By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains has established a committee to explore a run by him for the Democratic nomination for Ohio attorney general in next year's election.
Gains held a 10-minute private conversation Friday with Ohio Democratic Chairman David Leland about Gains' potential candidacy. Leland was in town for the county Democratic picnic.
Leland is speaking to other potential candidates including Lee Fisher, a former attorney general. But the chairman said Gains is a strong candidate, particularly because of his above-reproach reputation sealed by the December 1996 Mafia-ordered hit on him in a failed attempt to keep him from taking office.
"It's a very compelling story and no one could steal the crime-fighting mantle from him," Leland said. "He's certainly fought crime where it counts and everybody else would have a difficult time competing with him for people's attention."
Democratic recruits: Leland said he is traveling around the state meeting with potential candidates trying to solidify the Democratic ticket for 2002. Republicans currently hold every statewide elected position and control both legislative chambers.
"We're in the recruiting mode right now," Leland said. "I talk to good Democratic officeholders about the reality of being a candidate."
One of those realities is Gains or any other Democratic AG candidate would have to raise about $2 million for a campaign run. Ohio Auditor Jim Petro and state Treasurer Joseph Deters, two well-known Republicans, are running in their party's primary next year with the winner moving onto the general election against the Democratic nominee.
Gains said with his background, which includes being a Youngstown police officer -- he's still a card-carrying member of the Fraternal Order of Police -- as well as a lawyer and two-term county prosecutor, he has a legitimate shot at capturing the seat.
"The more I think about it, it would be one hell of a challenge," he said. "In light of everything that's occurred here in the past five, six years, it indicates we're moving ahead in the right direction."
Gains said local political consultant Vic Rubenstein is one of the main people on his exploratory committee.
Why he ran: Gains said when he ran for county prosecutor in 1996 against James A. Philomena, who was convicted in 1999 of accepting bribes from an attorney for fixing cases while in office, he did it only because he suspected there were questionable practices in that county department and no one else was running. Gains said he did not envision at the time that he would ever be asked by the Democratic Party to consider a statewide bid.
Leland said the Mahoning Valley is critical to any Democratic candidate's chances of winning a statewide office.
"The Democratic Party can't win anything without strong support from the Mahoning Valley," he said. "We're not going to have any success in any election in 2002 without the continued support of this Valley."
State Rep. Bryan Flannery of Lakewood, who will announce later this year that he is running for Ohio secretary of state, realizes that as well. Flannery, D-17th, was among the nearly 275 people at the party's picnic at the Maronite Center.
"No doubt, Mahoning County is key to any statewide race," he said. "It's key to the Democrats and their success. In order to offset some of the rural counties, you need to do real well in Mahoning."