COLUMBUS, Ohio - State Democrats' presumptive 2014 gubernatorial nominee, Ed FitzGerald, sought on Wednesday to reassure supporters that his campaign is focused and moving forward after his running mate left the race in a flap over unpaid tax debts.
Observers wondered how FitzGerald effectively would put the issue behind him.
In an email to campaign backers, FitzGerald emphasized his "enormous respect" for state Sen. Eric Kearney, the leader of Ohio Senate Democrats and a top Ohio campaign fundraiser for President Barack Obama.
Kearney left the ticket Tuesday under mounting pressure over more than $700,000 in state and federal tax liens owed by him, his wife and their Cincinnati business, which publishes the Cincinnati Herald and other publications aimed at black audiences.
FitzGerald said in the email he and Kearney agreed about the challenges facing Ohio "and about how important it is for the state to change direction in the next election."
"Because that is our primary concern, we agreed that it is best for Sen. Kearney to step down from the ticket," the email said. "Ultimately, the discussion of the crucial issues facing Ohio was in danger of being drowned out, making this decision difficult but necessary."
FitzGerald wrote that the decision would allow the campaign to focus on what he referred to as Republican Gov. John Kasich's "faltering economy."
Meanwhile, some newspaper editorials across the state questioned FitzGerald's fitness to be governor. Some strategists suggested even more changes to the Democrats' 2014 ticket were needed, even including replacing FitzGerald.
Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said FitzGerald wouldn't and shouldn't drop out. He said Kearney is a respected lawmaker with debts mostly related to his struggling business and will continue to play a role in the 2014 election.
Redfern suggested Kearney was forced out of the race amid a media frenzy fueled by FitzGerald's Republican critics.
He mentioned a past lieutenant governor candidate, former Republican state Sen. Joy Padgett, who ran despite business debts higher than Kearney's, and a current state lawmaker, Republican state Rep. Peter Beck, who has pleaded not guilty to allegations he misled investors about a company's financial status and used their money for personal gain.
"What we have seen over the course of these two or three weeks is a little bit of hypocrisy and a whole lot of breathless reporting," Redfern said.
Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf said the flap "isn't about candidates who ran years ago or even really about Senator Kearney. This is about Ed FitzGerald and his judgment."
He said it was FitzGerald who talked about the selection of a lieutenant governor candidate being an important first test of a campaign and it was Redfern who this year harshly criticized state Republican Chairman Matt Borges for unpaid tax debts.
"By his own admission FitzGerald failed the first big test of his campaign," Schrimpf said. "It was Redfern who said that someone who doesn't pay their taxes has no credibility on the issue, so in effect the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party disqualified his own party's running mate."