Ohio elects 1st Democrat to state court since 2000


COLUMBUS — After three campaigns in which he had to fight his own party to get on the general election ballot, former appellate judge William O’Neill has become the first Democrat elected to the Ohio Supreme Court bench since 2000.

Two incumbents — Republican Justice Robert Cupp of Lima and Democratic Justice Yvette McGee Brown of Columbus — fell in races that were largely ignored compared to the high-profile presidential and U.S. Senate races. Justice Terrence O’Donnell, a Republican, easily won re-election.

According to the court, it was the first time in 40 years that two incumbent justices were defeated in the same election.

The partisan makeup of the court will remain 6-1 Republican.

Republican Gov. John Kasich must pick a replacement this year for retiring Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, so there is a chance that Justice Cupp could be back on the high court without missing a beat.

Democrats had made the election of Justice Brown their top court priority, hoping to keep the first black woman ever to serve on the bench.

But despite being the best financed of all of the justice candidates this year, she fell to Sharon Kennedy, a Republican Butler County judge who ran a modestly financed street-level campaign.

She garnered 57 percent of the vote to Justice Brown’s 43 percent.

“It really speaks to name recognition, ballot presence,” said Chris Redfern, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman. “Sharon Kennedy is little known, has a meager background as far as a judge, received a ‘not recommended’ label from the Ohio State Bar Association, which is practically unheard of in the last 25 years, and yet still won … ”

In Ohio, judicial candidates run in partisan primaries but appear on the general election ballot without party labels. Mr. Redfern, who will soon return to his House seat representing Ottawa and Erie counties, said he will introduce a bill to change that.

“I had a ground game that most judges do not have,” Judge Kennedy said.

“I believe in grassroots. If I want you to vote for me, have a conversation with me. Let’s talk about my 27 years of experience and judicial philosophy. It won’t be an advertisement or a print piece of media. You actually get to talk to me.”

Despite their successes elsewhere on the ballot Tuesday, this race continued Democrats’ drought in terms of their inability to elect African-American candidates to statewide office.

Justice Brown had been appointed to the bench at the start of, 2011 by Gov. Ted Strickland, and she was asking voters to ratify that decision.

"I am extremely proud of my service on the Ohio Supreme Court, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to serve our people and our justice system,” she said.

“Although we came up short, it was a tremendous privilege to work with my fine colleagues on the high court, where we were able to put justice and fairness ahead of politics and partisanship.”

Mr. O’Neill, formerly an 11th District Court of Appeals judge and now a pediatric emergency room nurse in Cleveland, garnered 52 percent of the vote to Justice Cupp’s 48 percent.

The biggest vote-getter of the night was Justice O’Donnell, the only incumbent to win re-election, with 69 percent of the vote to 31 percent for state Sen. Mike Skindell (D., Lakewood).

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.