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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?

Celeste And Taft Are Far Enough Away From Politics To Do DeWine - And Us All - Right

dick celeste bob taft ohio
Tony Dejak, Paul Vernon
Dick Celeste in 2018 (left) and Bob Taft in 2006.

When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine reached out to two former Ohio governors to help him come up with more coronavirus testing, he picked the right two – Democrat Dick Celeste and Republican Bob Taft.

Celeste, governor from 1983 to 1991, and Taft, governor from 1999 to 2007, are two significant figures in Ohio's political history, and are far enough removed from the rough-and-tumble of daily politics in Ohio that they don't have to worry about such things as partisan politics or playing "gotcha" anymore; they are two solid public servants who can simply focus on doing what is right.

Plus, when DeWine went looking for former Ohio governors, the pickings are pretty slim.

I've covered all eight governors who have served since Cincinnati's John J. Gilligan's one term from 1971 to 1975; and there are only a handful of them left.

Gilligan, a Democrat who would have done well in such a role, is sadly no longer with us, having passed away in 2013. The Republican who defeated him in the 1974 election by a handful of votes, James A. Rhodes, was no dummy, but he might have had a hard time focusing on a mission; he tended to have a short attention span. He died in 2001.

Republican George Voinovich, who was governor from 1991 to 1999, was a detail-oriented leader who was probably the most hands-on governor Ohio has had in modern history.

And DeWine would have loved to have been able to give George a job like this – working with state leaders from business, academia and the public health sector to secure the supplies needed to expand testing.

DeWine served as Voinovich's lieutenant governor for a time, and was his close friend. But Voinovich died in 2016, just before the GOP national convention was to open in his home town of Cleveland.

Democrat Ted Strickland, a one-term governor from 2007 to 2011, is probably not far enough removed from the political battles for this kind of job.

DeWine's immediate predecessor, Republican John Kasich, was out of the question because he has that little problem of not playing well with others.

Kasich tried to play the kumbaya candidate for president when running against Donald Trump, the ultimate bull-in-the-china-shop, for the GOP nomination.

John Kasich, peacemaker. Much of the national news media was buying into that; but nobody who had ever dealt with him back in Ohio was having any of it.

So it was left to Celeste and Taft.

On the surface, the two do not seem to have much in common. Celeste, back in the 1970s and 1980s, was a charismatic liberal beloved by the state's youngest voters.

It is hard to imagine that Celeste is now 82 years old.

Taft, on the other hand, lacked charisma – which is putting it mildly. But he was a methodical, somewhat plodding governor who didn't spark much enthusiasm, but was a vote-getting machine.

They had two things in common:

  • Both, as governor, caught unholy hell for signing substantial tax increases into law.
  • And both had the frustration of having to wait their turns to be governor.

Celeste, from the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, was elected to the Ohio House in 1970, the same year his fellow Democrat, Gilligan, was elected governor.
In 1974, when Gilligan was running for re-election, Celeste decided to run for lieutenant governor. That was the last year the lieutenant governor was elected separately; the governor and lieutenant governor have run in tandem ever since.

Celeste saw an opportunity – most people believed Gilligan would be elected to a second term over the GOP candidate Rhodes, who had served two terms as governor in the 1960s.

Celeste's calculation was that if Gilligan were re-elected and he was elected lieutenant governor, he would be in line to be the next governor in 1978.

That election night in 1974 was the first I covered as a reporter, for The Post, the daily student newspaper at Ohio University. My reporting partner and good friend, Ken Klein, and I teamed up to cover the governor's race that night.

By midnight, the race was extraordinarily tight but Gilligan was hanging on to a lead.

In the wee hours of the morning, Gilligan's lead expanded a bit and Rhodes appeared before a ballroom full of supporters in the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, now long gone. He conceded the election and went to his suite at the Neil House and went to bed.

But it was nearly dawn when the final numbers came in and Rhodes led Gilligan by about 11,000 votes – less than one vote per precinct statewide.

They woke Rhodes up, and he went back to the near-empty ballroom, this time claiming victory.

Meanwhile, at the Ohio Secretary of State's office, Celeste was reading the results of the lieutenant governor's race – he had won against incumbent Republican John W. Brown.

My pal Klein got a quote from the new lieutenant governor on how he would get along with Rhodes.

Well, if I learn to chew tobacco and chalk his pool cues, I suppose we will get along fine, Celeste said.

His dream of following Gilligan into the governor's office was dashed.

Instead, he ended up running against Rhodes in 1978 and was a loser.

Four years later, though, he took on Republican Clarence "Bud" Brown, Jr. and whipped him to become Ohio's 64th governor.

Taft had some frustrating moments on the way to the governor's office, too.

The great-grandson of President William Howard Taft, Bob Taft had served as a state representative and Hamilton County commissioner before planning a run for governor in 1990.

But Voinovich, the popular mayor of Cleveland, was the Ohio GOP's choice for governor.

I remember being at a large Republican Party gathering in Columbus where Taft was pulled aside by party big-wigs who broke the news to him – they were backing Voinovich, but said Taft would get his turn next.

They backed Taft for Ohio Secretary of State and he won two four-year terms.

By 1999, Voinovich had moved on to the U.S. Senate and Taft was elected to the first of his two terms as Ohio's 67th governor.

All's well that ends well, at least for Celeste and Taft.

It's all ancient history for those two now.

Let's see what kind of history they make this time. 

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here. 

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.