By Jim Siegel

A member of the Ohio Senate's GOP leadership team is drawing fire after questioning whether his opponent, a woman with young children, could handle being away from home while serving in the state legislature.

Sen. Tom Patton, R-Strongsville, a term-limited, pro-labor Republican who is running for a House seat this year, called Jennifer Herold, his primary opponent, "sweetie" and questioned whether she should run for the seat. He made the comments on the Jan. 18 America's Work Force radio show with Ed Ferenc.

Patton, the Senate majority floor leader, is facing Herold in the Republican primary for the 7th House District. He told Ferenc it's the first primary challenge he has faced since 2002.

"The gal that's running against me is a 30-year-old, you know, mom, mother of two infants," Patton said on the show. "I don't know if anybody explained to her you have to spend three nights a week in Columbus. So, how does that work out for you? I waited until I was 48, until my kids were raised, and at least adults, before we took the opportunity to try."

Herold, who has children aged 1 and 3, said the decision to run for the House was one she and her family took very seriously.

"We realize the sacrifice that is involved in holding such a position," she said in a written response. "However, Tom Patton has crossed a line by trying to turn the fact that I am a mother of two children into a negative campaign issue. It's insulting for my opponent to suggest that motherhood is a liability. In fact, my experience as a mom is perhaps my greatest strength."

A number of female legislators have children, as do numerous males -- including Gov. John Kasich. Reps. Christie Kuhns, D-Cincinnati, and Christina Hagan, R-Alliance, gave birth to babies this session. Hagan bought her baby daughter to the Statehouse on Tuesday.

"Do you draw a distinction between whether that representative is a mother or a father who is serving?" Herold said.

Rob Frost, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, defended Patton in an interview on Thursday with Cleveland radio host Bob Frantz.

"No, these are not sexist or out-of-line comments," Frost said, adding that Herold was " desperate to try to get some attention."

As a widower who raised five daughters and a son, Frost said Patton "understands the pressures on parents."

Patton did not return a message left with his office. He sent a statement to the "Plain Dealer" of Cleveland saying his comments "appear to have been misunderstood" and that he "used a poor choice of words to express what I know first-hand -- raising young children and working is tough."

He added: "I sincerely apologize if my words were misplaced on this matter."

Herold also took issue with Patton calling her "sweetie."

"Tom, only one man in my life is allowed to call me 'sweetie.' From now on, I respectfully ask you to refer to me as Jen, Jennifer, Ms. Herold, or your opponent."

(c)2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)