Gubernatorial ads keep negative tone; Insurance contributors, tax issues raised in air attacks

By Joshua Benton and James Drew
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 3

COLUMBUS — The governor’s race kept its negative tone yesterday, when both major candidates presented television ads attacking each other.

Democrat Lee Fisher struck a new theme: accusing his opponent, Bob Taft, of being too cozy with an insurance company that has cut services to some elderly Ohioans.

Mr. Taft stuck with an older focus, raising taxes: both charging Mr. Fisher with a history of tax hikes and defending himself against accusations of the same.

The Fisher ad, which began airing statewide last night, refers to the decision last July by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield to discontinue a Medicare plan for 20,000 seniors in 19 southern Ohio counties and parts of three others. Becky Howe of Piqua, O., organized opposition to the move, and she appears in the ad saying that Mr. Taft did not respond.

As a blurry color picture of Mr. Taft appears, the narrator states: “Taft held a fund-raiser at Anthem headquarters and took thousands from the insurance executives.”

Ms. Howe adds: “How could Bob Taft take money from the insurance company knowing that there was 20,000 Ohioans out there at risk? The way I see it, Bob Taft is in the pocket of the insurance companies.”

On June 2, the Taft campaign raised $17,750 from a fund-raiser at Anthem’s headquarters in Cincinnati. The campaign did not disclose the occupations of 11 of the 17 executives in a campaign finance report it filed.

Campaign officials blamed a staff oversight, but Alan Melamed, Mr. Fisher’s campaign chairman, said yesterday that it was a “cover-up.”

In June, Mr. Fisher started a petition drive to pressure state lawmakers to pass a bill that would shift power from managed-care administrators to physicians and patients. A month later, Mr. Taft released a plan similar to Mr. Fisher’s.

Taft press secretary Brett Buerck said Mr. Taft responded to Anthem’s decision by urging Ohio’s congressional delegation to increase the amount of money Medicare pays to insurance companies covering rural counties.

That letter was sent on Sept. 25 – nearly four months after Anthem’s decision and Mr. Taft’s fund-raiser at Anthem.

“The fact of the matter is Lee Fisher’s grandstanding does not fix the problem,” he said.

Last month, before Mr. Taft’s letter, Anthem announced that it will continue coverage for seniors in six rural counties that don’t have access to another health maintenance organization.

Mr. Taft’s ad, which begins airing statewide today, continues the negative tone of his last spot. “If things work, you continue on along the same vein,” said campaign chairman Brian Hicks.

“Poor politician Lee Fisher,” the ad opens, the voice intoning over a freeze-frame of the Democrat, mouth awkwardly agape. “His negative ads are way wrong.”

It then attacks a previous Fisher ad by saying that Mr. Taft “never raised property taxes” while a Hamilton County commissioner from 1981 to 1990.

Taxes did rise 14 times and 46.5 per cent in that period, but Mr. Taft did not vote as commissioner on whether to approve those increases. He simply voted to put them on the ballot.

The original Fisher ad never said that Mr. Taft raised the property taxes himself. It said that while he was in office, “property taxes were hiked 46 per cent” – a statement supported by the Taft campaign’s documentation.

To support its argument, the Taft ad says it “says right here on the front page of the Plain Dealer: `Taft didn’t raise the taxes.”‘ That statement actually appeared on page six of the Oct. 6 edition.

The Taft ad continues, referring to Mr. Fisher’s promise not to raise taxes without a statewide vote: “Can you believe it? From the same guy who gave us the largest income tax increase we’ve ever had?”

That’s a reference to 1983’s 90 per cent income tax surcharge. It passed the Senate 17-16, with Mr. Fisher as one of the 17. Voters decided not to overturn the increase that November, by a 400,000-vote margin.

The ad concludes by saying “the press says it’s `indefensible,’ and `schools lose’ with Lee Fisher.”