By David Skolnick
Two judicial candidates withdrew before members of the Mahoning County Democratic Party central and executive committees could vote in their races.
Meanwhile, Probate Court Judge Mark Belinky, under state criminal investigation, finished last among three seeking the party’s endorsement Saturday for his post in the May 6 primary.
Members of the committees threw their support in the probate court primary behind Susan Maruca, an attorney who finished last in a three-person Democratic primary six years ago for the seat won by Judge Belinky.
Maruca received 110 votes to 50 for Christopher Sammarone and 40 for Judge Belinky.
The state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, with the assistance of the FBI and the county sheriff’s office, served warrants Feb. 7, two days after the primary filing deadline, on the judge’s court office in Youngstown and his Boardman home looking for evidence to possibly file criminal charges. Charges could include engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with records, bribery, money laundering, theft, and theft in office, according to two search warrants.
“I filed for re-election, and all hell broke loose,” said Judge Belinky, denying the allegations, but acknowledging “concern” about the investigation.
“I can win this race,” he said after losing the endorsement vote. “How [the investigation] plays out, I don’t know. There may be nothing there. It wouldn’t be the first time someone was investigated and nothing came of it. But [the investigation] hurt here with the party.”
Judge Belinky said he “didn’t expect to win” the party’s endorsement because of the investigation.
“I am concerned the two candidates with the most qualifications were not considered by the committee people,” he said, taking a shot at Maruca.
“I thought I would do better than” 40 votes, he said. “I’m a little surprised at the results. It’s going to be a tough election.”
Maruca previously has said the investigation into Judge Belinky “raises alarms” and “everybody has a right to be gravely concerned.” She’s also criticized the judge for his personal financial problems, including the IRS placing a lien on his home for owing $32,000 in income taxes in 2008 and 2009, and having his paycheck garnished last year because of a $20,000 loan from 2008 he owes with more than $7,000 in interest.
After the vote, Maruca said, “I am honored and am happy the party is focused on families and the court. I’m going to work hard to win that primary election.”
David Engler, running for an open seat on the 7th District Court of Appeals, announced at the meeting that he was withdrawing from the primary, leaving Youngstown Deputy Law Director Anthony Donofrio as the only Democratic candidate for the position. The seat is held by Judge Joseph J. Vukovich.
Engler has faced criticism about IRS tax liens he owes, and county Sheriff Jerry Greene said Friday it appears Engler was using the tragic death of Teddy Foltz, a 14-year-old boy, for political gain. Engler has denied the charge and called Greene’s comments “reprehensive” and “tasteless,” as well as asking why Greene’s office didn’t investigate abuse charges before Foltz was killed.
During his endorsement speech, Engler mentioned his “setbacks” and said he is quitting the race to concentrate on serving his clients.
Engler has criticized Donofrio because the latter’s brother, Gene, already serves on the 7th District bench. But on Saturday, he threw his support behind Donofrio.
Donofrio, who declined to respond to much of what Engler has said, started his speech with: “Does it get any more strange than Mahoning County?”
Even though he was running unopposed, Donofrio took a few shots at Engler saying he would never be subjected to discipline by the Ohio Supreme Court — Engler was in 2006 — or do “anything to embarrass this party.”
Engler said he is pulling out of the race “to redouble my efforts into representing my clients who have faced severe loss and are looking for justice. My clients have invested a lot in me to help them out. Any suggestion that’s not my most important job, I want to dispel.”
Of the various controversies he faced, Engler said, “It became hard to speak above the noise.”
Also, Mark Hanni, who filed to challenge three-term Judge Cheryl L. Waite of the 7th District Court of Appeals, withdrew from the race Friday.
Hanni addressed the committee members and said he’d file paperwork by Monday’s deadline to run as a write-in in the Democratic primary for a county common pleas court judicial seat held by Republican Maureen A. Sweeney, who is unopposed.
Judge Waite easily won the party’s endorsement over Maureen A. Walsh, 176 to 21.
Michele Lepore-Hagan won the party’s endorsement for the Ohio House 58th District seat over three other candidates. The seat is vacant because her husband, Robert F. Hagan, can’t run this year because of term limits.
Lepore-Hagan received 68 votes compared with Cynthia L. McWilson with 37 votes, Youngstown Councilwoman Janet Tarpley with 16, and Michael E. O’Hara with 11.
“The endorsement is really important to me,” Lepore-Hagan said. “I’m excited and proud.”
Tarpley said, “I’m taking my race to the people. I’m the real McCoy, period. We need experienced people in the state House, and it has to be based on your own accomplishments and not someone else,” alluding to Lepore-Hagan being married to the outgoing House member.
County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti won the endorsement 141-54 over challenger Pete Ceci.
Rimedio-Righetti, seeking her second four-year term, said if elected this year, she wouldn’t run a third time.
The biggest upset came in the 33rd District State Central Committeeman race in which Brandon Kovach, a senior at the University of Akron, beat Hagan, the incumbent and longtime elected official, 105-94. Hagan said he would quit the race, allowing Kovach to run unopposed.
The party endorsed all the unopposed candidates on the primary ballot as well as the state candidates endorsed by the Ohio Democratic Party. Also, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, and Jennifer Garrison in the 6th Congressional District were endorsed Saturday. Ryan’s challenger didn’t seek the endorsement, and Garrison’s opponent failed to submit a letter of interest by Thursday’s deadline to be considered.
Since endorsements were reinstated in 2010, every candidate endorsed by the party — except Jay Macejko in the 2012 county prosecutor’s race against incumbent Paul J. Gains — has won the primary.
“You get this party’s endorsement, it’s a win,” Chairman David Betras said.