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Ohio Supreme Court restores Ungaro to state rep fall ballot

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the Mahoning County Board of Elections must certify Eric Ungaro as an independent candidate for the 59th Ohio House District and ordered that he be on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“I’ve been campaigning this whole time,” Ungaro said. “The only thing I didn’t do was take money. We’re going to have a fundraiser. We’ve been going to football games and going door-to-door campaigning.”

Ungaro, a Poland Township trustee, said: “Now is the time to define the candidates and what they’ve actually done in their lives. We’re confident we can win or I wouldn’t have wasted my time. I wouldn’t have put my family and friends through this if we didn’t think we were going to win.”

Those seeking the 59th House seat are independent candidates Ungaro and Greg Beight of New Springfield. The two will face Youngstown Councilwoman Lauren McNally, who won the Democratic primary, in the Nov. 8 election. Also, Cecil Monroe of Youngstown filed as a write-in for the seat.

The elections board had voted 3-1 on Aug. 26 to not certify Ungaro as an independent candidate for the House seat.

Board members said Ungaro failed to dissociate himself from the Democratic Party because his official website gallery section had the party’s logo on at least 15 pictures.

Ungaro said the photos were uploaded Jan. 26, 2018, when he was running for a state House seat in the Democratic primary that year.

Ungaro said he’d done everything required to disassociate himself from the Democratic Party, including not voting in the last two party primaries.

The court decision stated Ungaro “is not required to show that he claimed disaffiliation from the Democratic Party in good faith. Instead, those opposing his candidacy have the burden to establish that Ungaro claimed disaffiliation in bad faith.”

The court said the elections board failed to hold a hearing before not certifying Ungaro and that “election laws must be liberally construed” in favor of a candidate.

While the board had a protest against Ungaro’s candidacy from Jonathan Blackshire of Youngstown, a county Democratic Party central committee member, the court decision states “the board argues that it did not rely on the protest; the board asserts that it invalidated the petition on ‘its own volition’ based on Ungaro’s campaign website.

The decision states David Betras, board chairman, looked at the website the day of the hearing and the “record strongly suggests that the two board members who joined Betras in voting to invalidate Ungaro’s petition did so based only on Betras’ representation that he had looked at the website and had ‘seen enough.’ We conclude that the board abused its discretion by invalidating Ungaro’s nominating petitions in this arbitrary fashion, without permitting the parties to be heard or to present any evidence.”

The board first voted 2-2 on certifying Ungaro and then had a second vote in which Joyce Kale-Pesta, the county Democratic Party’s first vice chairwoman, changed her initial vote causing Ungaro’s petitions to be rejected by a 3-1 vote.

Republican Bob Aurandt voted to reject Ungaro’s petitions while Republican Sandra Barger had voted to accept them.

In response to Wednesday’s decision, Betras said: “That’s our system. I respect the court’s decision. (Ungaro) is back on the ballot.”

Betras said he believed the board’s decision was “clear. I don’t know what other evidence we would have had to change things. I don’t know what other evidence I could have heard to change my mind.”

The court ruled against a request by Ungaro to have the board pay his attorney fees.

Republican Justices Pat DeWine, Sharon Kennedy and Pat Fischer dissented from the majority saying that Ungaro didn’t file his nominating petitions by May 2, the day before the initial date of the state legislative primary.

Because the court found state legislative maps unconstitutional five times, the primary for those seats was delayed to Aug. 2 and the independent filing deadline moved to Aug. 1.

But the three justices wrote that anyone who filed as an independent after May 2 is “ineligible to run.”

The elections board had voted 2-2 on Aug. 29 on the independent candidacy of Beight for the same state House seat. Frank LaRose, secretary of state, ruled Sept. 14 that Beight should be a candidate.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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