By David Skolnick
When state Rep. Robert F. Hagan failed to get the Mahoning County Democratic Party’s endorsement for 33rd District state central committeeman, he said he’d “bow to the wishes” of the party and withdraw.
He didn’t do that.
Then he said he’d vote for his opponent, Brandon Kovach of Lisbon, and urge others to support Kovach.
He didn’t do those either.
And after defeating Kovach 62.5 percent to 37.5 percent Tuesday for the seat that represents Mahoning and Columbiana counties, Hagan, who’s serving his second two-year term as a state central committeeman, said he has no plans of stepping aside and letting Kovach replace him.
The campaign has left Kovach and Mahoning Democratic Chairman David Betras upset with Hagan.
“I have the right to change my mind and I did,” Hagan said. “I’m not going to give it up and that’s that. I’m not making any apologies to the Democratic voters who overwhelmingly supported me. I’m a proud member of the Democratic Party.”
Kovach won the Mahoning County Democratic Party endorsement 105-94 on Feb. 22. Hagan complained at the time that Kovach was “disingenuous” in his endorsement speech, which he said again Wednesday, but after losing the endorsement, Hagan said he’d withdraw.
“He has absolutely no integrity,” Kovach said of Hagan. “I hoped he would respect the wishes of the party. He disrespected the party and the endorsement process. I hope [Democrats] remember it in the future. It shows he’s in it more for himself than the party. It’s an example of divisiveness in politics.”
Betras added: “I’m not happy with [Hagan] not keeping his word to me and the party.”
Betras said he’ll ask state Chairman Chris Redfern to put Kovach on the party’s executive committee.
Hagan, who’s finishing out his term this year in the Ohio House, said that with all statewide executive election positions on the ballot, it’s important to have someone with political experience and connections — and the ability to raise money — serve on the state central committee. Hagan said he raised about $20,000 in the past year for state and local Democratic candidates.
The primary roles of the state central committee members are to elect a party chairman and raise money for Democrats.
Hagan plans to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016.
“Bob Hagan was going to do what he could to win this seat to test his Senate run,” Kovach said. “But there’s a slim chance of that [Senate bid] ever, ever being successful.”
Hagan also questioned Wednesday if the party is unified, pointing to a recent closed-door meeting Betras had with local black leaders, who wanted Hagan’s wife, Michele Lepore-Hagan, not to run in the 58th Ohio House District race.
The black leaders wanted an African-American candidate to be elected to that seat with the support of the county Democratic Party. In the early 1990s, a Youngstown-based House seat was created as the result of a federal court decision that the House district lines violated the federal Voting Rights Act. After lines for a House seat based in Youngstown were drawn to help get a minority elected, Sylvester Patton Jr., who is black, held the seat for 10 years before having to leave because of term limits. He was replaced by Hagan, who is white.
With the city’s declining population, that House district’s border grew into surrounding suburbs; hence, the 58th district has fewer blacks than it did 20 years ago.
Lepore-Hagan won Tuesday’s Democratic primary with 47.5 percent of the vote. Youngstown Councilwoman Janet Tarpley, D-6th, who is black, finished in a distant second with 26 percent of the vote in a four-person race.
Betras said he asked the Hagans to withdraw from the race at the request of the Rev. Kenneth Simon, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Youngstown. The Hagans refused.
When told that Hagan disclosed the conversation to a Vindicator reporter, Betras confirmed it and said, “Quite frankly, I’m upset with him. That was a private conversation.”
The Rev. Mr. Simon recalled a recent meeting in which he expressed dissatisfaction with the local Democratic Party for failing to support qualified African-American candidates for county offices, and specifically pointed to the 58th House District.
“I told [Betras] that if he was serious, he could have tried to convince [Lepore-Hagan] not to run early in the process,” he said, adding, “The Hagans are friends of my family, and the African-American community has a lot of respect for them. This isn’t about friendship. It’s about fairness.”
Betras said months ago he also asked the Hagans not to have Michele run because of his concerns about the reaction from local black leaders.