This was the first year judicial candidates could claim political affiliations.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County voters, long known for overwhelmingly backing Democratic candidates, lately seem willing to look the "other" way at the polls, at least when it comes to electing judges.
Two Republican judges won their races handily in Tuesday's general election, despite the fact that judicial candidates were allowed for the first time to state their political party affiliation as part of their campaign.
"Absolutely that concerned me," said Judge Maureen A. Sweeney, a Republican who retained her seat on the common pleas court bench by defeating Democratic Judge Elizabeth A. Kobly of Youngstown Municipal Court.
Judge Theresa Dellick of juvenile court, also a Republican, easily defeated Democratic challenger Atty. Wade Smith Jr.
In both races, the challengers made sure voters were aware of their party affiliations in campaign materials and advertisements. But when voters stepped into the ballot box, there was no party affiliation listed next to their names.
That's because in Ohio, judicial races in general elections are considered nonpartisan. Most judicial candidates are required to run in a partisan primary election but have not been allowed to address their party affiliation for the general election. Judges who run for part-time county court seats don't have primary elections.
Until this year, judges could not bring up their party affiliation at all during a general election campaign. But that changed in September when a federal court judge ruled that restricting judicial candidates that way violates their right to free speech.
Once that ruling came down, Smith and Judge Kobly began airing ads in which they billed themselves as Democrats. That strategy concerned the Republican candidates and party leaders because Democrats outnumber Republicans 62,568 to 14,765 among county registered voters. There are also 118,079 registered voters in the county with no party affiliation.
"There is no question that we were nervous about Judge Dellick's race," said Mark Munroe, vice chairman of the county GOP. "The Democrats made it very clear that it was going to be their targeted race."
With an unusually high voter turnout anticipated, Republicans figured that also meant record numbers of Democrats, which they believed could have spelled trouble for Judge Dellick, even though she was the incumbent.
Smith ran an aggressive campaign in which he attacked Judge Dellick's performance. He spent more than $150,000 -- the most of all the judicial candidates -- in his attempt to unseat Judge Dellick.
"In the end, the voters looked beyond that," Munroe said. "I think the voters really resented the very negative attack."
Neither Munroe, Judge Dellick nor Judge Sweeney was sure why voters seem willing to elect Republicans to the bench in Mahoning County but seem loathe to elect them to other offices.
In Tuesday's nonjudicial races, Democrats John A. McNally IV and Anthony Traficanti hammered their Republican opponents, Patrick Strange and Samuel Moffie, to become Mahoning County's next commissioners. The county has not had a Republican commissioner in years.
Republican Judge R. Scott Krichbaum has been elected to three terms on the common pleas court bench. Two Republican judges -- Scott Hunter and Joseph Houser -- have been elected to serve in the area court system.
"People don't care about that 'R' and 'D' stuff when they're electing a judge," said Judge Krichbaum, who won his last re-election bid in 2002 by some 44,000 votes over Atty. James Callen. "That doesn't mean anything in a judicial race, and it shouldn't."
Judges Sweeney and Dellick agreed, but said they still were concerned about how their party label would affect their chances.
Judge Dellick tried to overcome the party affiliation by stressing her performance on the bench and her commitment to children and families. Judge Sweeney said she attended as many social events as possible, introducing herself to people with a personal touch.
"I don't think politics should play a role in the judiciary," Judge Dellick said. "I think people seek impartiality in judges."
Party chairwoman's view
Lisa Antonini, chairwoman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, disagreed and said party affiliation does matter, despite solid victories by Judge Dellick and Judge Sweeney.
"I truly believe that if there was a 'D' on the ballot next to [Smith's and Judge Kobly's] names, that we could have had different outcomes," Antonini said.
She said the federal court ruling that allows judicial candidates to claim party affiliation on the campaign trail should be expanded to allow their affiliation to be printed on ballots, the same as other contested races.
"It's a contradiction as it stands now," Antonini said. "To get to the general election, you have to run in a partisan primary. If you come out of the primary as the Democratic nominee, then why shouldn't you be on the ballot as a Democrat?"
But Munroe disagreed and said the system should be left as it is.
"We want our judges to be elected without that party bias," he said. "They are supposed to be fair and impartial, and I think removing them from that party affiliation is a good thing."
He also disagreed with Antonini that having party affiliation listed on the ballot would have changed Tuesday's outcomes.
"They won pretty convincingly," he said of Judges Dellick and Sweeney. "I'm not sure the 'R' or the 'D' would have made a difference."