Race is key battle in state
Some Ohio Democrats view Randy Law's victory two years ago as a 'fluke.'
By ED RUNYAN
and TIM YOVICH
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- Democrats and Republicans alike view the 64th Ohio House seat as one of the most important in the state -- and are planning their battle for it.
This fall's election pits incumbent Randy Law, a Republican, against Democratic challenger Thomas Letson, an attorney. Both are from Warren.
The Ohio Democratic Party maintains that Law's win two years ago over former Warren mayor and ex-state Rep. Dan Sferra was an anomaly in the Democratic stronghold.
"It was a fluke he won," argues Brian Rothenberg, state Democratic Party communications director, pointing out the district is 60 percent Democrat.
Rothenberg said Law has walked in "lockstep" with the state Republican Party by voting to increase taxes. "He is a product of the pay-to-play atmosphere in Columbus," Rothenberg said, arguing Law hasn't been focused on job creation or educational funding.
"Tom Letson has the full support of the party," Rothenberg added, charging that Law takes money from lobbyists and gives them his ear.
Rothenberg said a Democrat should be elected from the 64th District because there is "no balance in Columbus" with the Republicans in control. He maintains the primary reason Letson should be voted in is because he can better represent the middle-class Democrats.
"Letson will be able to work with both parties," Rothenberg added.
Spending on the campaigns will increase in coming months. The candidates' most up-to-date financial reports are from the summer. In July, Letson had contributions of $20,240, with $15,807 on hand. When Law last reported his finances to the Ohio Secretary of State in June, he had $2,516 on hand.
Letson is attracting Democratic contributors such as Jeffrey Hovanic, Champion Township trustee; businessman Thomas Fok, an engineer; Cortland councilman and former Mayor Dennis Linville; Warren Mayor Michael O'Brien; county auditor Adrian Biviano; Robert Faulkner, chairman of the Warren Board of Education; J.J. Cafaro, vice president of the Cafaro Corp.; and the Ohio State Bar Association.
Disagrees with assessment
Christ Michelakis, Trumbull County Democratic Party chairman, says Law's win wasn't a fluke. He pointed out that the state Republicans threw a large amount of money into Law's campaign and Sferra "got caught with his pants down."
At the county level, the Democratic Party doesn't give candidates money. Rather, candidates pool their money to produce literature that features contested races. Michelakis said the candidates each contributed $1,700 for the May primary and are contributing $2,300 for the general election.
Michelakis said he realizes Republicans are targeting the 64th District race, but he cautioned them that "we're a little bit more prepared for it this time."
The district takes in Warren, Cortland and the townships of Howland, Champion, Warren, Braceville, Southington, Farmington, Mesopotamia, Mecca, Johnston, Bristol, Vienna and parts of Fowler and Bazetta.
Letson said the number of home foreclosures in the county and other economic measurements show that the Republicans in Columbus and elsewhere have been bad for the area. The Republicans "have done all they can to eliminate the middle class," he said.
"We have lost more jobs under the Republican Party than any other period in history," he said, adding that the tax reforms approved by the Legislature have rewarded the richest segments of Ohio's population.
GOP stands behind Law
But Jon Husted, the Republican speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, said he believes Law has the support of the district. Husted is not ruling out providing financial support from Columbus again, however.
"We don't make decisions this early on resource allocation," Husted said of the Ohio House Republican Campaign Committee. "Randy is a very strong candidate on his own. If he needs our help, we won't hesitate to help him."
Area Democrats have complained that the party has been propping up Law in an effort to keep a Republican legislator in the Democrat-controlled Mahoning Valley. When Law defeated Sferra in 2004, the Republican Campaign Committee contributed $157,364 to Law's campaign between Oct. 22 and Nov. 3, 2004. Law's own campaign raised and spent about $17,000.
Husted said the usual time frame for the committee to provide financial assistance to a candidate such as Law would be the last month before the election.
Praise for incumbent
Husted said he spent time with Law on Aug. 23 for a fundraiser at the Trumbull Country Club. "Randy more than anyone in the Legislature I know of -- his whole mission is to be the best advocate for his district he can be. He really focuses on his district. He will say 'no' to the very end if it's not good for his district," Husted said.
During that visit, Law "did a great job of taking me through the issues that were important to the district," he added -- referring by name to the possibility of building a lodge on Mosquito Lake and the problems with inadequate septic systems.
Husted credited Law with being effective as a legislator because of $300,000 he obtained for Warren safety forces, and other issues. Husted said Law's membership in the majority party was essential to getting that funding. "If he were in the minority, the money for the safety forces would have never happened," Husted said.
Some area Democrats agree. At the time the $300,000 was announced, Mayor O'Brien and Hubbard Mayor Art Magee, both Democrats, complained that the money was a ploy to keep Law elected. "It stinks," Magee said at the time.
Law responds to the issue of state GOP financial support: "If people want to say that I was helped, I'm OK with that. I'm going to use our partisan politics to help our community."
One thing Law says he did without regard to partisan politics was spearhead the effort to strengthen state regulations of construction and demolition debris landfills. He says Republican legislators were in no mood to change the laws when he sponsored House Bill 59 in 2005.
He battled opponents of his reform, however, and last December, Gov. Bob Taft signed the legislation. Rules are still being written that define the scope of the law, but its effects are to change the criteria that determine where landfills can be built or expanded, changed landfill liner requirements and changed operating procedures, Law said.
Law said getting approval of landfill changes did not occur "because I was any fair-haired child. I have the bruises to prove it. It was an excruciating, educational process."
Craig Bonar, Trumbull County's Republican Party chairman, says there are two reasons Law should be re-elected: the money he has brought back to the district and his ability to get things done as a member of the majority party.
"How much money has been brought back to the county since we've had a majority member?" Bonar said. Law gets credit for $1 million in state money reassigned to W.D. Packard Music Hall that other legislators wanted allocated outside of the district, Bonar said.
He conceded that it is important to the county party to have a Republican Statehouse representative, saying it helps in party recruiting and fundraising. It also helps the party because "we are heard and not ignored."
"Before Randy, even the Republican Party ignored me. He's opened doors for me," Bonar said.
Bonar said he thinks retirements at Delphi Packard and General Motors are eroding the strength of the Democrats. In addition to the loss of union jobs because of the buyouts, Bonar says he believes many former union retirees are leaving the area and taking their support for Democratic politics with them.