Ohip GOP aide fired for offensive email

Toledo Blade

The Ohio Republican Party chairman apologized to U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland for a GOP e-mail that questioned the lawmaker’s sexuality, and the staff member who sent it was fired.

Strickland is the Democratic nominee for Ohio governor.

The e-mail — sent July 17 by the state Republican Party’s social conservative coordinator, Gary Lankford, and first reported Sunday by The Toledo Blade _ attacked Strickland’s resume and alleged piety, and it linked to an Internet post suggesting that both he and his wife, Frances, are gay.

Ohio GOP officials condemned the message last week and said they disciplined Lankford but did not fire him. Thursday, party chairman Bob Bennett wrote Strickland to offer "sincere apologies" for the e-mail’s "inappropriate suggestions about your private life."

Bennett also said he fired Lankford, a decision he said was delayed by an illness of pneumonia.

"Ohioans expect and deserve a competitive contest for governor focused on the substantive issues important to leading our state," Bennett wrote. "While public records, comments, platforms and proposals are fair game, we will not engage in rumor and innuendo.

"Those tactics have become unfortunate weapons of political warfare, and they continue to damage the public respect for our electoral process."

Strickland called the firing "appropriate" but said the e-mail would have gone "quietly under the radar" if the Blade had not reported it.

The state Democratic Party chairman, Chris Redfern, said Republicans waited too long to act on the message. "It wouldn’t take me a week to fire someone who disseminated such filth and hatred," he said.

Lankford did not respond to a request for comment. Before the firing, he was active in conservative politics.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Blackwell paid him nearly $16,000 this spring as a "voter contact consultant." The Ohio Restoration Project, a faith group that has hosted events featuring Blackwell, listed Lankford as its "state director" on its Web site until late last week, when the Blade began questioning GOP officials about him.

Blackwell’s spokesman, Carlo LoParo, said he supported Bennett’s decision: "I’m not going to second-guess the chairman."

The leader of a prominent gay advocacy group called Lankford’s e-mail "disgusting" and praised his firing.

"It’s great to see that they’ve taken appropriate action when someone speaks out in the way that he did," said Lynne Bowman, executive director of Equality Ohio.

Bennett ended his apology letter by asking Strickland to denounce what he called a "racially motivated hate campaign" by some Democrats against Blackwell, who is black. A GOP spokesman said Bennett was referring to a Cleveland flier from a group called "Blacks Against Blackwell," which reportedly dubs Blackwell "Our color _ but not our kind."

Strickland said he knew nothing of that flier or the group behind it, and he criticized Bennett for equating it with Lankford’s e-mail.

But, he added, "Any effort to inject race into the campaign is wrong, and certainly not something I would condone or do."

(Contact Jim Tankersley at jtankersley(at)theblade.com.)