Thirteen days before the May 2 Democratic primary election in Youngstown, Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly was fired – amid allegations of sexual harassment. O’Reilly denied any wrongdoing.
The firing was preceded by the ouster in July 2016 of Roger Ailes, the communications guru who transformed television news by creating Fox News Channel. Ailes, who died last month at age 77, was cut loose by 21st Century Fox corporate head Rupert Murdoch and his sons after sexual harassment allegations began to snowball.
A lawsuit filed by former anchor Gretchen Carlson claimed she was forced out of Fox News after she spurned Ailes’ sexual advances. The suit triggered accounts from more than 20 women with similar stories of alleged harassment by the TV supreme ruler. (Ailes was born in Warren and graduated from Harding High School.)
The deepening controversy made it impossible for Rupert, James and Lachlan Murdoch to ignore the fact that their highly successful cable network was against the ropes.
With the O’Reilly and Ailes scandals as the backdrop, the Democratic primary election in Youngstown featured a sexual harasser seeking one of the top offices in city government.
DeMaine Kitchen won the party nomination for city council president in a four-person race – despite the dark cloud hanging over his head.
Kitchen, a former 2nd Ward councilman, resigned in 2013 as chief of staff to then-Mayor Charles P. Sammarone just before a report of an independent investigation revealed he had sexually harassed a city employee.
During his endorsement interview with The Vindicator’ Editorial Board, Kitchen described the sexual harassment allegation as an “HR [human resources] issue” and noted that he did not sign off on the agreement the city reached with Lyndsey Hughes, who was downtown director of events, special projects and marketing. She had the job from 2008 until May 21, 2014.
In the settlement, Hughes received $72,000, while her lawyer got $48,000. She also agreed to give up her $41,125-a-year position.
City council voted 7-0 to pay the city’s $50,000 deductible to its insurance company to resolve the complaint.
The investigator’s report also stated that Kitchen admitted to making inappropriate remarks to the employee.
During his meeting with The Vindicator, he described what had occurred as “verbal sexual harassment” and said he had apologized for his behavior.
He also insisted that he never violated the public trust during his tenure with the city and that the Democratic voters would judge him on his record of service.
He was right.
The official results from the board of elections in the council president’s race shows Kitchen with 3,600 votes (44 percent); 4th Ward Councilman Mike Ray with 2,608 (32 percent); former Councilman John R. Swierz, 1,562 (19 percent); and Young Tensley, 377 votes (4 percent).
On election night, after the complete but unofficial vote count was announced, Kitchen made this statement to The Vindicator:
“People appreciated my work on the field despite what happened off the field. I’m eager to return and get back to the business of the people. I am committed to the people of the city, and they’re convinced I’m the right man for the job.”
Given what happened to Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes at Fox News, the question must be asked: If sexual harassment in the private sector is cause for termination, why isn’t it so in Youngstown city government?
It is ironic that while Kitchen won the support of the voters in the citywide council president race, Mayor John A. McNally was denied the Democratic nomination in his bid for a second four-year term. Former city Councilman Jamael Tito Brown won the primary.
While it is true that the black-white electoral divide that exists in Youngstown was a major factor in McNally’s loss, his criminal record relating to his role in the Oakhill Renaissance Place conspiracy had the effect of turning off many of his potential supporters.
While McNally will not be competing in the November general election, there are four candidates making a bid for mayor: Brown, former council president and 3rd Ward councilman; Janet Tarpley, former 6th Ward councilwoman; Sean McKinney, the city’s former buildings and grounds commissioner; and Cecil Monroe, who has run unsuccessfully for various elected offices in the city.
Tarpley, McKinney and Monroe are running as independents. There is no Republican in the race.
While Brown has one more hurdle in his bid to succeed McNally as mayor, the council president race is over.
Kitchen does not have a Republican opponent, and no one filed to run as an independent, which means he will succeed Sammarone, who chose not to seek another four-year term.
Therefore, come January, city council will be led by an individual who cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars because of the sexual harassment claim.
But here’s the reason this column is being written – a month after the election: the president of city council has two responsibilities, one is to run the meetings of the legislative body, and the other is to serve as mayor in the event the incumbent is unable to fulfill his or her duties.
So, while Youngstown is shedding itself of one individual with a criminal record – McNally – there is a real possibility there could be another person in the mayor’s office with a cloud hanging over his head – Kitchen.
To be sure, there’s nothing to suggest that whoever is elected mayor in November will be unable to serve out the term, but then again, expecting the unexpected is good political advice.
The decision by Democratic voters in Youngstown to nominate Kitchen for council president sends a disturbing message about the prevailing attitude toward sexual harassment.