception of four years from 2006-10, they never left and three Republicans lived in the governor’s mansion. Voinovich would go on to the Senate and was followed by present Sen. Rob Portman.

Brian Berry, who was one of the state GOP’s executive director under Chairman Bennett, recalled to Newsmax how "lots of talent came out of that shop because the chairman encouraged people to grow. My team developed a grassroots manual that I still use [as a political consultant]. Guess what we did? We sent it to every state party, the Republican National Committee, and hundreds of other offices with a cover note that said: 'feel free to steal anything in this manual if it helps you elect Republicans to public office.' As the years went on, I saw our work popping up everywhere. That's leadership. That was Bob Bennett."

When Bennett ran for Republican national chairman in 1997, supporters said he could rebuild a national party that had just been beaten for the presidency in the same manner he had rebuilt the state organization. But other RNC members made it clear to this reporter that they resented Bennett being the highest paid state party chairman in the U.S. that he had a generous expense account, a car and driver, and his home was paid for by the party.

"All true," Bennett told this reporter at the time, "and all approved by the state committee. And you know, the chairman in Ohio is well compensated. But whoever is chairman is forbidden from taking any outside income. When you’re state chairman in Ohio, you work for the party and no one else."

"King Farouk" is what party leaders with fewer "perks" privately dubbed him. He trailed far behind in a race at the 1997 RNC meeting in which Jim Nicholson of Colorado emerged as chairman after several ballots.

With his passion for politics, Bennett had a sense of history for his state and city. In discussing the Cleveland area murder case surrounding Dr. Sam Sheppard that caught the world’s attention in 1954, Bennett told this reporter that the "fuzzy-haired intruder" that Sheppard long insisted he saw leaving his home the night wife Marilyn was murdered may have been Richard Eberling, a handyman who later served on a city board under Cleveland’s Mayor Perk.

During a discussion of legendary lawman Eliot Ness, the decades-old controversy came up of how true his exploits in "The Untouchables" were. Bennett said he didn’t know about Ness in his Chicago days, but certainly knew of his Cleveland days. In the 1940s, Bennett informed us, Ness was the well-regarded public safety director of Cleveland and he cleaned up both the Fire and Police departments, and was the Republican nominee for mayor in 1949.

Brian Berry summarized "The Boss" best: "The epitaph of Christopher Wren, London's greatest builder and architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, reads: 'If you seek his monument, look around you.' That fits Bob Bennett."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.



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John-Gizzi
It was fitting that news of the death of Ohio's longest-serving Republican state chairman, Bob Bennett, last week should make headlines and top all the political news throughout the Buckeye State.
Bob Bennett, Republican, GOP, chairman, Ohio
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2014-34-11
Thursday, 11 December 2014 09:34 PM
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