COLUMBUS — Those seeking to remove Libertarian candidates for governor and Ohio attorney general from the ballot on Tuesday claimed Democrats stepped in at the last minute to salvage their candidacies when it was clear their petition efforts were falling apart.
The Libertarians, in turn, accused Republicans of orchestrating the effort to remove them from the ballot.
And the hearing officer presiding over the case for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted repeatedly wondered aloud the relevance of behind-the-scenes involvement of a law firm, consulting firm, and political operatives usually associated with Democrats
The challenge urges Mr. Husted to remove Charlie Earl, a former Republican state representative from Bowling Green, from the ballot for governor and Steven A. Linnabary, a Columbus civil engineer, from the ballot for attorney general.
The finger-pointing and legal scrambling illustrate how minor party candidates, who normally garner little attention in Ohio politics, have suddenly become significant factors.
Some conservatives have voiced support for an alternative to the right of Republican Gov. John Kasich because of his push to expand Medicaid under the federal health-care law and refusal to endorse an effort to make Ohio a right-to-work state.
When a threatened primary challenge to Mr. Kasich failed to materialize, attention instead turned to Mr. Earl.
The Libertarian Party has endorsed a proposed right-to-work constitutional amendment prohibiting the mandatory collection of fair-share fees in lieu of dues from employees who refuse to join a workplace union.
The challengers are also trying to invalidate hundreds of signatures gathered by a pair of professional petition circulators who failed to indicate who paid the bill. They also claim that one of those circulators was, in fact, a Democrat.
“The Ohio Democratic Party — through its leading law firm in central Ohio, the McTigue & McGinnis firm, and through its leading political operatives, [The] Strategy Network [LLC], and [its chief executive officer] Mr. Ian James — jumped into action when they realized that there wouldn’t be enough ballot signatures to make sure the Libertarians were on the ballot,” said John W. Zeiger, an attorney representing a Libertarian voter who challenged Mr. Earl’s petitions.
He argued that Ohioans for Liberty, a nonprofit corporation largely funded by the state Democratic Party, hired Strategy Network to help gather signatures at the last-minute to keep the Libertarian candidacies alive.
“Seems strange that the leading Democratic organizations and law firms would be in the middle of soliciting petitions for other candidates of a different party affiliation,” Mr. Zeiger said.
But Mark Brown, attorney for the Libertarian candidates, countered that this effort to remove Mr. Earl and Mr. Linnabary is a continuation of an effort seen in a law passed last year that would have placed new restrictions on minor party access to the ballot. The law was passed with Republican votes and signed by Mr. Kasich.
“We went to [federal] court and got a court order saying you can’t do that,” Mr. Brown said. “So now the Republican Party lost in federal court, the Libertarians are on the ballot, and now they’re renewing their effort before you to selectively get candidates off the ballot, using technicalities in Ohio law, using bluster and innuendo.”
Kevin Knedler, chairman of the state Libertarian Party executive committee, testified that he had a breakfast meeting with state Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, who doubles as state representative for Ottawa and Erie counties. But he insisted that meeting was primarily to thank Mr. Redfern for Democratic opposition to Senate Bill 193, the minor party ballot access law.
“I did state [to Mr. Redfern] that if there was any help that could come from anybody out there, we’ll appreciate it,” Mr. Kneddler said. “That was it.”
Brad Smith, a Capital University law professor and former federal elections commissioner, is presiding over both cases. The Republican secretary of state hopes to have a recommendation from Mr. Smith in hand by Friday, but the final decision will be made by Mr. Husted.
The Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate for governor, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, faces a primary challenge from the virtually unknown Larry Ealy of the Dayton area.
Mr. Linnabary, meanwhile, hopes to challenge Republican incumbent Attorney General Mike DeWine and the Democratic candidate, former Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper.
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