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Published: Wednesday, 4/14/2010

Dems Fisher, Brunner spar in Cleveland debate

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

CLEVELAND - Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher stuck resolutely to his campaign message while Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner let fly a few darts in a debate between the Democratic U.S. Senate primary candidates yesterday sponsored by the City Club of Cleveland.

Ms. Brunner took issue with Mr. Fisher's accepting campaign contributions from political action committees and executives of banks that received federal bail-out funds. She also accused Mr. Fisher of abandoning his post as director of development just when his state needed him most and criticized him for calling her by her first name.

Mr. Fisher hammered at the "clean energy" theme and his view that Ohio's economy is hamstrung by federal policies left over from the last Republican administration. He asked Ms. Brunner for a commitment that she will support him if he wins the nomination and called her "a very good secretary of state."

The two are running in the May 4 primary election when Democratic voters will pick the party's nominee to take on Republican former Congressman Rob Portman in the Nov. 2 election for the seat now held by Republican George Voinovich, who is not seeking re-election.

About 400 people filled the lunch gathering in Cleveland's downtown Marriott hotel.

Mr. Fisher, who was director of development until February, 2009, when he announced his run for the Senate, said, "Washington insiders and Wall Street bankers have been working against Ohio's families."

He said the clean-energy movement will be Ohio's economic salvation as it reduces national dependence on "foreign oil from countries that hate us and want to kill us."

He said he had a role in saving 265 jobs at Norwalk Furniture after it was shut down in 2008 because of credit problems.

"We were able to convince a group of great community leaders to step up to the plate," Mr. Fisher said.

Ms. Brunner said that as secretary of state she fought against "partisan attacks" aimed at keeping people from being able to vote, ensured that voting machines were secure, and trained election workers.

She said the issues facing Congress now are similar to those debated in the eras of the New Deal after the Great Depression and the 1960s' War on Poverty.

"If you believe that policy must be practiced from the ground up rather than top down, as it's been done for so many years to the devastating detriment of people in the state and around the country, then I believe you will support me. The issues you will find between my opponent and me are less issue-oriented and more based on issues of trust," Ms. Brunner said.

Both endorsed an "earned path to citizenship" to solve the problem of illegal immigration, but with conditions including learning to speak English.

Both said they support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Ms. Brunner said she had pledged not to accept funds from PACs and executives of banks that had received money from the Troubled Assets Relief Program. She said there was a good possibility of a second stimulus bill and that a senator who had accepted money from banks that were seeking additional support would be in a troubling position.

Fisher aides afterward said that Ms. Brunner has also received campaign contributions from TARP recipients, a claim Ms. Brunner said she did not know to be true.

Challenged by Ms. Brunner on why he "abandoned" his job as development director in early 2009, Mr. Fisher said he has remained active on a daily basis in economic development, and that Governor Strickland supported his decision to run for the U.S. Senate.

"Our work has been undermined by federal policies that have actually made it very difficult to keep those successes alive," Mr. Fisher said.

After being repeatedly called "Jennifer," Ms. Brunner said Mr. Fisher should show her the respect due to her office by calling her "Secretary of State Brunner." The Fisher campaign responded with a list of examples from the media in which Ms. Brunner called Mr. Fisher "Lee."

During the debate, Ms. Brunner stuck by assertions she had made that Mr. Fisher has attempted to intimidate contributors from giving to her campaign but said people didn't want to come forward.

"He's done everything he can to get me to drop out of the race because he's afraid of me," Ms. Brunner said.

Fisher spokesman John Collins said, "With all due respect to Secretary Brunner, Lee is focused on creating good paying jobs for Ohio families and not worrying about her campaign."

Mr. Fisher challenged Ms. Brunner, one of his former campaign lawyers, to pledge to support him if he wins the nomination, as he has pledged to back her in the interest of party unity.

She said that as the secretary of state she cannot endorse a candidate, but she promised to remain a "dyed-in-the-wool Democrat" regardless of the election outcome.

The National Journal reported Monday that at the start of the year, Mr. Fisher had $1.8 million in his campaign war chest, while Ms. Brunner had just $60,000.

Both were said to trail Mr. Portman, who announced this week that he will report fund-raising of $2.3 million for the first quarter and $7.6 million in cash on hand.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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