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May 2008

Congressional spotlight: Ohio’s Zack Space

by Dimitri C. Michalakis

Facing reelection in the former Republican stronghold of the 18th CD, the first term Congressman is hoping his constituents appreciate his efforts to bring needed integrity to the job (his predecessor pleaded guilty to corruption charges) and jobs to the district, which is in the heart of rural Ohio and the Rust Belt.

Former football All-American and Ohio attorney Zack Space had publicly signed a pledge to do the right thing if he got to Congress, and he says he’s worked hard to keep that pledge during his eighteen months in office. He’s been in the forefront of ethical reform and he’s been a workhorse in fighting for jobs for his rural district. “Public service is something that right now I find extremely rewarding,” says the 47-year-old Ohio native who grew up in the district and practices law there with his father Socrates at Space & Space. “I hope that I can continue to exhibit leadership through service, as I’ve tried in the last 18 months, and with God’s blessing and the blessing of the people my district, I’ll be able to continue doing that.”

What’s your typical day like in public office?

The only thing that seems to remain constant from day to day is the long hours and the hard work. Basically it’s broken down into two different parts: my work when I’m in Washington and my work when I’m back in my home district. I’m usually in Washington from Monday or Tuesday to Thursday or Friday, then I’m back home every weekend. And when I’m in DC, it’s long days that start very early and usually end about 9 or 10 o’clock. It ranges from voting on the floor to attending committee hearing to meeting with constituents to researching or going over matters with my staff. And when I’m back in the district, usually I’m driving: I’ve got a very large, agricultural, rural district and I’ve got to cover a lot of ground. I don’t have any large cities: I have small towns, and in order to be effective I have to maintain a presence throughout the district. My district is 20% of the state of Ohio, 26 counties, so it’s a challenge.

What are the rewards of a life like this?

Time away from my family is the worst part, without question. But, otherwise, I feel like I’m doing something meaningful. I’ve been very happy trying to meet some of the needs that my district has. It’s not just rural, but very poor: in the heart of Appalachian Ohio the poverty rates exceed over 20%, in one county over 30%. People are living on starvation wages essentially and we want to try to give them opportunities, we want to create a climate that will attract business and keep those manufacturers facilities we have and try to draw in new manufacturing facilities. New sectors are emerging in energy, health care, technology, and even agriculture and we’re trying to position ourselves in the district to take advantage of these new sectors to create new jobs, good-paying jobs.

How is it going in this effort?

We’ve established an initiative that I’ve referred to as Renew Ohio 18 (for Ohio and the district) and it stands for realizing a new economic way. We put together groups of folks from here in Ohio that we feel are the best and the brightest on these issues. These include doctors, hospital administrators, educators, businessmen, public officials, and we’ve had forums on health care. We’re having similar forums on energy, and on broadband access and technology, and on agriculture, and we’ve established chairmen on each of these separate forums in their respective sectors and they each get charged with preparing a white paper. We’ve hired facilitators to come in to these meetings and we encourage people to participate. The results of these meetings are being compiled as I speak right now and later this month we hope to put together a plan. And it’s a plan that is going to be conceived not by me, not by some people on my staff, but literally by hundreds and hundreds of people from around the district and around the state who understand the need to think proactively and to give some forethought to our actions and to our future. This is planning not for next year, or even two years, but five or 10 or 20 years down the road. And I’m very proud of that initiative.

What has been your legislative focus the past two years?

I’m very active in Washington promoting legislation designed to enhance access to the Internet, as one example. If you live in rural America, and rural Ohio in particular, you’re not likely to have access to the Internet which is a significant disadvantage. From an economic point, and a quality of life perspective, the benefits of the Internet include better health care delivery through telemedicine, better education through distance learning, and even better security, with responders being better able to communicate with one another. We’ve also been very active in education-related initiatives from pre-school all the way to post-secondary. All these are designed to give the people from my district a fighting chance. If you live in my district, you are more likely to live in poverty and not have a college education. We’re trying to change that and that is work that is very rewarding for me.

Is it hard to be a Democrat in your district?

No, I don’t really think it is. I think the people I represent are moderate and have common sense. In the past they may have affiliated themselves with the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party, but I think at this point they are looking for leadership that is not bound by the confines of partisanship and they are more interested in the person than they are in the party. I’m doing my best to maintain a strong connection with them and I think in the end they are going to be more concerned about whether my heart is in the right place, whether my head is in the right place, whether I’m grounded, whether I remain ethical, and I intend to do all those things. And if they are satisfied, they are going to be able to overlook my party. Does the Democratic leadership in Washington understand you have to slant right in some cases, such as illegal immigration, because of the conservative makeup of your district?

The leadership of my party understands that and they’re going to want me to come back and in order for me to come back I have to represent the interests of my district. I need to trust the people that I represent because they need to trust me. I need to trust them and follow their lead. And Nancy Pelosi and the others in leadership know that. We don’t agree on a lot of initiatives, but we do agree that we want to keep a Democratic majority and me keeping this seat is going to go a long way in doing that.

How well how does it look for your reelection?

I think it looks pretty good, I mean you never know. Outside groups spent about $4 million dollars last year against me, and it’s always possible that they could do it again this year. We’re maintaining a strong profile, we’re raising money, we’re doing everything right because we can’t afford not to and I’m very confident that in the end the best form of campaigning is doing your job effectively, doing it right. I think I’ve been doing that and I think that in the end we’ll pick up another term.

Are you supporting anyone in particular in the presidential race?

I think the Democratic Party has two very good candidates and I will support whoever is the nominee. But I find it distasteful - though I respect my colleagues - I think there is something distasteful in a system that would have political insiders determine the outcome of an election. I hope that this will be determined by the voters through the pledged delegate system in advance of the convention in August and by the time the convention comes around we will have our nominee and whoever that is I will support vigorously.

How important do you think a change in the administration is in a state like yours?

I think it’s absolutely imperative that we get a president who understand the need to extend health care coverage, for example, who understands the need to use federal resources and cure diseases through stem-cell research funding, who understands that this war we’re engaged cannot be a one-hundred-year fiasco.

Do you feel a change in administration will change support for Greece and Cyprus?

This administration has not been supportive. You respect that the new president, no matter who it is, will give a fresh look to issues like FYROM, Cyprus and the travesty associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate--that these issues will be taken seriously. These issues are rooted in basic human rights and respect for international law and these are things that have been lacking. I think that what has been lacking in the current administration from a general perspective, without making this overly political, is the lack of leadership at the international level. I think what this country desperately needs is to restore that, and as a part of the restoration, I look for the effectuation of justice, not just in Greece and in southern Europe, but throughout the world. I think there is a lot on the line right now and I’m hoping the next president will understand the importance of restoring all the goodwill that we lost at the international level.

Now that Greece and Turkey are talking more openly what do you think are the prospects for movement on the Cyprus issue?

Well, I’m hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic. It’s good to see that they are beginning to resume talks, but nobody really knows where Turkey is coming from, the extent of their role in these discussions, and Turkey’s ultimate position. But because the world is evolving, and because Turkey, I think, has a serious interest in eventually ascending into the European Union, I am hopeful that we will begin to see some progress. And again, I think the effect of a new administration on those negotiations could be significant. It could be a nudge or a prod that will be required to get something done.

What do you think personally about the Macedonian issue and FYROM?

It goes beyond a mere name, it’s a cultural issue. I can understand the indignity associated with it or the offensiveness of the use of the name, but I have to tell you, many of my colleagues have a hard time understanding it, because they simply don’t understand anything of the history and for them its difficult to perceive how this could be such a big deal. What’s in a name? is what I’ve heard from a number of my colleagues. Having said that, however, we’re gaining steam with people like Gus Bilirakis and John Sarbanes being very strong advocates for this in Congress in terms of its gaining awareness and recognition. When I was in Greece in December I met with Karamanis and had a chance to speak with him personally about the importance of this in Greece and was advised of its extreme political importance: it’s a very volatile issue right now in Greece, something I wasn’t even aware until Karamanis explained to me some of the repercussions in his actions in attempting to work out a compromise. I understand where many Greeks are coming from in this issue and I think some of our work in Congress has paid off with the State Department. I’m hopeful we’ll keep the pressure on and we’ll see some real progress in the issue.

With you and John Sarbanes and Gus Bilirakis, is there a new Greek lobby forming in Congress?

With all three of us being freshmen, there is a sense of freshness and new blood.I agree with you, its exciting—I love my heritage, I’m proud of it, I know that John and Gus feel the same way—they’re both becoming good friends of mine. I think it’s nice that we’ve got representation from both parties that are in this new Congress, three Greeks, the new Greeks, and I’d like to see more. Our culture values hard work and personal responsibility, the value of family and planning and protecting the family for the future. And who better to serve these sort of values but Greek-Americans--people who have been raised in our culture, our faith, and our economic value system.

You entered public service almost by accident after the death of your friend Tom Watson, the law director in Dover?

You should know that Dover has about 11,000 people and there aren’t even that many people eligible to run for a law director—it’s not even a big political job, it’s more just representing the citizens in the interests of the city. And Tom was a friend, I helped him when he ran, and tragically his life was cut far too short. His wife, who was a good friend and his father, who was a very good friend of mine as well of as my father’s, urged me to consider filling his place and I did, and I ended up enjoying it very much. I’ve always tried to give back to my community, whether it be through serving on the mental retardation board in the past or coaching little league or helping to raise funds for local charities, but I found the public service through elected office was a very meaningful way to do that.

You carried that to the next level when you ran for Congress.

I’ve been always interested in politics, whether on the local or national level. I was following some of the very people that I’m working with now, which is somewhat of a thrill for me. But I wasn’t very happy with my previous congressman, and the honest truth is that I tried to recruit three or four people to run against him. I thought that he was vulnerable, I saw some of the handwriting on the wall, and I couldn’t find anyone interested in taking him on, so I decided to do it myself. And I was certainly benefited by exceptionally good timing. I had luck on my side. But we also had a lot of hard work and I think a very clear and important message we were trying to deliver to the people that I now represent. I think it paid off.

So there’s no turning back for you then?

I don’t know. In my entire life I never had grand aspirations. I try to do what my father taught me to do, and that is always to try to do the right thing and I learned sometimes doing the right thing is not the easiest thing, but in the long run that’s the best thing. You know if this career is two years and I’m back practicing law in Dover after that, so be it. I will make the most of it. If it keeps me in this position for many years or takes me elsewhere, I’ll be okay with that, too. I’m going to follow my gut, my instinct, and do what’s right. Public service is something that right now I find extremely rewarding, I hope that I can continue to exhibit leadership through service, as I’ve tried in the last 18 months, and with God’s blessing and the blessing of the people my district, I’ll be able to continue doing that.

What is the story again about your name and how the name became Space?

Well, there’s some dispute about that, but here’s what I got. I was in Ikaria in December, late November, and stayed with family and got the whole story, and hopefully this is the true story. Up until about three generations ago, the name was Karras, and in fact there are still some people on the island, cousins, named Karras. But my great-great-grandfather, as the story goes, performed a heroic act. When the Turks occupied the island, he reportedly did something of a heroic nature, there’s dispute as to what that was, whether it was to convince the Turks to refrain from shelling a church on the island or taking the honor of a woman, we’re not sure. And there’s a Turkish word—I don’t know the exact word--for the term heroic deed and it sounds something like Space and they gave my great-great-grandfather the nickname. Then, in all his humility, he decided to formally change his name to Heroic Deed, and ever since then that’s been the family name.

And Zackarias was your great great grandfather?

I bear his name.

So we expect you to keep performing heroic deeds in Congress.

Well, I’ll keep trying!

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