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Democratic Ohio Supreme Court Justice's Entry Into Gubernatorial Race Examined

The Ohio Supreme Court
Justice William O'Neill

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill’s announcement over the weekend that he intends to run for governor has some wondering how that will affect the four people already in the Democratic race. It also raises questions about whether his entry could force another potential candidate to jump in from the sidelines.

Longtime Democratic political operative Jerry Austin says he’s not surprised O’Neill has entered the race even though there are four candidates who are already there. Austin says they lack statewide name recognition.

“If the election were held today with Bill O’Neill and the four other candidates, he’d win.”

O’Neill is the only Democratic Justice on the Ohio Supreme Court and one of only two Democrats who hold statewide elective office. The other is US Senator Sherrod Brown. The 70-year-old O’Neill must retire from the court at the end of next year because of age limits. So that makes the timing of filing his paperwork significant. He won’t technically qualify as a candidate for governor until his paperwork is filed. If he waits until February to declare his candidacy, he can get around a judicial ethics rule that bars him from pursuing another office while sitting on the bench. But if and when he does file that paperwork, Republican Gov. John Kasich would be able to appoint someone to fill his place – which has angered some Democrats. And Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor – who is a Republican – has issued a statement warning O’Neill to consider his position and its ethical obligations when it comes to the cases that might come before him on the Supreme Court.

O’Neill has said he won’t run for governor if Richard Cordray decides to run for the state’s top post. Cordray is a former state treasurer and attorney general, but as head of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he can’t even talk about whether he wants to run. When asked whether O’Neill could be floating a run for governor to prod Cordray to enter the race, Austin says Cordray is running out of time.

“I don’t know that Rich Cordray is going to run or not run based on Bill O’Neill. I think he has his own timetable but that timetable is closing on him because he’s got to set up a campaign. He’s got to find a running mate and those kinds of to-do lists are right before him.”

The Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, David Pepper, says he and other party leaders are starting to put O’Neill through the vetting process.

“This is a thorough process so it’s not just sort of a six hour thing so you don’t get a short cut if you happen to be in office. It’s something that everyone, whether they are in office or not, have to go through.”

And Pepper says if Cordray should decide to run, he will also have to go through the vetting process. Pepper says that’s been beefed up since numerous problems surfaced with gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald, including driving government vehicles without having a valid driver’s license. Two months before the 2014 vote, it was revealed FitzGerald hadn’t had a valid driver’s license for a decade. Pepper says the four candidates who were running before O’Neill made his announcement have been vetted. Former Congresswoman Betty Sutton, former Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, former State Representative Connie Pillich and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley have been in the race for months now and have participated in two debates. Pepper says once O’Neill’s vetting process is complete, he can also be cleared to participate in remaining debates.

But Pepper says the party is not going to get behind any one of the candidates or waive rules for any of them during the primary process.

“There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about primaries and endorsements and we are, as a party, working very hard to be open, transparent and treat everyone the exact same and that is what we plan to do.”

For its part, the Ohio Republican Party isn’t endorsing any of its four gubernatorial candidates before the primary either. Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor and Congressman Jim Renacci have been in the race and raising money for months now. And so far, the Republican candidates have bested the Democratic candidates when it comes to campaign fundraising. O’Neill and some other Democrats are hoping Cordray will run because they believe he can better raise the funds needed to compete with Republicans in the race next fall.

Contact Jo Ingles at
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