7th District Court of Appeals race will be exciting despite dropouts

On the side

Whatever company handles emails for U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson’s campaign that ask for money for the congressman seems to have an obsession with criticizing the media.

An email “signed” by Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, reads: “As a strong ally of President Trump in Congress, I get targeted for relentless attacks by liberals in Ohio’s media outlets and by the so-called ‘resistance’ activists in the radical Left.”

Johnson’s district takes in 18 counties stretching from southern Mahoning County to Scioto County. The largest newspaper in his district is this one and I’ve read coverage of the congressman in other media in his district. I’d hardly describe Johnson as being “targeted for relentless attacks by liberals in Ohio’s media outlets.” But his campaign raises a lot of money.

In the span of just two weeks, the potential candidates for a seat on the 7th District Court of Appeals on the 2018 ballot have changed.

Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge R. Scott Krichbaum, a Republican, had intended to run. He’s bowed out and Judge Maureen Sweeney, also of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, has taken out nominating petitions and is planning to seek the position.

“I’ve had a lot of experience in trial court whether it be death-penalty cases, malpractice cases,” Judge Sweeney said. “I bring to the court of appeals bench that experience. I can take what I’ve learned as a judge and use it in my decisions on the court of appeals.”

Sweeney, who’s been a judge since 2004, said she wouldn’t have run for the seat if Judge Krichbaum was a candidate. But that’s no longer the case.

Judge Krichbaum, who’s served on the bench for 27 years, told me two weeks ago: “I’m perfectly suited for the court of appeals bench. You can’t have any more experience than I have.”

But he told me a couple of days ago: “I initially thought it was something I wanted to do. I thought I could run. But [after] talking with my wife and my family and folks who helped me campaign, not [Republican] party people, I don’t feel that job is right for me. I’m more of a frontline kind of guy than a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. I like trying cases in common pleas. That job [on the court of appeals] is not for me.”

The change is huge, but what’s important to Republicans is it still gives them a strong candidate in Judge Sweeney as they attempt to hold on to the spot currently held by Judge Mary DeGenaro.

Judge DeGenaro, who’s served on the court of appeals since 2001, isn’t seeking re-election to a fourth term next year. Instead, she is running for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court. She received the endorsement Sept. 29 of the Ohio Republican Party state central committee.

The 7th District includes Mahoning, Columbiana, Belmont, Carroll, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe and Noble counties. Three of the four judges are from Mahoning County with the other – Judge Carol Ann Robb – from Columbiana County.

While Judges DeGenaro and Robb are Republicans, the district has traditionally leaned Democratic – even though judicial candidates don’t run with party affiliations in the general election.

When asked how she’d convince people in the district to vote for her, Judge Sweeney said, “You have to emphasize to people that if you’re in front of me in this court or any court, your party affiliation is irrelevant. I don’t ask if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or an independent.”

It looks like Judge Sweeney will face her toughest political opponent in the 2018 general election – and one of this area’s most successfully elected officials.

Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains, who’s held that position for almost 21 years, has committed to running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th District Court of Appeals post.

“I am going for it,” Gains said. “As far as I’m concerned, judicial experience is making decisions where the law is concerned and I’ve been doing that my entire career. I’m making calls and contacting people and I’ll be campaigning throughout the district.”

Making things easier for Gains is Youngstown Law Director Martin Hume, a Democrat who said two weeks ago that he was looking at seeking the position, is backing away.

“I’m not real interested in a contested Democratic primary,” Hume said. “I have many things on my plate. It’s not my first priority.”

A lot has changed in just two weeks so there’s the possibility the players will change between now and the February 2018 filing deadline for the 7th District Court of Appeals race.

However, Gains and Judge Sweeney seem to be the likely matchup and I don’t think either would have trouble turning back a primary election challenger.

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