By David Skolnick
Gov. John Kasich selected Robert Rusu as Mahoning County Probate Court judge, and will have the names of finalists to replace outgoing Judge James C. Evans of county common pleas court by mid-July.
Kasich, a Republican, appointed Rusu to the vacant probate judge seat Tuesday. Rusu, of Canfield, an attorney for 21 years, will start his new job July 8.
Rusu, an independent, was among three finalists recommended to Kasich, a Republican, by the Mahoning County Republican Party to fill the vacancy.
“I’ve always had the hope of being the probate judge, and [Tuesday] my dream came true,” said Rusu, who’s seeking elected office for the first time.
Rusu will serve the unexpired term of Mark Belinky, a Democrat, who resigned March 14 while under criminal investigation. He was found guilty May 8 of a felony count of tampering with records. Belinky’s term expires Feb. 8, 2015.
The court has “taken some criticism and black eyes,” Rusu said. “I want to restore confidence in the court.”
Rusu and Mary Ann Fabrizi of Berlin Center are running in the November general election as independents, while Susan Maruca of Poland is the Democratic nominee.
Maruca beat Christopher Sammarone of Canfield by 200 votes in the Democratic primary.
The county Republican Party recommended Rusu, Fabrizi and Sammarone to Kasich for the appointment. Maruca interviewed for the appointment but wasn’t among the finalists recommended to Kasich. She’s said that decision was politically motivated.
“The screening committee sent down three names to the governor for consideration, and we all felt any of the three would have been a good pick,” said Mark Munroe, county Republican chairman. “There was also a strong feeling that Robert Rusu was by far the best candidate. The governor has made a great choice for the Valley and the probate court.”
County Democratic Chairman David Betras sees it differently, saying Visiting Judge R.R. Clunk should remain probate judge until after the November general election.
“This is clearly a desperate, cynical, political ploy designed to give the appointee an advantage at the ballot box,” he said. “Well, here’s a message for the governor and local Republicans who urged him to appoint Mr. Rusu: It won’t work.”
When asked if being the incumbent will help, Rusu said, “My experience gives me the advantage. I’ve had 1,400 cases in probate court,” and that’s considerably more than others seeking this position.
“People want the court to be efficient, streamlined and helpful, and that’s what I will do,” he said.
Meanwhile, county Republicans are moving ahead with finding a successor to Judge Evans, who recently announced he was retiring effective Sept. 1.
Kasich will be able to replace the judge on an interim basis. The person appointed will have the job until the November general election results are certified.
The seat will be up for grabs in the Nov. 4 general election.
Mahoning Republicans are asking those interested in succeeding Judge Evans, a Democrat, to contact the party for a copy of the application packet at email@example.com.
The deadline to submit an application is June 30. Applicants can return completed forms to the party at P.O. Box 9012, Youngstown, OH 44513, or hand-deliver it to the GOP office at 621 Boardman-Canfield Road in Boardman.
The office is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Applicants also can call 330-629-7006 to schedule a drop-off appointment.
A local Republican screening committee will meet with candidates during the week of July 6 and provide up to three finalists to Kasich, who’ll choose Judge Evans’ replacement.
That person could be selected before Judge Evans retires and then step right in to replace him, Munroe said.
“Clearly the timing of Judge Evans’ retirement creates an awkward situation for anyone seeking to take his place,” Munroe said.
He added: “However, it is a process that is provided for by law, and I felt it would be irresponsible not to make the opportunity available to potential candidates. Anyone who is serious about running and holding the seat will certainly benefit if they receive the appointment and can run as an incumbent.”
Betras said having the governor appoint someone for such a short time is “ridiculous. Why put someone on the bench for that amount of time? What if Judge Evans rescinds his retirement?”
As for the person selected by Kasich having the benefit of incumbency, Betras said, “The voters are a little more sophisticated than to support someone just because the governor appointed that person for a couple of months. Keep it vacant and let the voters decide. What’s the harm in letting the voters decide rather than ramrodding someone through?”
The winner of the general election would serve the remainder of the term, which expires Dec. 31, 2016.
Democratic and Republican precinct committee members would vote on their respective party nominees to succeed him.
“The timetable for the election is compressed” because Evans is retiring Sept. 1, Munroe said. “We’re still having conversations with board [of elections] employees on dates for party nominations. It has to be done by very early September.”
The board needs military and overseas ballots done by Sept. 20.