Religious Right Recruits Bush Loyalist

In mid-March, the Family Research Council (FRC), Washington’s premiere right-wing religious lobbying outfit, announced that J. Kenneth Blackwell had been hired on as a “senior fellow for family empowerment”.

“Over the years, we have known and worked with Ken Blackwell on the toughest issues facing families and our country,” said FRC President Tony Perkins in a news release.

“We have witnessed Ken’s willingness to stand and fight for preserving marriage and defending the unborn. His unwavering commitment to tax relief and conservative fiscal policies has supported family enterprise.”

Blackwell, the former undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. ambassador to the now defunct U.N. Human Rights Commission, mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, and, most recently, that state’s secretary of state, has, like other defeated Republican candidates before him, landed on his feet in a right-wing policy outfit in the nation’s capital.

Within Republican Party circles, Blackwell has been considered a longtime dependable anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-school vouchers African-American conservative — he once called himself civil rights leader “Jesse Jackson’s worst nightmare.”

In November 2004, he played a pivotal role bringing the state of Ohio into George W. Bush’s column. To some, he was the Katherine Harris of the 2004 election cycle. (Harris came to national prominence during the 2000 presidential election when, as Florida’s secretary of state, she authorised the pre-election purging from the state’s voting lists of tens of thousands of African-American voters, and later, after the votes were in, she ruled that Bush had won more votes than his Democratic opponent Al Gore.)

During the run-up to the November 2004 presidential election, Blackwell played two roles: as secretary of state of Ohio, he acted as the chief elections official of the state, and he also served as the honourary co-chair of the Committee to Re-elect George W. Bush.

In a recent article, Steven Rosenfeld and Bob Fitrakis raised questions about whether “Blackwell or other GOP [Republican] operatives inflate[d] the president’s vote totals to secure George W. Bush’s margin of victory?”

Fitrakis is a political science professor and attorney in a civil rights lawsuit against Blackwell, and Rosenfeld is the co-author, along with Harvey Wasserman, of What Happened in Ohio?: A documentary record of theft and fraud in the 2004 election (New Press, 2006).

Fitrakis, in a piece co-authored with Wasserman, recently pointed out that “E-mails being sought from [White House advisor] Karl Rove’s computers, and recent revelations about critical electronic conflicts of interest [related to the case of Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales’ firing of several state prosecutors], may be the smoking guns of Ohio’s stolen 2004 election. A thorough recount of ballots and electronic files preserved by a federal lawsuit could tell the tale.”

Last November, despite being strongly supported by two controversial pastors connected to the religious right — the Rev. Rod Parsley, head of the World Harvest Church, and the Rev. Russell Johnson, the senior pastor of the evangelical Fairfield Christian Church — Blackwell lost the Ohio governor’s race by a wide margin.

Before the election, Paul Weyrich, who headed the conservative Heritage Foundation, where Blackwell was an analyst in 1990, said that the then up-and-coming Blackwell “represent[ed] the only chance the Republicans have in Ohio.”

Blackwell served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush as undersecretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1989 to 1990. After losing a run for a congressional seat, President Bush appointed him ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, where he served from 1992 to 1993. Blackwell was elected treasurer in 1994 and was elected Ohio Secretary of State in 1998, and re-elected in 2002.

He bucked the Republican establishment by supporting an amendment to the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage in 2004, which passed with more than 60 percent of the vote.

In coming out so forcefully against gay marriage, Blackwell became the darling of the religious right, both locally and nationally.

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Ted Wendling, “Blackwell was invited to join the Arlington Group in the summer of 2004 after he was identified as a leader of the anti-gay marriage movement by Arlington Group co-founder Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Mississippi.” (Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, is the group’s other founder.)

Wendling noted that the Arlington Group is “a powerhouse, by-invitation-only organisation whose roughly 60 members have direct access to the White House.”

Phil Buress, head of Citizens for Community Values, the group that poured nearly 1.2 million dollars into the campaign to ban gay marriage in Ohio, and who sits on the Arlington Group’s executive committee, became a major Blackwell backer.

However, despite support from both the religious and secular right, Blackwell lost to Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland by a 24 percent margin. In the end, Blackwell only received a disappointing 20 percent of the Black vote.

Despite his defeat, Blackwell is still highly thought of by the right. The blog of Ned Ryun — the son of former Kansas Republican congressman Jim Ryun, and a former presidential writer for George W. Bush — claimed that the “Word on the street is that… Blackwell is thinking about running for Senate… or Governor” in the future.

Now that he has a steady platform at the Family Research Council, expect to hear a lot more from Blackwell in the coming months and years.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. Read other articles by Bill.