FitzGerald’s miscue could be costly

On the side

Democrats for Johnson: The campaign of U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, announced a “Democrats for Johnson” group that will work to get the two-term GOP incumbent re-elected next year.

Those forming the group are: Steubenville Councilmen Gerald “Yonk” DiLoreto and Robert Villamagna, Jefferson County Commissioner Tom Gentile, and Joe “Sluggs” Smarrella, a retired United Steelworkers of America Local 1190 official.

The campaign statement acknowledges that Smarrella has previously supported Johnson.

It doesn’t mention that while Villamagna is a Democrat, he told The Columbus Dispatch last year that he supported Republican Mitt Romney for president.

Johnson is being challenged in next year’s election by former state Rep. Jennifer Garrison, a Democrat from Marietta.

We’ll have to see if Garrison can find some Republicans in the 18-county 6th District who’ll endorse her candidacy.

The district includes all of Columbiana County and portions of Mahoning County.

The failure of Ed Fitz-Gerald, running for the Democratic nomination for governor next year, to realize having a running mate who, along with his wife and his businesses, owes about $826,000 in unpaid taxes is a big deal should make people pause.

It would be logical to think that after a vetting process showed state Sen. Eric Kearney, FitzGerald’s choice for a lieutenant governor running mate, had serious financial problems that he would be automatically disqualified from the selection process.

But FitzGerald, Cuyahoga County executive, aware of Kearney’s unpaid taxes about a month before announcing the state senator from Cincinnati as his running mate, didn’t see a problem.

“No distinction was made between Eric’s personal financial situation and the companies’ indebtedness,” FitzGerald told me after Kearney left the campaign. “The problem is you’re having that conversation [about Kearney’s finances] and not why are we not creating jobs in Ohio or slashing the Local Government Fund or why taxes are going up for everyone but the wealthy.”

Despite FitzGerald’s explanation, it’s still surprising that he and his campaign staff, which includes some seasoned political operatives, failed to see this impending disaster.

FitzGerald laughed when I mentioned the word disaster, and said, “My answer is this is not a standard that was applied before. On a going-forward basis, I am assuming [business] financial issues applies to everyone on the Republican ticket.”

FitzGerald specifically pointed to Republican Gov. John Kasich’s time as a managing director for Lehman Brothers, a financial services firm that experienced the nation’s largest bankruptcy when it occurred in September 2008.

FitzGerald contends Kasich’s business experience “should disqualify him from office.”

Lehman was in issue in the 2010 gubernatorial race, but voters didn’t think it was a major concern when they elected Kasich over incumbent Democratic Ted Strickland.

How did it get to the point where FitzGerald, running on a platform that focuses on what he calls “Kasich’s faltering economy,” felt it was fine to do so with a running mate who — along with his wife and companies — owes about $826,000 in unpaid taxes?

“We didn’t think [the tax issues] would overshadow his qualifications and experience,” FitzGerald said. “But it distracted us from having that discussion” of the state’s economy. “It ended up capturing the conversation. We now have to head in a different direction.”

Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras said, “What I want to talk about in this campaign is John Kasich’s failed economic policies” and “anything else that distracts from that is a distraction.”

The problems emerged almost immediately after FitzGerald named Kearney, a likeable state senator from Cincinnati, as his running mate Nov. 20.

With each article on Kearney’s finances, the campaign dug in their heels with Kearney insisting he was staying. On an ill-conceived conference call last week with state political reporters, Kearney tried to explain away the problems, but only dug a deeper hole.

FitzGerald said he’ll have a new running mate around the beginning of next month, and that he’s already vetted a number of candidates who he considered as possible running mates before selecting Kearney.

We saw how the original vetting process went.

“I’m sure the vetting is going to be twice as hard as the last time,” said state Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th.

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