Loans fund open judicial races

Open judicial seats don’t come around often, so when the opportunity strikes, candidates who can afford it pour a lot of their own money into campaigns.

Campaign finance reports show that to be the case in the two courts of appeals Republican primaries in the Mahoning Valley for open seats.

First, though, the backstory.

Republicans weren’t doing well in races for seats on courts of appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court. Republican legislators correctly determined it was because voters didn’t know the party affiliation of candidates for those positions and they passed a law to change it.

Starting with the 2022 election, candidates for those particular judicial spots had their party affiliation on the general election ballot.

Republicans won right away. In this year’s election, Democrats didn’t file candidates for the open seat on the 7th District Court of Appeals, with a jurisdiction that includes Mahoning and Columbiana counties, or for the open seat on the 11th District Court of Appeals, with a jurisdiction that includes Trumbull County. The two appeals districts are largely Republican.

Also, no Democrat filed for the two other 11th District judicial positions on the ballot even though in one case, the incumbent — Robert J. Patton — was appointed in June by Gov. Mike DeWine, a fellow Republican.

With no independents filing either, the Republican primary was the election for the positions.

In 2022, Democrat Cynthia Rice left her 11th District seat early to run for a Trumbull County Common Pleas Court judicial position. Common pleas judges don’t run with party affiliation.

Also that year, Republican Eugene A. Lucci beat Democrat Thomas R. Wright, a 12-year incumbent, by 17%.

In the 7th District in 2022, Republican Mark A. Hanni, who unsuccessfully ran for judicial seats as a Democrat and independent, beat Democrat Gene Donofrio, a 30-year incumbent, by more than 17%.

The race this year for an open seat on the 7th District was the result of incumbent Democrat David D’Apolito choosing not to run for reelection rather than lose. D’Apolito even contacted local Republicans to gauge their interest in him running under that party’s label.

Instead, D’Apolito resigned after being appointed Canfield city manager.

In the Republican primary, Katelyn Dickey, who was Columbiana County Municipal Court judge, ran against Mary DeGenaro. In 2000, DeGenaro was the first Republican in 24 years to win a seat on the 7th District Court of Appeals, leaving in 2018 to take an appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court.

In the race, Dickey and her husband loaned $350,000 to her campaign. She received $5,800 in contributions with $5,000 coming from the Columbiana County Republican Party.

Dickey beat DeGenaro, 69.3% to 30.7%.

Dickey spent $352,675 on the campaign and was appointed by DeWine, effective April 10, to start serving on the appeals court.

DeGenaro raised $21,225 and her husband loaned $45,000 to the campaign. She spent $66,093.

The 7th District’s two other judges are Republican Carol Ann Robb, who cannot run for reelection in 2026 because of the state’s age limit, and Democrat Cheryl Waite, who is not expected to seek another term in 2026.

Those two will almost certainly be replaced by Republicans, thus completing a change to an all-GOP appeals court in just a few years.

The open seat on the 11th District Court of Appeals occurred because Mary Jane Trapp, its last remaining Democrat, saw the writing on the wall and chose not to seek reelection. She is the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 5 election for a Geauga County Common Pleas Court judicial position.

In the Republican primary to succeed Trapp, Scott Lynch won 55.6% of the vote to beat Colleen M. O’Toole.

Lynch raised $14,625 for his campaign, and he loaned it $60,000.

Lynch spent $72,516.

O’Toole raised $11,506 for her campaign. Rather than loaning money, O’Toole incurred $29,040 in campaign debt from herself.

She spent $9,634 on her campaign from contributions on top of that debt.

Patton ran unopposed for Rice’s old seat. He raised $39,240 — most of it in the final two-plus months of 2023 — and loaned $3,000 to his campaign.

The other Republican primary for an 11th District seat was lowkey with incumbent John J. Eklund raising $18,309 and his opponent, Shelly M. Pratt, collecting $1,100 from donors and a $3,000 loan from her husband.

Eklund won 70.3% to 29.7%.


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