COLUMBUS — The trickling out of details about the personal and business debt of expected Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald’s running mate is raising questions as to the extent of the campaign’s vetting process.
State Sen. Eric Kearney added geographic and racial diversity and legislative experience to the ticket, but the Cincinnati attorney and publishing company co-owner also has brought some unwelcome headlines about back taxes owed to the state and federal government.
Reviews of Hamilton County records by the Cincinnati Enquirer and Cleveland Plain Dealer have turned up roughly $1 million in property liens against Mr. Kearney, his wife, Jan-Michele Kearney, and the publishing business known alternately as Sesh Communications and KGL Media Group. An old lawsuit brought against Mr. Kearney for debt owed to American Express also was exposed.
FitzGerald spokesman Matt McGrath said there’s no chance Mr. Kearney will be replaced.
“[Mr. Kearney] is well known in Columbus and well regarded,” he said Monday. “There’s no question that when you take a leap into a statewide campaign, scrutiny ramps up. That’s what we’ve seen.”
While still little-known outside the Cleveland area, Cuyahoga County Executive FitzGerald had cut his deficit with Mr. Kasich in half to 7 percentage points in the latest Quinnipiac Poll last week. He trails Mr. Kasich 44 percent to 37 percent among registered voters.
But the poll was completed before the recent headlines.
“A lot of people outside of Cincinnati won’t know much about Eric Kearney, and the first things they’ve heard are not entirely positive,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Mr. Kearney is expected to hold a news event soon to address the controversy as well as the rising debt figures. The campaign has noted that the numbers made public do not take into consideration how much has been paid off or what is in dispute for various reasons.
Mr. Kearney’s position as Democratic leader in the GOP-dominated Senate put him in the position of adding to Mr. FitzGerald’s campaign narrative that Mr. Kasich’s policies have benefited the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
“I would not be surprised if FitzGerald announces that Kearney has asked to be removed from the ticket. That’s politician-speak for ‘we forced him out’,” said Mark Weaver, a GOP strategist who is not involved in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign.
He said it raises questions about Mr. FitzGerald’s vetting process.
“He has argued that his background as an FBI agent was one of the reasons he is qualified for governor,” Mr. Weaver said.
The campaign has insisted it knew of Mr. Kearney’s financial situation before selecting him, noting that the issue had been raised during the senator’s successful 2010 re-election campaign.
“The notion that this was a vetting issue or error is preposterous,” Mr. McGrath said. “We have a fuller picture of it, and we’re looking forward to sharing it with the press and voters of Ohio.”
The publishing company produces the Cincinnati Herald, which is targeted toward black readers. Mr. Kearney has been careful to draw lines between the business and personal debt. He’s insisted he is personally on the hook for about $13,000 and that he has entered into a payment plan to satisfy it.
“Senator Kearney and Ed have a shared vision for Ohio,” Mr. McGrath said. “They’re a good team and a good partnership. Senator Kearney tried to keep a small business — an important business and community service — afloat in good times and bad. Bringing that perspective to this race, we think, is important.”
But Lucas County Republican Party Chairman Jon Stainbrook said the issue reflects badly on Mr. FitzGerald.
“When you try to explain it away, it makes it worse and brings more attention to it,” he said. “My question is, why didn’t they have a screening process to vet this guy? … This bumbling is a glimpse of what type of leadership we’d have if this guy is elected governor.”
Mr. Green also said the distinction between personal and business obligations may be lost on many voters.
“It’s a subtle difference that may be important in legal and ethical terms, but to the general public it’s a distinction many people will find hard to understand,” he said. “In the eyes of most voters, debt is debt, whether it’s business debt or personal debt. Most voters are not involved in the kind of business arrangement that would produce that.”
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