Fifth in a series of occasional articles
Young, tough and brazenly ambitious, Brett Buerck and Kyle Sisk made quite a name for themselves behind the scenes at the state capitol. They made money, lots of it, and then -- to their regret -- they became famous.
So what do a couple of formerly fast-lane Republican operatives such as Buerck and Sisk have to do with this year's presidential election?
President Bush can only hope the answer is not much.
Some Ohio Republicans worry that Buerck's and Sisk's influence on the 2004 election may be more consequential. Ordinarily, this state's GOP, which has held a virtual lock on power since 1990, would be a clear asset for the president. He could take advantage of the party's grass-roots organization, official surrogates and goodwill with the electorate. But a host of local controversies have scuffed the Republican brand name in Ohio. The most malodorous of these involves allegations of improper fundraising and self-dealing by the two consultants to Republican state House Speaker Larry Householder.
The accusations erupted onto Ohio front pages in the spring, and federal and state criminal investigations are underway. Ohioans have been treated to regular servings of leaked strategy memos and e-mails written by Buerck, Sisk and others in Householder's camp. With a swaggering tone, the documents suggest an approach to politics that borrows equally from H.R. Haldeman and Barney Fife.
They also have turned Buerck and Sisk into symbols for a season of furrowed brows and angry words within the Ohio GOP, which is in turmoil on numerous other fronts. All this is a burden that Bush, running slightly behind in polls in this critical swing state, surely would prefer not to carry.
"People have gotten caught up in having power for power's sake," said J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state, who has clashed bitterly with Householder and is investigating the consultants' dealings. "When people don't feel passionate that Republicans can and will make a difference, that makes the president's job that much more difficult."
Polls show that only a small percentage of Ohio voters remain undecided about the presidential race. But among those few, the problems at the state level could become a factor at the national level if these voters conclude that Republicans are the party of entrenched power in both Washington and Columbus.
"Here in Ohio, you can point to one-party control at the state level and one-party control at the national level, so if you are a voter who is not happy and you want someone to point the finger at, there's just not that many Democrats to blame," said Herbert B. Asher, a political scientist who follows Ohio politics at Ohio State University.
Governor Taft's Troubles
The state's general mood of discontent has affected Bush's Ohio chairman, Gov. Bob Taft. He has seen his approval rating droop because of the state's lagging economy and a sales tax increase he signed to offset a budget shortfall. Introducing Bush at an event in Cincinnati a few months ago, Taft drew a murmuring of catcalls and boos from the conservative audience. Although Taft has remained active raising money for Republicans, his low standing has limited his ability to be a prominent public surrogate for Bush, the way popular governors often are.
The tax increase helped start a new wave of recriminations and feuding among longtime rival Republicans. Several are vying to succeed the term-limited Taft in the 2006 election. Blackwell, one of the contenders, has promoted a so-far stymied campaign to repeal the tax increase through a voter referendum.
In a roundabout way, this led to Buerck and Sisk. In March, Blackwell was one of four recipients of an anonymous memo -- the others were the Cleveland office of the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the local U.S. attorney -- smoking with complaints about Householder's operation. It alleged that Buerck, 31, and Sisk, 34, had received kickbacks from contracts with political firms hired by the House Republican caucus. Householder said he is confident no illegality took place on his political team; Buerck and Sisk, through their attorneys, denied doing anything illegal.
Apart from the matter of legal violations, there are questions of whether Householder and his two young operatives exceeded the bounds of propriety as they engaged in the fundraising and nest-feathering common to many state legislatures. Local papers have described heavy-handed plays for contributions and revealed that the operatives enjoyed lavish consulting contracts that came with severance payments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars if they were fired (as they have been, from some of their GOP contracts). One legislator was reportedly sacked from his committee chairmanship by Householder at Sisk's urging and was replaced by a colleague who promised to raise more money.
"There's always game playing in politics," Householder said. He described Buerck and Sisk as aggressive and shrewd and said they helped him add to the Republican majority.
The two would have been shrewder still if they had refrained from putting their most mischievous thoughts in writing.
Instead, Ohio newspapers have thrilled in reporting memos and e-mails in which members of "Team Householder" plotted strategy in decidedly cynical tones, boasted about political "empire-building" within state government, schemed about hitting up corporations and individuals for cash, and had all manner of disparaging words for fellow Republicans, including Taft.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer described how Buerck, a former chief of staff for Householder, and another consultant tried to win support among the House GOP caucus, one of their clients, for the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, another of their clients, in an effort to defeat litigation revision. They prepared a chart dividing House Republicans -- most of whom, like Republicans elsewhere, support curbs on lawsuits -- into groups such as "Senate wannabes," "party boys" and, to describe female members, "the broad squad."
Another internal memo proposed a way to undermine Blackwell, who has taken the lead in trying to repeal the recently approved sales tax increase. The memo, written by Householder's press secretary with help from Buerck and Sisk, suggested "a group funded by anonymous donors whose sole charge is to drive Ken Blackwell's negatives through the roof, either through broadcast advertising or targeted mail to hard-core conservatives."
The Plain Dealer also reported a memo in which Buerck told one client running for local office that he needed to embrace the "dark side of the race" and proposed "guerrilla warfare" in order to funnel corporate money surreptitiously into the election.
These disclosures may be titillating, but no analysts of Ohio politics think they will be a large factor in the presidential vote. The problem for Republicans is that something need not be a large factor this year to be a pivotal one. As Taft put in a recent interview, "Ohio may be this year's Florida. This will be too close to call until November 2nd," he said. "I don't think there's any state that's going to be as closely divided."
In a survey last week by the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) led Bush among likely voters 48 to 46 percent, with independent Ralph Nader garnering 1 percent. A Gallup poll in Ohio also showed a two-point spread favoring Kerry, but when the pool of respondents was expanded to include all registered voters, not just people who voted last time, Kerry was ahead by 10 points.
In such an environment, in which Democrats are eager to stoke grievance wherever they can, the Kerry campaign said it is ready to point to the mess in Columbus as evidence that a shake-up is needed across the board. Kerry state chairman James Ruvolo said the scandal "just fuels voters' desire for change."
Robert T. Bennett, the Ohio Republican chairman who over the past 17 years has helped lead the GOP to majority status -- the party controls the legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and every statewide office -- dismissed such suggestions as bluster. Of the fundraising controversy and his party's intramural battling among would-be gubernatorial candidates, he said, "I don't dismiss it as a problem for the Republican Party, but I don't think it is going to be any factor in the presidential race."
Eric W. Rademacher, head of the Ohio Poll, agreed. Disarray among statehouse Republicans might have mattered at the margins in past elections, but not in a year such as this, when people are engaged and hold strong opinions on the Bush-Kerry race. His poll found just 4 percent of voters undecided. He did warn that the problems of Ohio Republicans present a major opportunity for Democrats to end their long dry spell in the next statewide elections in 2006. Those elections may bring to the surface personality and ideological conflicts that have been building for years.
Historically, Ohio Republicans have been a bottom-line party -- sympathetic to business and undeniably conservative, but more pragmatic in style. But there are efforts to move the party in a more ideological direction. Cultural conservatives are trying to gather enough petitions -- and are widely expected to succeed -- to put a referendum on this fall's ballot that would ban same-sex marriage and even civil unions.
Blackwell, who as an African American is a rare breed of conservative Republican, is courting support on the party's rightward flank with anti-tax and anti-gay rights messages. His rivals within the party to succeed Taft are state Attorney General Jim Petro and state Auditor Betty Montgomery. Householder, who harbored long-term gubernatorial ambitions of his own, had been backing Petro -- a subtext for his rivalry with Blackwell.
Part of a Dynasty
In the background of all this elbow-throwing is Taft. A mild-mannered, genial chief executive in his second term, Taft's claim to fame outside Ohio is his last name. Taft comes from the second-most-notable Republican dynasty in American politics -- with a lineage that goes back significantly further than the Bush name. His great-grandfather was President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft; his grandfather was Sen. Robert Taft, the "Mr. Republican" who defined midwestern, isolationist conservatism for decades in the mid-20th century. His father also served in the U.S. Senate, though the dynasty may be nearing its end. The governor said his daughter, in her twenties, has no interest in elective politics.
Taft said he is close to former president George H.W. Bush and graduated from Yale five years ahead of the current president. He is a pragmatic moderate in the old style of Ohio Republicans, but this understated style has not kept him out of trouble in recent years. His approval rating last year sank to 40 percent or lower; in an Ohio Poll earlier this year it had inched back up to 47 percent -- still not good enough to make him much of a drawing card on Bush's behalf.
Taft said that after making spending cuts, he had no choice during Ohio's recent slowdown but to accede to a temporary sales tax increase unless he was to cut education and other services, which he believes would have been shortsighted. "It's not secret you're not going to be popular as governor in tough times," he said. "I don't think this presidential election will be a referendum on my performance."
One thing that has never shadowed his performance is ethical corner-cutting of the sort that has been alleged against Team Householder.
Alex R. Arshinkoff, chairman of the Akron-area Summit County Republicans, said that he believes that Bush has a tough race in Ohio but that the problems in Columbus are a small or negligible factor. Still, he suggested those problems are a reminder that political power has a natural life cycle, in which complacency and arrogance can spell doom. "Here were kids who never knew losing," he said, "who never knew what it was to be the out party."
Samuel B. Weiner, an attorney for Sisk, urged people not to rush to judgment about either his client or Buerck. It is embarrassing when private strategy discussions spill into public view, he said, but he noted that neither man has been charged with a crime. "Both Kyle and Brett are highly motivated, intelligent, hard-chargers," Weiner said. "They play hardball. . . . But that's not wrong. That's the way it is in politics."