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By David Skolnick
The Mahoning County Probate Court judicial race is heating up as Mark Belinky officially withdrew from the Democratic primary, and Democratic candidate Christopher Sammarone faces criticism for using a decades-old quote from Jim Tressel on his campaign materials.
Also, George P. Millich Jr., who was vying to replace Belinky first through a gubernatorial appointment and then in the general election as an independent candidate, is no longer seeking the seat.
Belinky, who resigned March 14 as probate court judge and remains under criminal investigation from the state, withdrew Tuesday from the May 6 Democratic primary.
“I kind of forgot about it with all the chaos” surrounding the investigation and resignation, Belinky said. “I thought [the board of elections would] automatically take me off the ballot, but they can’t do that.”
Belinky said he recently learned that early-voting ballots still had his name. Early voting began April 1.
“I didn’t want to affect the election,” he said.
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation served warrants Feb. 7 on his Boardman home and his then Youngstown court office. The warrants state Belinky is being investigated for potentially engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and tampering with records as well as possible bribery, money laundering, theft and theft in office.
Belinky declined Tuesday to comment on the investigation.
The board of elections won’t count any ballots already cast for Belinky and will inform other early voters that votes for the former judge won’t be counted, said Joyce Kale-Pesta, its director. Also, there will be signs at polling locations May 6 that votes for Belinky won’t be counted.
When told of Belinky’s withdrawal, Sammarone said: “Finally, finally, finally, finally. I’m pleased he’s out as he was hurting my candidacy. He wasn’t campaigning, so why stay on the ballot and confuse the voters?”
Sammarone said Belinky’s withdrawal helps his campaign as Belinky would split “male voters,” and “people recognize Belinky’s name and don’t know” about his legal problems.
Also, a one-on-one matchup with Susan Maruca in the Democratic primary makes it easier to win, Sammarone said.
Maruca, the county party’s endorsed candidate who has received numerous other endorsements, said, “I hope to win the election and restore stability to the court,” pointing out that Belinky and Timothy Maloney, the prior probate court judge, both left the bench before their terms expired.
Meanwhile, Sammarone’s use of a quote from Tressel, his former football coach at Youngstown State University, calling him “a leader” on campaign materials is being criticized.
It also prompted a response from Tressel, the University of Akron’s executive vice president for student success, through the school’s communications department.
“He heard about this issue from some friends who made him aware of the use of the quote,” said Eileen Korey, a university spokeswoman. “Apparently, the quote comes from an old Youngstown Vindicator article written back when Chris played for Coach Tressel” in the early 1990s.
Tressel, through Korey, declined further comment.
But county Democratic Party Chairman David Betras said, “Using Coach Tressel’s name in campaign ads and fliers without permission raises serious questions about Mr. Sammarone’s integrity and, in turn, his fitness for this critically important judicial office.”
Maruca said she saw two pieces of Sammarone’s campaign materials with the Tressel quote, and had Donald McTigue, her campaign attorney, send Sammarone a letter last Friday asking him to remove the quote. Sammarone didn’t respond.
It “misleads the voters,” she said.
Sammarone defended the quote, saying it’s not meant to be political — even though it’s on campaign material.
“It’s an attempt by Betras and his candidate to try to discredit Coach Tressel and myself,” Sammarone said. “A quote from Jim Tressel is a quote from Jim Tressel. It’s a statement he made. I don’t see why anyone would confuse the quote as being about my campaign.”
Sammarone will have a news conference today to discuss this issue.
Sammarone and Maruca are among those seeking to fill the remainder of Belinky’s unexpired term as probate court judge. The term expires Feb. 8, 2015.
Also seeking the appointment are Mary Ann Fabrizi and Robert N. Rusu, who plan to file as independent candidates.
But Millich, who also wanted the appointment and was circulating nominating petitions to run as an independent, has withdrawn from consideration and won’t file for the general election.
“I reflected upon it more and talked with my clients and decided to stay in private practice,” Millich said. “I took a look at things and decided to withdraw. Clients ask ‘who’ll help me?’ and I decided my efforts are better served on this side.”
A screening committee organized by the county Republican Party will interview the four applicants Saturday and should have three recommendations to Gov. John Kasich by early next week, said county GOP Chairman Mark Munroe.
The final decision on who will fill Belinky’s unexpired term rests with Kasich.