Local News
9:32 am
Tue August 27, 2013

Gilligan was a politician like no other

John J. “Jack” Gilligan, the former Ohio governor who passed away Monday at age 92, was many things in his long life.

An unabashed, unapologetic liberal, seemingly oblivious to whether or not it cost or gained him votes.

A war hero, earning the Silver Star while serving on board a destroyer during the battle of Okinawa.

A young man who came home from the war, worked in the family funeral business, and went on to teach literature at Xavier University before launching his career in politics.  

A true intellectual, in an era of political when many politicians masked their intellect with a veneer of fake folksiness.

A one-term governor who risked it all by bucking decades of resistance to argue for and win the battle to institute a state income tax, a move that many believe brought Ohio out of the dark ages and into the 20th century.

A red-headed Irishman with a sardonic wit, that was often as likely to offend as it was to amuse.

And, above all, a man devoted not just to the rough-and-tumble of elective politics, but to public service – evidenced by the fact that, well into his 70s, he came back to run and win a seat on the Cincinnati Board of Education, for the simple reason that he believed in public education.

Jack Gilligan was all of that. And there was a time, during his time  as governor from 1971 to 1975, that he might well have done more. He might have changed his address from the Ohio governor’s mansion to the White House.

It was 1974 when Gilligan ran for re-election to a second term as governor. His opponent was the man he had replaced four years before – former governor James A. Rhodes, an old-fashioned country politician from Jackson County, Ohio, who was the polar opposite of the erudite, urban Gilligan.

Gilligan had served on Cincinnati City Council from 1953 to 1964, when he won a term in the U.S. House, only to lose it two years later to Robert Taft Jr. In 1970, he had run for the U.S. Senate, falling short again, this time to Republican William Saxbe, who later became President Richard Nixon’s attorney general.

Then, in 1970, he defeated the hapless Republican, Roger Cloud, to become governor of Ohio.

In his first year, he cajoled a reluctant Ohio General Assembly into passing Ohio’s first income tax. When opponents of the tax put a referendum on the ballot, Gilligan campaigned in every corner of the state to convince Ohio voters to keep the law.

In one famous debate with his legislative nemesis, the late State Rep. Bob Netzley, a hard-nosed conservative from Miami County, Gilligan let a little of his Irish temper show – he called Netzley a “bubblehead,” which made headlines across the state.

Still, Gilligan won the fight; and the income tax allowed the money to flow to Ohio’s cash-strapped school and social services for the poorest of Ohioans.

He went into the 1974 re-election campaign in some jeopardy. A decision to temporarily close the state parks as a cost-cutting measure enraged Ohio’s considerable number of campers and fishermen.

In 1974, Gilligan did his gubernatorial duty and toured the Ohio State Fair. In the sheep barn, a sheep farmer asked the governor if he would like to shear a sheep.

Surrounded by reporters and photographers, Gilligan let his Irish wit get away from him.

“I don’t shear sheep,’’ Gilligan said, “I shear taxpayers.”

It was a joke. People who knew Gilligan understood that. But Rhodes jumped on it like white on rice; and pounded Gilligan with the line on the campaign trail.

Still, 1974 was a Democratic year – the nation was weary of Watergate; Nixon had resigned in disgrace. And the Democratic Party was looking for a presidential candidate.

All Gilligan had to do was win re-election and he would have vaulted to the top tier of potential 1976 presidential contenders.

I was in Columbus that election night, covering the governor’s race for The Post, the daily student newspaper at Ohio University.

Both the Gilligan and Rhodes campaigns had victory parties going in the old Neil House Hotel, which was then across the street from the statehouse.

About midnight, when it appeared Gilligan would pull out a narrow victory, supporters wheeled a cart into the Gilligan party’s ballroom. On it was a giant cake, in the shape of the White House.

But several hours passed; the race narrowed; and, just before dawn, Rhodes had won the race – by only about 11,000 votes, less than one vote per precinct statewide.

The White House cake sat there, nearly uneaten, as a grim reminder of what might have been.

Ohio Democrats were devastated. Gilligan was a realist. He took it for what it was – a loss, one of only two outcomes for a candidate for public office.

After serving briefly in President Jimmy Carter’s administration as head of the Agency for International Development, he left Cincinnati and took a teaching job at Notre Dame, where he was director of the school’s Institute for International Peace Studies.

In 1991, he came home.

Eight years later, he ran for and won a seat on the Cincinnati Board of Education. Some saw it as a step-down for the former governor of a major state. Gilligan did not. He believed passionately in public education and served on the board through 2007.

When asked why he wasn’t running for re-election that year, Gilligan had a simple answer.

“I’m going to be 87 years old soon,’’ Gilligan said.

During those years, I ran into him most often in the aisles of the old Keller’s IGA grocery story in Clifton, where he pushed his own cart and did his own shopping.

We’d always stop in the produce section or the beverage aisle and stand around talking about the politics of the day.

He always had pointed and very funny things to say about politicians who had gotten under his skin; and I would always come away knowing more than I had when we met.

He was, after all, first and foremost, a teacher.