Iconic Valley politician makes his exit but may be back for encore
When it comes to Mahoning Valley politics during the last four decades, few names are better known than Michael J. O’Brien.
He’s held several different elected offices in Trumbull County during a 38-year political career.
O’Brien was first elected to the 4th Ward seat on Warren City Council in November 1981 at the age of 26. At the time, he was a corrections officer with the city’s police department.
O’Brien spent 11 years on Warren council. The first six he represented the 4th Ward and then five years as an at-Large member. After being elected the first time, O’Brien worked as a counselor and probation officer with the Trumbull County Juvenile Justice Center.
O’Brien set his sights on higher office and was elected in 1992 as a Trumbull County commissioner. He served as a commissioner until the beginning of 2004, two months after he was elected Warren mayor.
After eight years as mayor, O’Brien chose not to seek re-election and take a break from politics.
O’Brien won the first of four two-year terms in the General Assembly in November 2014.
Forced to step away from the state Legislature at the end of this month because of Ohio’s term limits law, O’Brien sought to run again for county commissioner.
Republican Denny Malloy finally ended O’Brien’s remarkable undefeated election streak in the November general election.
It almost ended two years earlier.
O’Brien was re-elected to his final term in the Ohio House by 344 votes, beating Republican Martha Yoder by 0.74 of 1 percent. That district, which has been redrawn effective next month, includes parts of Trumbull and Ashtabula counties.
With Trumbull rapidly changed from being a longstanding reliable Democratic county during the past few years, O’Brien’s inability to win the county commissioner’s race wasn’t a complete shock.
The first signs were in 2016 when Donald Trump won the county — only the third Republican presidential candidate to emerge as the victor in Trumbull since 1936. The other two were national landslide wins for the second terms of Dwight David Eisenhower in 1956 and Richard Nixon in 1972.
In 2020, Trump won Trumbull again, and Republicans captured a county commissioner position and a state House seat.
O’Brien’s win that year was very close in his district largely because he overwhelmingly lost in Ashtabula. But his win in Trumbull wasn’t as impressive as prior years.
O’Brien beat Yoder by 4.74 percent in Trumbull County in 2020.
When O’Brien ran against Yoder in 2018 for the same state House seat, he beat her by 13.46 percent in Trumbull County. The two also faced each other in 2016 for the position and O’Brien won in Trumbull by 14.58 percent.
O’Brien’s bid against Malloy for an open county commissioner seat this year saw the Democrat lose by 2.62 percent.
The recent election also was the first time in about 90 years that Republicans won every contested race on the ballot in Trumbull County.
O’Brien’s name still meant something — though not what it used to — as his percentage was higher than any other Democrat running in contested countywide races, including statewide candidates.
This should take nothing away from the campaign Malloy ran as he worked hard for his win and did something no one else has ever done before: beat O’Brien.
O’Brien said his race got “caught up in a national narrative,” and that “a majority of people in Trumbull County bought into the red wave. I had to outperform all the Democrats and I did, but it wasn’t enough.”
The changing politics of the county, the “national narrative,” Malloy’s hard work and some people tired of seeing O’Brien’s name on the ballot all played factors in the outcome.
On a personal note, I’ve known O’Brien since shortly after I came to the area in 1995, and he’s always been a class act who understands politics and government better than almost anyone I know. During the last eight years, he’s kept me updated on what’s happening in the Statehouse and before that what was occurring in Trumbull County government.
O’Brien is mulling over a few job opportunities and gave me every indication that he plans to run next year for a Warren councilman at-Large seat.
Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle.