Politics & Policy

Rob Portman's Business Ties Don't Bother Ohio


On a warm October Friday in downtown Cleveland, a small crowd of protestors chanted "hey, hey, ho, ho, Wall Street values have got to go." A man hoisted a homemade sign that read: "Corporate America ♥ Rob Portman."

Although the ♥ was meant as a dig against the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, the love affair doesn't seem to bother Ohio voters very much. Most polls show the former six-term congressman from Cincinnati with a commanding lead over Democrat Lee Fisher, the state's lieutenant governor.

A landslide win by Portman on Nov. 2 would defy logic in this anti-Establishment year. The former U.S. Trade Representative embodies everything the Tea Party and its offshoots are not: a polished Washington insider reaching the next rung in a political career that began, and some predict may end, at the White House. Responsible for one of the biggest trade deals since Nafta, he's running in a state that has lost more than 100,000 jobs to foreign competition since 2004. And he's benefited from donations from corporate interests that have helped him raise more than $14 million.

Portman is leading because early on he made his campaign all about job creation, depriving Fisher, who oversees Ohio's economic development, of ownership of the issue voters say they care about the most. Portman's $8 million advantage in campaign cash doesn't hurt, either. "Mr. Portman has a lot of IOUs from folks he helped when he was trade czar," says Tim Burga, chief of staff for the Ohio chapter of the AFL-CIO. "Money matters."

Portman is poised to return to Washington as a proven dealmaker with close ties to lawmakers in both parties. "He'll play a prime role in the U.S. Senate from day one," says Gene Beaupré, a political science professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati. "Where he goes from there is just a matter of things lining up correctly," he says. Portman, who also served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, could play the kingpin in negotiations over trade deals and in any talks to cut spending or raise taxes to trim the budget deficit. Obama is expected to try to find common ground with Republicans on both those issues.

U.S. companies are lining up behind Portman. He has raised more than $1.7 million from corporate political action committees alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He is the top recipient of contributions from the insurance industry, with donations nearing $575,000, and ranks first in money from commercial banks, with more than $220,000, according to the same data. He raised an additional $697,000 from securities and investment firms and more than $1 million from lawyers and lobbyists.

His single biggest donor is Cincinnati-based American Financial Group (AFG), which owns a number of insurance and investment companies. The firm's executives have given Portman almost $125,000. Chairman Carl H. Lindner, a prominent Republican donor, and his son Carl H. Lindner III, the company's co-chief executive officer, each gave Portman's campaign the maximum $4,800 donation. Other CEO supporters include John Thain of CIT Group (CIT); Walter W. Bettinger II of Charles Schwab (SCHW); and William Johnson of H.J. Heinz (HNZ).

Portman, 54, was born and raised in Cincinnati. His father started Portman Equipment, a forklift dealership, with five workers. The company now employs 350 people in four states, according to its website. After earning an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a law degree from the University of Michigan (don't tell Ohio State fans), Portman practiced international trade law at Patton Boggs, a Washington (D.C.)-based law firm with strong political connections. In 1989 he took a job as associate White House counsel under President George H.W. Bush and later served as the director of the Office of Legislative Affairs before making a run for Congress.

During 12 years in the House, Portman was a pro-business moderate, authoring legislation to increase contribution limits on 401(k) plans and to expand pensions offered by small businesses. A member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, he helped pass the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and shortened the window on long-term capital gains from 18 months to 12 months.

A Bush family favorite, Portman served as trade representative, then budget director under President George W. Bush. He doesn't highlight that part of his résumé in stump speeches, though he's still benefiting from his Bush family ties. American Crossroads, a group organized with the help of former Bush political adviser Karl Rove and financed by many of the President's former donors, has spent more than $820,000 on Portman's race.

Portman also glosses over his role in marshalling votes for the Central America Free Trade Agreement. "Trade means jobs," he told business leaders at an event in Columbus, adding that Ohio has boosted exports for the last eight years and currently ranks seventh among the exporting states.

His opponents point out that more than 110,000 Ohioans have lost their jobs as the result of trade since 2004, according to the Ohio Jobs & Family Services Dept. Since 2000 the state has lost 400,000 manufacturing jobs, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. "How are people migrating to Portman?" asks Willie Holowecky, 45, a unionized state probation officer. "He worked for Bush, who caused this mess." Obama's flagging popularity may be helping Portman. Or it may be that Portman stresses jobs more than anything else, and that's the issue that even Democratic loyalists say Obama hasn't emphasized enough.

The bottom line: GOP Senate hopeful Rob Portman, a free-trade advocate and Bush insider, is leading in Ohio polls in this anti-Establishment year.

Lerer is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.
O'Connor is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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