COLUMBUS, Ohio - A Democratic lieutenant governor candidate in Ohio who faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal tax liens dropped out of the race Tuesday, saying his financial troubles were taking away from debate on important policy issues.
State Sen. Eric Kearney, a Cincinnati attorney, said in a statement that he was leaving the ticket of gubernatorial contender Ed FitzGerald.
"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," he said. "The stakes are too high: We need a change of leadership to move Ohio in a new direction that puts more Ohioans back to work and builds a better future for our children."
Kearney, his wife, Jan-Michele, and their Cincinnati publishing business, KGL Media Group, owe roughly $700,000 in state and federal tax liens. A foreclosure proceeding, credit card debt and unpaid workers' compensation premiums have also been revealed through a series of bruising media reports, mixed with conflicting accounts about how much FitzGerald knew of the details before Kearney's selection.
In his statement, Kearney said he and his wife were committed to KGL and would remain committed to the Cincinnati Herald, the flagship publication of KGL, which does business as Sesh Communications.
"We were dedicated to keeping alive one of our nation's oldest African-American newspapers and committed to our employees and their families," he said.
Kearney's decision left FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive in Cleveland, searching for a new running mate as Ohio Democrats struggled to defuse the fallout from the crisis without alienating key groups, including black voters, powerful politicians and contributors.
Seasoned Democratic strategist Gerald Austin said it was important that Kearney dropped out.
"Nobody's being critical of the pick, other than the guy has a lot of problems in terms of his business history. That's not good," he said.
Brian Rothenberg, who directs the liberal think tank ProgressOhio, said he can't recall a time when a lieutenant governor candidate has been the target of campaign attacks. Races are generally about the candidate for governor.
He said voters wouldn't even have remembered the series of revelations about Kearney's troubled finances by next fall.
"Most voters aren't even aware this happened," Rothenberg said. "This is a tight race about the economy, no matter what either party wants to say. This is Ohio, and that's just the nature of our state. The bases (of registered Republicans and Democrats) are so solid that no matter what happens, in the end it's going to come down to just a few votes in the middle."
Shortly after FitzGerald's Nov. 20 announcement of Kearney as a running mate, the ticket scored the important endorsement of U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, an influential Cleveland congresswoman with pull in the city's powerful, Democrat-dominated black community.
Fudge was aware of Kearney's financial situation at the time, said an aide of hers -- meaning the decision to remove him from the ticket stands a chance of backfiring and alienating a popular politician with the power to get out votes for FitzGerald. Fudge, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was in South Africa on Tuesday and unavailable for comment.
That had some turning their attention to the possibility of recruiting Ohio House Minority Leader Tracy Maxwell Heard, an up-and-comer on the state political scene who is black.
Appearing at a news conference on Ohio's economy Tuesday, Heard declined to address the speculation surrounding the gubernatorial ticket. She said she was leaving the topic to "the politicos and pundits to address."
Austin said it wasn't necessary for FitzGerald to replace Kearney immediately. That could happen in the new year, as is standard.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.