The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

November 12, 2012

Message, not money

Ex-Geneva attorney shuns cash, elected to Supreme Court

By MARGIE NETZEL - mnetzel@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

— When William O’Neill took his first swing at the Geneva-on-the-Lake Golf Course on Sunday, he did it with 52 percent of the vote for Ohio Supreme Court justice, and like Frank Sinatra sang — he did it his way.

O’Neill, who began his legal career in Geneva and is now a Geauga County resident, is proud  — and he’ll tell anyone and everyone about it — that his victory over Justice Robert Cupp, a Republican, was earned, not bought.

“This year it came down to message, not money,” he said. “There was so much money being spent this year. If Justice Cupp had made his goal of raising $1 million, it wouldn’t have made a difference. It was the year of the message and I was able to get the message out.”

The message got out, but on O’Neill’s terms. He refused to take campaign contributions. He won his judgeship on $4,000 of his own money and with the slogan “no money from nobody.”

“I saw the perfect storm coming a full year ago,” he said. “I knew what was going to happen this year. This is the first year that Citizens United unleashed an unlimited supply of money and it came raining down on the voters and nobody was happy. The voters are unhappy with the barrage of negative ads they have been subjected to, and it didn’t win anyone a spot on the Ohio Supreme Court. I’ve said it all year — money and judges don’t mix. Never have, never will.”

O’Neill said Citizen’s United’s target was painted on his forehead this year.

“I was the was the direct target of $750,000 in negative TV ads, which blew up in their face,” he said. “Those so-called ‘influence ads’ didn’t influence anyone.”

O’Neill said he made it clear — he was campaigning for the gavel, not for friends in high places.

“I was able to define all that was wrong with judicial elections in Ohio,” he said, “and I was doing it by challenging the practices of a sitting justice, and it resonated very well.”

A father, lawyer, pediatric nurse, appellate judge and candidate, O’Neill said he spent the weekend relaxing, taking in a game of golf on the lake with his victory.

“It feels good,” he said. “Winning feels really good.”

Geneva-on-the-Lake was the place for O’Neill to relax Sunday, as he remembered his fresh out-of-law school days in Ohio’s wine country.

O’Neill began his legal career as a law clerk for one-time Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Mallone.

“Nobody could have a better start than being Judge Mallone’s clerk,” O’Neill said. “Nobody.”

He started his own legal practice in the Miller Realty building in downtown Geneva. His twin children, Shawn and Katie, were born at Geneva Memorial Hospital. He gave up the practice when his infant daughter needed intensive medical treatment at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, and he began working for the Ohio attorney general in Cleveland.

“We lived at Rainbows, literally,” he said. “We were living at the Ronald McDonald House right at the hospital, so I needed a job in Cleveland.”

O’Neill was even a small business owner, operating the Lakeside Lodge next to Geneva State Park. He ran the restaurant, called O’Neill’s Landing, and his own legal practice, for 10 years.

Wife Shaylah died in a car accident 15 years ago. His children are grown now — Shawn is an Iraq war veteran, Katie a student at Ohio State. Tiffany owns and operates the Vegan Sweet Tooth in Beechwood, and son Brandon, “is trouble. Stay away from Brandon,” jokes O’Neill.

And O’Neill’s life is now filled with his work as a pediatric emergency room nurse at Hillcrest Hospital, his love of sailing, his children’s escapades and being the “assistant to the assistant’s assistant soccer coach” for his cousin’s children’s team.

“Being a pediatric emergency room nurse keeps me grounded,” he said. “Because that side of life shows you real people with real problems. Being a soccer coach is a lot of fun, and I am really having a fun weekend after a really long campaign.”

O’Neill said now, “is the time to take some time.”

“I am going to savor the win and then I have to hire a staff and get to work,” he said. “I have done this before, made the transition from lawyer to court of appeals judge, but now the transition is from a nurse to Supreme Court justice.”

The first order of business for O’Neill? Open ears.

“For the first few months going to do a lot more listening than talking,” he said.