TV Shock-Show Wiz Weighs Run for Ohio Governor
By Jeff Ortega , Special to Stateline
Ohio Jerry Springer, onetime mayor of Cincinnati and longtime king of daytime shock TV, is traveling across Ohio to Democratic Party functions these days, bashing Republicans and testing the waters for a possible statewide candidacy in 2006, most likely for governor.
"We've had enough of professional politicians," says the host of The Jerry Springer Show, where hard-luck guests entangled in bizarre predicaments bare their souls, sometimes in explosive, tear-stained confrontations with rivals.
Too many jobs and young people are leaving Ohio, he says. Public education is a poorly funded mess, he says. "The other issues are jobs, jobs, jobs," he says.
So Springer, 60, has changed his legal residence from Florida back to Cincinnati, where the law school graduate was mayor and a city councilman in the 1970s. And, while maintaining his TV gig, he has by his own count visited more than 50 of Ohio's 88 counties in recent months to speak at Democratic dinners and other functions. He says he has raised about $300,000 for Democratic political candidates.
During a recent visit to this northeast Ohio city, home of the pro football Hall of Fame, Springer confirmed in an interview he is testing the political waters, most likely to compete for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006.
Two-term Republican Gov. Bob Taft is barred by Ohio's term-limit law from succeeding himself in that election.
Some of the early reaction among Buckeye State Democrats to a Springer run for the governor's mansion has been quite favorable provided Springer can somehow divorce himself from his controversial TV image.
"If he does that well, I think his chances are good for elective office," said Harry Meshel, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman and former state Senate president. "He could be helpful for other candidates as well because he would spend money. He wouldn't be a drain on the funds of the party. The people who hear him are all impressed by him."
There are sour grapes, too, especially among Republicans, who currently control virtually all major Ohio statewide political offices. Besides the governor's office, they enjoy commanding majorities in both state legislative houses, hold every other non-judicial statewide office and have a 5-2 majority on the state supreme court.
"Most Ohioans' first impression of Jerry Springer is [as a] TV talk show clown," said GOP political consultant Mark R. Weaver. "It's very hard to distance yourself from first impressions."
Springer knows all that and says that, if he decides to take the plunge, he will leave the show next year. But he also says the TV notoriety brings plusses as well as the obvious minuses.
"I think it's stupid," Springer said of his show. "But my show didn't close one factory."
Furthermore, he added, celebrity stardom, however dubious, has brought him both widespread name recognition and the personal wealth to self-finance at least a portion of any campaign he might run.
Recognition and money were both problems for Taft's 2002 Democratic opponent, former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Timothy F. Hagan.
"No one knows them," Springer said of past Democratic candidates. "They don't have money. We have to bring people to the polls. You have to have resources and message."
"We've gotten to where Democrats were afraid to sound any different than Republicans," he added. "We have to offer an alternative."
And quite an alternative Springer would be: part outrageous pop culture figure, part savvy local politician well-versed in Ohio issues and demographics. He knows the turf and the players here despite his airy dismissal of "professional politicians" -- and in fact sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination once before, in 1982, when he lost a three-way primary to Richard F. Celeste, who went on to become governor.
This time, his potential opponents for the nomination might include, among others, Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman and U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland of Lisbon, who also have been scouting the terrain. Bring them all on, says Springer: "Let's have a full discussion."
"It isn't a popularity contest," he said. "This isn't about me. We have to change the fabric of politics today." The main issues, he said, would be problems in public school funding, increases in tuition at public universities and community colleges, the flight of industrial jobs from the state and unemployment overall.
In four decisions, the Supreme Court of Ohio has held that the way the state pays for public schools is unconstitutional. It said an over-reliance on property taxes has led to inequities between "rich" and "poor" school districts.
On the jobs front, Maytag Corporation in June announced a restructuring plan that calls for vacuum maker Hoover Co. to move its headquarters from Ohio to Iowa, eliminating hundreds of salaried jobs in the Canton-Massillon area. In addition, Canton-based Timken Co. has said it plans to close three bearings plants that employ 1,300 workers.
"Fix the state," declares Springer. "If you can't fix the state, get out of the business."
Jeff Ortega covers state politics for Dix Newspapers and The Youngstown Vindicator and is based in Columbus, Ohio.