COLUMBUS (AP) — Ohio’s three living former governors have no trouble agreeing on the toughest burden they faced in office: deciding whether someone should live or die.
And after a collective 20 years as Ohio’s governor, Richard F. Celeste, Bob Taft and Ted Strickland all wish they had spared more people from execution.
The three are in town for a new exhibit of both the original 1802 and 1851 Ohio constitutions now on permanent display at the Statehouse Museum.
As snow fell softly outside, they sat with The Dispatch for 80 minutes Tuesday afternoon in a vacant Statehouse hearing room to chat about today’s corrosive politics and talk about what they now view as their biggest accomplishments — and where they’d like a “do-over.”
Strickland brought up the death penalty under the latter category: “I wish I had done what my friend Jay Inslee, who’s the governor of Washington state, did when he became governor. He just said, ‘There will be no executions as long as I’m the governor of the state of Washington.’
“And I wish I had had the courage to make that decision.”
Strickland, 77, who was a prison psychologist before becoming a congressman and then, from 2007 to 2011, governor, says he is especially relieved that he commuted the sentence of Kevin Keith, whose bid to challenge his conviction for killing three people in Bucyrus in 1994 is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’m just convinced as long as we have the death penalty, innocent people are going to lose their lives … our judicial system has serious problems that need attention,” the Democrat said.
Republican Taft said that when he was governor from 1999 to 2007, his attitude toward capital punishment was that “it was the law of Ohio. It had been enacted by the people’s representatives. My job was to carry out the law unless there were extraordinary circumstances that would call for a commutation.”
Even though he granted only one commutation, reviewing the files of Death Row inmates who pleaded for leniency slowly caused a transformation in his thinking.
“Going through all those cases as governor, and the time you spend on those cases, really changed my attitude in certain ways. So I have growing reservations about the death penalty,” he said.
Taft, 76, who has taught at the University of Dayton since shortly after leaving the governor’s office, supports a ban on executing the mentally ill, a lower bar for the defense to establish than insanity. Plus, he would eliminate a section of Ohio law allowing the death penalty for so-called “felony murder.”
“I think there is great disparity, there is great inequality, there are great differences between the counties in how that’s applied.”
Taft still backs potential capital punishment for those convicted of such offenses as murder for hire, killing a law enforcement officer, or causing death by an act of terrorism.
Celeste, a Democrat who served from 1983 to 1991, said he was given advice by the longtime counsel for his GOP predecessor, James A. Rhodes, about potential executions: “You shouldn’t let it happen.”
The attorney told Celeste that Rhodes had sent him to witness an execution, and the counsel came back and told Rhodes that he would quit rather than watch another, saying “If you want to let somebody die in the chair, you go watch it.”
Celeste ignited major controversy near the end of his second term by ordering the first mass prison release of battered women in this country, granting clemency to more than two dozen who were in Ohio’s prison for women in Marysville.
And a couple of weeks later, Celeste commuted the death sentences of four men and all four women on Death Row.
“Not because they were necessarily innocent, actually. I knew several of them weren’t,” Celeste conceded Tuesday.
“As I look back on it, if I had really would have been bold, I would have done what Toney Anaya did in New Mexico (as governor at the same time as Celeste) and the governor of Illinois did later, just say, ‘I’m going to commute them all to life (sentences), without the benefit of parole.’ You save the state a lot of money in the process.”
Celeste, who turned 81 this month, retired in 2011 after serving as president of Colorado College in Colorado Springs for nine years. He now consults for businesses and nonprofit organizations.
All three former chief executives agreed that even the rough-and-tumble politics of their eras featured bipartisan agreements and personal relationships across party lines. Interestingly, both Taft and Strickland — whose families have grown close over the years — agreed that the invective and stridency of the Donald Trump era began with the ascension of Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich to U.S. House speaker in 1995.
Taft also cited the decline of “moderating institutions” such as major newspapers that no longer have influential editorial voices, political parties that are overshadowed by super-PACS, and unaccountable independent campaign groups getting undisclosed cash.
Celeste pointed to familiar targets to explain the decline of civility and bipartisanship: the state legislature’s term limits that eroded both experience and any incentive to take more than a short-term view, a more partisan national press trying to fill a 24/7 news cycle, the constant yammering of social media, and gerrymandering that has pushed both parties to their extreme in both Ohio and Congress.
“If I could wave a magic wand and make every district 51-49 (percent partisan split), I would,” Celeste said.