Tax issues that matter

The personal finances of the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor should not obscure the campaign debate


Nearly three out of four Ohio voters don’t know enough about next year’s likely Democratic nominee for governor, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, to express an opinion about him, polls suggest. Attention to Mr. FitzGerald’s campaign has grown in recent days — but in a manner that he probably would have preferred to avoid and that risks becoming a big distraction.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s choice of running mate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Eric Kearney of Cincinnati, spent a lot of time last week discussing the $826,000 that he, his wife, and his newspaper publishing company owe in federal and state taxes, both personal and business; he is disputing $95,000 of that amount.

Mr. Kearney says he and his wife have invested their own money to support the company, which he claims was financially troubled when they bought it. He adds that he has not been active in its management since he joined the Senate in 2005.

Supporters of Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to seek re-election next year, and Ohio Republican Party officials predictably accuse Mr. FitzGerald of poor judgment and lax background-checking in placing Senator Kearney on his ticket. Democrats counter that state GOP chairman Matt Borges has had his own problems with back taxes, and argue, less persuasively, that Mr. FitzGerald vetted Mr. Kearney adequately.

Voters who are less overtly partisan may wonder whether someone who ran up such a big tax bill — and was so lax about paying it — can credibly articulate the aspirations of poor, working-class, and middle-income taxpayers who have benefited much less from Mr. Kasich’s fiscal and budget policies than have the wealthiest Ohioans.

Mr. Kearney argues that voters who continue to cope with the effects of the recession will sympathize with someone whose “small business went through tough times.” But he also acknowledges the “political cost” of his disclosure.

Senator Kearney, who until recently was Senate Democratic leader, says he has no plans to get off the ticket. Mr. FitzGerald has issued statements of support for his running mate. What happens now is for the candidates to decide.

The dispute may mean little to voters in northwest Ohio, because neither Mr. Kearney nor Mr. FitzGerald is from this area. But before this controversy emerged, polls suggested that Mr. FitzGerald was narrowing the statewide gap in voter support between him and Mr. Kasich.

It would be unfortunate if an excessive emphasis on Mr. Kearney’s personal finances were to subvert discussion of the broader and more important issues in the gubernatorial campaign: jobs, taxes, economic recovery and growth, income inequality, state government spending and regulation, schools, and health care.

These are the matters Ohio voters care about, not partisan claims of “gotcha.” And these are the issues Governor Kasich and Mr. FitzGerald must continue to emphasize. Nothing should be permitted to get in the way of that.