COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio Democrats are struggling to defuse the fallout from a 2014 lieutenant governor candidate's hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal and business liens without alienating key groups, including black voters, powerful politicians and contributors.
Seasoned Democratic strategist Gerald Austin is among those who believe the candidate, state Sen. Eric Kearney, must leave the ticket of gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald, and quickly.
He said Tuesday that every day Kearney remains in the race benefits Republican Gov. John Kasich's chances of re-election.
"It's incumbent upon Mr. Kearney to withdraw from the ticket, not for Ed FitzGerald to ask him to leave," said Austin, who's helped pick five of Ohio's lieutenant governor candidates over the years. "I don't know how this ticket can go on with this venture."
Kearney, a Cincinnati lawyer, owes roughly $700,000 in state and federal tax liens along with his wife, Jan-Michele, and their Cincinnati publishing business, KGL Media Group. A foreclosure proceeding, credit card debt and unpaid workers' compensation premiums were subsequently reported, mixed with conflicting accounts about how much FitzGerald knew of the details before Kearney's selection.
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 predicted voters wouldn't even remember the bruising 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."
Kearney, who is black, brought racial and geographic diversity to FitzGerald's ticket -- and ties to Democratic President Barack Obama, who is a law school classmate of Kearney's wife. Kearney helped Obama's Ohio fundraising effort in last year's election.
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, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was in South Africa on Tuesday and unavailable for comment.
Fudge was aware of Kearney's financial situation at the time, said an aide of hers -- meaning any decision to remove him from the ticket could backfire and alienate a popular politician with the power to get out votes for FitzGerald.
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's not necessary for FitzGerald to replace Kearney immediately. That could happen in the new year, as is standard.
"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. "To try to spin this as a small business man with a small business man's problems running against a guy who's worked on Wall Street, I think that's pretty lame."
Messages were left seeking comment with the FitzGerald campaign. Reached by phone, Kearney declined to comment.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.