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Sean O’Brien pulls in reinforcements for judge campaign

Open judicial seats in the Mahoning Valley don’t come around that often.

When they do, there’s usually competition for the job, and we’ll see that next year among Democrats in Trumbull County.

W. Wyatt McKay, a common pleas judge since 1987, can’t run in 2022 for re-election because of the state’s age limit on judges.

Republicans are still searching for a candidate while two Democrats have announced plans to succeed McKay, who is Trumbull’s longest-serving common pleas court judge.

The two Democrats are Sean O’Brien, a former state legislator, and Dawn Cantalamessa, who’s worked for the Ashtabula County Prosecutor’s Office since September after more than 18 years with the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office.

O’Brien already has lined up the support of several local Democrats and labor leaders in his bid to become judge.

County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Polivka spoke at O’Brien’s campaign announcement event a couple of weeks ago. Also speaking was Glenn Holmes, a former state House member who resigned April 30, 2019, a few months into his second term in order to accept an appointment to the Ohio Parole Board.

County officials backing O’Brien include Engineer Randy Smith, Recorder Tod Latell (who will be on the ballot next year for county auditor) and Clerk of Courts Karen Infante Allen. Also, Niles Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz, Hubbard Mayor Ben Kyle and John Moliterno, an at-large councilman in Girard and the Western Reserve Port Authority’s chief executive, are supporting O’Brien.

Having several members of the Trumbull Democratic establishment back O’Brien will greatly help his candidacy and secure the party’s endorsement.

Common pleas court candidates in Ohio run in partisan primaries and then as nonpartisan candidates in the general election.

If he’s the endorsed candidate, O’Brien gets the benefit of having his name on Democratic campaign mailers and handouts.

O’Brien already has name recognition in the county from his three terms as an Ohio House member and his one term as a state senator. He lost a 2020 Senate re-election bid to Sandra O’Brien, R-Lenox, but he received 54.83 percent of the vote in Trumbull. His losses in the rest of the district led to a narrow defeat.

Except for being elected in 2018 as a 32nd District Democratic State Central Committee member, this is Cantalamessa’s first time running for public office.

O’Brien was elected to the state central committee in 2014.

Because judicial candidates can’t hold office in a political party under the Ohio Rules of Judicial Conduct, Cantalamessa and O’Brien had to resign from the Democratic committee.

Cantalamessa’s husband, Enzo, is the Warren law director and her brother-in-law, Mauro, is a county commissioner so she’s certainly not a political novice.

Also, she’s handled more than 100 felony-level jury trials including 13 death-penalty cases.

But Cantalamessa has baggage from the end of her time in the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office.

She was placed on administrative leave in August by Prosecutor Paul J. Gains after Common Pleas Court Judge John Durkin removed her from an aggravated murder case.

Durkin cited Cantalamessa’s “careless indifference to ascertaining the truth” regarding evidence in the case and for failing to “periodically and regularly review her case file.” Durkin found that she made a false statement to the court.

Cantalamessa said she resigned because she “lost confidence in the office” after Gains declined to appeal the judgment entry.

Judicial races are usually cordial as negative campaigning violates the conduct code, but Durkin’s decision could become an issue.

The winner of the Democratic primary is the heavy favorite to get elected in the November 2022 general election.

While Trumbull County voters showed in 2020 that they’re willing to support Republicans, a judicial race is more challenging.

As I mentioned, common pleas court judges don’t run with party affiliation, but all four of the incumbents are Democrats.

Republicans have yet to announce a candidate for this office.

The filing deadline is Feb. 2.

Sarah Thomas Kovoor, who nearly won other judicial seats in 2018 and 2020, is considering a run, but didn’t sound like a candidate when I talked to her.

She said: “Trumbull County is still predominantly Democratic. It’s changing, but I don’t know if it’s changed enough. It takes a lot of time away from my practice to run. I’ve had close calls both times. It’s frustrating, to be honest with you.”

Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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