Senator Pulls Out of Ohio Lt. Governor's Race After Questions About Finances

December 11, 2013

By Jim Provance

Eric Kearney is out, as expected Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald today sought to heal self-inflicted wounds.

The running mate he was counting on to criticize Gov. John Kasich's tax policies turned out himself to owe about $826,000 in back taxes and penalties.

The campaign had tried to salvage its lieutenant governor candidate, using a 90-minute-plus conference call with reporters last week to try to explain at length how he, his wife, and their Cincinnati publishing business fell so far behind in federal and state taxes.

But the campaign couldn't stop the drip-drip of bad news about state Senator Kearney's personal and professional finances. Mr. FitzGerald's absence from public view in recent days only added to conjecture that change was inevitable, despite protests to the contrary. The absence of the Cuyahoga County executive on the conference call to back up his number two only added to suspicions that Mr. Kearney's days on the ticket were numbered.

Today, Mr. Kearney took himself off the ticket.

"...(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," he said in a written statement. "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.

"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.

The controversy not only has hurt Mr. Kearney, but has raised questions about the vetting conducted by a campaign headed by a former FBI agent. The campaign has insisted it knew of Mr. Kearney's problems from the start, but it soon became clear it didn't have the full picture as even it scrambled to come up with figures to satisfy reporters' increasing questions.

The controversies distracted from the advantages that the Cincinnati state senator was seen as bringing to the FitzGerald ticket -- geographic and racial balance and experience on the ground making the case against the current Republican governor's policies.

In an interview, Mr. FitzGerald said internal polling showed the controversy had not hurt the ticket, but the fear was that it could drown out the message the team wanted to deliver.

"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 get the message out as to the extent of Mr. Kearney's personal tax obligations compared to the much greater obligations of his Cincinnati publishing business and his wife. All of it, he said, was being lumped into the $826,000 figure.

Mr. Kearney recently stepped down as Democratic leader in the Senate, a chamber where the caucus is outnumbered 23-10 by Republicans. He is barred from seeking another Senate term by term limits, so it's unclear what the attorney and publishing company co-owner's next step would be.

Mr. Kearney co-owns Sesh Communications, also known as KGL Media, that publishes the Cincinnati Herald and other products targeting the African-American community. He ultimately revealed that the total outstanding tax bill, including penalty and interest, was about $826,000 for the businesses, his wife, and himself.

He said he believed Ohioans could sympathize with the story of a couple struggling to keep afloat an historic business that performs an important community service.

Among those who'd been mentioned for the second spot on the Democratic ticket before Mr. Kearney's selection 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.

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