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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

How I became Jim Rhodes' chauffeur at the Ohio State Fair

Courtesy of Howard Wilkinson

Jim Rhodes, the late four-term governor of Ohio, could be a real pain in the neck.

He could also be a very funny man, in a Rhodesian, Southern Ohio kind of way.

I remember two days, both at the Ohio State Fair, where I experienced both Jims.

The first time was in 1994 and the second in 1998, long after Rhodes left office. Rhodes was getting up in years and couldn't walk the fairgrounds the way he did in the old days, when he was the grand poobah and chief architect of the annual summer event in Columbus.

So, both times, I ended up driving him around the fairground in a golf cart.

Both times, he was ostensibly there to show two first-time statewide candidates — Ken Blackwell and Joe Deters, both of Cincinnati — how to campaign at the Ohio State Fair, which, in Rhodes' mind, was the principal qualification for public office in Ohio.

The first time it was with Blackwell, in 1994. The former Cincinnati councilman and mayor was running for state treasurer. Rhodes had taken a shine to Blackwell and invited him up to Columbus for a day on the fairgrounds.

We all met up in front of the administration building — Blackwell, his campaign aide, me, and Rhodes, who had brought along one of his best buddies — Bob Evans, the sausage king and restaurant mogul from Rio Grande, in Southern Ohio's Gallia County.

Blackwell and his campaign aide hopped on one golf cart. Rhodes climbed into the passenger's seat of the other one; and Evans climbed onto the back seat.

Get up here, Rhodes hollered at me. I can't drive this thing. I'd wreck it and then we'd be in big trouble. You're driving.

For some reason, I don't to this day fully understand, I did what he said; and we pulled out, with Rhodes at my side and Bob Evans sitting up behind me.

The midway, go to the midway!, Rhodes hollered. That's where the people are. We've got to see the people. People. People! People vote!

So, with me driving the lead cart, we headed for the midway, with Evans and Rhodes jawing back and forth. Every now and then, Rhodes would holler at me: Turn here! Go faster! Go slower! Are you trying to get us all killed?

I just proceeded, with my foot on the accelerator, trying to get to the midway as fast as I could. I have to admit, at that point, if I had swerved suddenly and Rhodes went tumbling out of the cart, I would not have been in the least upset.

The night before had been the Junior Fair's sale of the Grand Champion hog in the swine barn; and Evans had been there, bidding for the huge porcine behemoth with grocery chains and other sausage makers as his competition.

I can't remember how much Evans spent, but he had the winning bid and it was well into five figures.

Evans was bragging to his friend about his triumph – especially over his arch rival, the Jimmy Dean sausage company.

I tell you, Jim, we were determined to win. We ran that Jimmy Dean clean out of Ohio! He'll never come back!

Rhodes shook his head, approvingly.

That's good, Bob, that's good. We don't need no other sausage in Ohio. You've got all the sausage we need. 

Credit Provided
Ken Blackwell, Bob Evans and Jim Rhodes talk to the Ohio Youth Choir at the 1994 Ohio State Fair

After stops in the midway to greet voters and a quick stop at a lemonade stand, Rhodes directed me and Blackwell to head for the section of the fairground with the games.

He commanded us to stop at a booth where you could shoot basketballs and win a prize.

Blackwell, of course, is African-American; and Jim Rhodes was not the most politically correct or racially sensitive person in Ohio and he had advice for Blackwell.

C'mon, Kenny, you can do this! You people got basketball in your blood!

Blackwell, who had been a star football player at Xavier University years before (back when Xavier had a football program), just laughed him off; and then proceeded to sink three very impressive shots from three-point range.

Blackwell's prize was a huge stuffed gorilla, which he gave to a young woman standing nearby, who had a baby in a stroller. She was thrilled.

That's good, Kenny; that's good. You just won a vote.

Blackwell ended up winning that election (Rhodes was always convinced that he had been the key to Blackwell's victory); and, four years later, ran for Ohio secretary of state.

That opened up the state treasurer's office; and Deters, who was Hamilton County prosecutor, jumped into the 1998 race.

Deters told me that Rhodes had invited him up to the state fair for a lesson in campaigning.

Credit Provided
Joe Deters, Howard Wilkinson and Jim Rhodes at the 1998 Ohio State Fair

I decided to go, too; and once again, I got stuck with the job of hauling Rhodes around in a golf cart, although Deters took the wheel from time to time.

Deters brought his wife and kids; and Rhodes gave him a lecture before we all set off in golf carts.

Look 'em in the eye, Rhodes said. Pat the kiddies on the head. Kiss the babies. Tell the grandmas they look like a million. That's the way they remember you.

For Rhodes, food was an indispensable ingredient of going to the fair; and his favorite was a booth run by Der Dutchman, an Amish restaurant in nearby Plain City.

Fix up 10 of those roast beef sandwiches, honey, Rhodes yelled to a young Amish girl behind the counter.  He planned to pass them out to the whole entourage, and any passers-by who looked hungry.

Best food at the fair. Better than some greasy hamburger. These people know their food.

Rhodes spied two women sitting at a picnic table nearby, eating their lunch.

Joe, get up and talk to those ladies. Go on now.

Deters did as he was told. The women waved at Rhodes, sitting nearby in the golf cart. He's such a darling, one of the women said.

After lunch, it was off to the cattle barn, where the procession of golf carts ran up and down in the walkways between the cattle pens. Nearly all of the farm families tending to their animals knew Rhodes and shook his hand.

Most of the major buildings on the Ohio State Fairgrounds are named for former governors. The cattle barn is named for Gov. John J. Gilligan of Cincinnati, who was defeated (just barely) in his bid for re-election in 1974 by Rhodes.

A Deters campaign volunteer asked Rhodes if he had anything to do with naming the building after Gilligan.

Why of course I did; I named all these places, Rhodes said. First, I beat his butt; then I named a cow barn after him.

This fair was nothing when I became governor back in the '60s, Rhodes said. This place was a dump. Built a lot of buildings, poured a lot of money into it. Opened the gates up early. Let the kids ride the rides for free.

I made this fair.

And there was really no arguing with him. It was Jim Rhodes' fair, by gum.

Updated: August 4, 2022 at 2:19 PM EDT
This article was first published Dec. 16, 2017.
Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.