COLUMBUS — Three weeks after joining the ticket, Eric Kearney is out as the running mate of expected Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald.
The campaign set out Tuesday to heal its self-inflicted wounds as Mr. Kearney, a state senator from Cincinnati, admitted his presence on the ticket had become a distraction.
Mr. Kearney, on whom Mr. FitzGerald was counting to criticize Gov. John Kasich’s tax policies, turned out to, along with his wife and their Cincinnati publishing company, owe about $826,000 in back taxes and penalties.
In an interview, Mr. FitzGerald said internal research showed the controversy had not hurt the ticket, but there was a fear it could drown out the team’s message going forward.
“What was particularly persuasive to me was when the jobs report came out that showed the state unemployment rate was now half a point above the national average … and we weren’t able to talk about that because we had to keep addressing these issues,” he said.
He said Mr. Kearney was candid about his financial situation from the start, but the campaign found it difficult to make clear distinctions to the public between Mr. Kearney’s personal tax obligations compared to the much greater obligations of his wife and business.
All of it, he said, was being lumped into the $826,000 figure.
“When I tell people that only $15,000 of that was what he was personally liable for, they are stunned,” said Mr. FitzGerald, Cuyahoga County executive and former Lakewood mayor. “We don’t want to have a campaign where we’re having to make those distinctions. It doesn’t do us any good to complain about it. … That’s what we have to live with.”
The campaign had tried to salvage its lieutenant governor candidate. In a 90-minute conference call with reporters last week, it tried to explain how the struggles of the Kearneys’ business had caused the couple’s federal and state tax problems.
But the absence of Mr. FitzGerald on that conference call only served to fuel conjecture that Mr. Kearney’s days were numbered.
“[I]t’s undeniable that this has come to be a distraction from a discussion of the vital issues facing Ohio, and the choice voters must make in this election,” Mr. Kearney said in a prepared statement.
“I have discussed this with Ed FitzGerald, and while I will always be grateful for him selecting me to be his running mate, we agree that the best course of action is for me to step aside from the campaign for lieutenant governor and focus on serving the people of the 9th Senate District,” he said.
Mark Weaver, a GOP campaign strategist who is not associated with the Kasich campaign, said damage has already been done.
“Once this ship began to list sideways, we knew it was going to sink,” he said. “FitzGerald has two problems now — even more tepid support among African-Americans and the image of somebody who can’t even pick a lieutenant governor.”
The controversy also brought into question the vetting conducted by a campaign headed by a former FBI agent.
“Ed Fitzgerald has done a huge disservice to Senator Kearney and his family,” said Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf. “By failing to fully vet him, FitzGerald put his running mate in an impossible situation for weeks before finally abandoning him in an attempt to save his own campaign.
“We still don’t know how FitzGerald allowed this to happen, but we know the entire time nothing Ed FitzGerald or the Ohio Democrats have said has been true,” he said.
Lucas County Democratic Party Chairman Ron Rothenbuhler said he believes the campaign can recover.
“I do believe they made the right decision,” he said. “We need to have as much momentum as we can for the campaign against Governor Kasich. This will give us time to recover and move on.”
John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, said it’s still early in the campaign.
“The first impression, on balance, was a negative one,” he said. “But because Senator Kearney is no longer on the ticket, this particular controversy won’t be discussed as regularly as it would if [we] were out campaigning. If they make a good decision the next time, they can — over time — overcome that first impression.”
Mr. Kearney’s replacement will probably be announced after the first of the year.
Mr. FitzGerald said the campaign likely will reconsider others who were interviewed before Mr. Kearney’s selection was announced.
Among those previously mentioned were Ohio House Democratic leader Tracy Heard of Columbus; state Rep. Debbie Phillips of Athens; state Sen. Lou Gentile of Steubenville, and Columbus City Councilman Zach Klein.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.