Another shot for the Gilligans
Talking to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her father, former Ohio governor John J. Gilligan, Wednesday afternoon, after her speech at an Obama rally in Evanston, it was hard not to think back to the last time a Gilligan was being mentioned as a possible presidential or vice presidential candidate - the way Sebelius is being mentioned now, as a possible running mate for Barack Obama.
It was the fall of 1974. Richard Nixon had just resigned the presidency in disgrace. The Republican party nationally was in shambles. Democrats were poised to sweep statehouses and congressional districts all over the country, and were salivating over the propsect of the 1976 presidential election, hoping some of that Watergate malaise would carry over (President Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon in September helped fuel that hope) and they would reclaim the White House.
There were a host of Democrats whose names were being being mentioned as possible presidential contenders, including Gilligan, the former congressman and councilman from Cincinnati who had been elected Ohio governor in 1970.
Gilligan's term as governor had not always been a joy ride. But he clearly had some political skills. He took on the cause of instituting Ohio's first income tax and somehow convinced a nervous legislature to approve it. Then, in 1972, anti-tax groups got a referendum on the ballot to repeal the income tax. Gilligan stumped around the state and somehow managed to convince Ohio voters to reject the repeal.
He had to close the state park system for a time in a budget crunch, turning pretty much every fisherman and camper in the state against him.
His natural wit, too, could get him in trouble sometimes. On one visit to the Ohio State Fair, he walked through the sheep barn, with some reporters, talking to the 4-H kids and having his picture taken. When asked if he wanted to help shear a sheep, Gilligan let loose a wisecrack that gave Republicans something to pound into his head for the rest of his days in office. "I don't shear sheep,'' the governor said. "I shear taxpayers."
Still, there was widespread agreement that, in 1974, he was the favorite for re-election, especially in the post-Watergate atmosphere and because of the fact that his opponent was his predecessor in the governor's office, James Rhodes, who was blamed by many for spending the state into a situation where it needed an income tax.
On election night, Gilligan's campaign staged a victory party at the old Neil House hotel, just across the from the statehouse. Rhodes had his party in another ballrooom in the same hotel.
Early in the evening, Gilligan supporters wheeled a giant cake into the ballroom - a cake in the shape of the White House.
The vote count went on all night, with the lead shifting constantly. Finally, about dawn, the final result was in: Rhodes had won by 11,488 votes - less than one vote per precinct.
That ended the talk of Gilligan on the national ticket. The governor went on to serve for a while in the Carter administration and taught for years at Notre Dame before returning to Cincinnati in the early 1990s. And, of course, he served on the Cincinnati school board before retiring this year.
It's hard to say what might have happened had he won that 1974 re-election campaign. Winning the presidential nomination in a crowded field might have been difficult, but the second spot on the ticket was certainly a possibility.
Now, at age 85, he is watching the same kind of speculation swirl around his eldest daughter, the two-term governor of Kansas, where she moved after her marriage ot a Kansan 33 years ago.
We don't know what kind of advice he might offer. Maybe it boils down to this: If you find yourself in a sheep barn, keep your mouth shut.