Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras has had his sights sets on Auditor Ralph T. Meacham, a Republican, almost since the day in November 2014 when the latter was elected.
Betras believed Meacham would have lost had Democrats run a better candidate.
The problem was the incumbent Democrat Michael Sciortino, who was under indictment at the time in the Oakhill Renaissance Place corruption investigation, refused to step aside, and no one else in the party challenged him in the primary.
Still he only lost to Meacham by less than 4 percent.
The day after Sciortino’s defeat, Betras told me that the then-incumbent “hurt and tarnished our brand.”
He also said: “When you are chairman, you support your candidates even if you have to hold your nose. If I had my druthers, I would have had Mike get out of the race, but he wouldn’t.”
Sciortino returned the criticism in kind saying, “I am thankful I no longer have to associate myself with people like Betras.”
About a year and a half after that defeat, Sciortino took pleas in two separate criminal cases. He was found guilty in Mahoning and Cuyahoga counties of a total of two felonies and three misdemeanors.
Betras’ focus on beating Meacham escalated when the auditor spoke at a July 25, 2017, rally by President Donald Trump at Youngstown’s Covelli Centre.
At the rally, Meacham said of Trump: “Seven thousand people for Republicans in the Mahoning Valley. Who would have thought? [Trump’s] message resonated with the working people of Northeastern Ohio.”
Betras was furious when he learned Meacham spoke at the rally for Trump – who the chairman despises – and planned to target the incumbent when he was up for re-election this year.
It’s perfectly normal for the Democratic chairman in a Democratic-dominated county to look to defeat Meacham.
Meacham is the only Republican elected in the past 30-plus years to be elected to a nonjudicial countywide office in Mahoning.
The biggest obstacle for Betras is Meacham is doing a very good job as county auditor. When elected officials excel as Meacham has done, it’s difficult to beat them regardless of political affiliation.
There was a Democrat who filed to challenge Meacham. But that turned out to be a fiasco.
Brandon J. Kovach submitted nominating petitions in February to be the Democratic candidate for auditor.
However, he was disqualified by the county Board of Elections – Betras serves as its vice chairman – because Kovach didn’t have enough valid signatures on his petitions.
Kovach sought to run as a write-in candidate in the primary, but the board disqualified him again in March. He was ruled ineligible to run because of his previous disqualification.
Instead, Roger Chamberlain ran as a write-in with the plan that he would get the needed votes in the primary. He would then withdraw leaving a path for Kovach to get back in the race as the Democratic candidate in the general election.
Chamberlain withdrew June 13 as the party’s nominee, according to the plan.
However, things fell apart.
Kovach, who would have faced an uphill battle to beat Meacham, decided not to run.
Kovach said: “To be honest with you, I wasn’t fully interested in it, but I didn’t want the party to not have a candidate in the race. Since then, my business grew, and I felt it was best to concentrate on that.”
Obviously, Betras was unhappy and tried to find someone he believed was qualified for the auditor’s position to be the Democratic nominee.
“I tried to recruit a number of people, and no one wanted to run,” he said. “They said, ‘I can’t beat him. He’s done a good job.’”
He added: “I’m not going to run some schlub.”
Republicans have failed to field candidates against Democratic incumbents in Mahoning County a number of times. There are other times they’ve run – to borrow Betras’ term – schlubs who had no business being candidates.
But that’s different.
This is a Democratic county so it’s easier to understand when Republicans don’t run candidates.
Betras had a game plan. It just wasn’t a strong one.