By THOMAS J. SHEERAN and JULIE CARR SMYTH
As he enters the race for Ohio governor, Cuyahoga County’s Democratic leader and former FBI agent Ed FitzGerald must convince voters that being “Public Official 14” in a county corruption probe didn’t imply wrongdoing.
Republicans are seizing on the connection to the probe, calling Democrat FitzGerald an unusually weak candidate.
FitzGerald, the leader of Cuyahoga County government in Cleveland, officially entered the campaign Wednesday to challenge Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich in next year’s election and called the incumbent and his policies divisive and extreme.
The county executive and former Lakewood mayor kicked off his campaign in a crowded Cleveland ballroom, describing the Kasich administration as lobbyist-directed, cutting school aid and backing tax policies that benefit the rich.
FitzGerald repeated the announcement in Columbus, with an event planned later in the day in Cincinnati.
The 44-year-old calls himself a reformer who helped restore integrity to a scandal-ridden county government in Ohio’s most populous county.
FitzGerald called Kasich policies destructive and said Ohioans question the governor’s boast about an economic miracle. “A miracle for who,” FitzGerald said to laughter.
“I believe, I really believe, that something better is possible,” said FitzGerald, mentioning expanded early childhood education, creation of jobs offering living wages and protecting worker and voter rights.
“We can be a state that has a governor who every day makes it his vision to make it easier for Ohio families to get in the middle class and stay in the middle class,” FitzGerald said as his wife and four children watched from nearby seats.
FitzGerald must fend off critics who seek to use his designation as Public Official 14 in the corruption probe to tarnish his tough-on-crime message. He was never a target and was not charged.
FitzGerald, asked about that after his announcement, smiled and said he had the corruption-fighting credentials to deflect GOP criticism.
“They tried to do that when I ran for county executive and it fell right on its face,” he said. “First of all, I’m the only person that’s, I guess, ever run for governor of Ohio that actually has a record investigating corrupt politicians, putting them in jail and taking a corrupt system and making it a more transparent and honest system.”
That, according to FitzGerald, “is a record that the Republicans in state government who are having all kinds of ethical problems are not going to be able to match. So, I don’t think that’s going to work.”
A Republican member of the Cuyahoga County Council, Dave Greenspan, said FitzGerald’s candidacy would jeopardize efforts to restore trust in county government.
“We are coming off decades of corruption and unfair business practices: What this county needs is a stable government,” Greenspan said Wednesday. “Changes in leadership at this time is not what’s in the best interest of the county.”
The executive and council replaced the three-commissioner Democratic-controlled government two years ago after a yearslong corruption investigation that netted more than 50 convictions including elected officials, employees and contractors.
The GOP welcomed FitzGerald to the campaign with a YouTube video with new captions belittling his own video announcement about his political plans.
“I dismantled a corrupt political patronage machine that was choking our county and holding us back,” FitzGerald said in the video. The Republican response added video captions highlighting ethical issues involving FitzGerald appointments.
For his part, Kasich steered clear of the negative. Speaking to reporters after an event in Columbus, he said he had little time for politics.
“It’s all a matter of how people feel, you know, if they feel their economic future is better. It’s up to them,” he said. “I think right now they feel that way. We’ll just have to see — gotta keep going though, because if they don’t think they’re going to get their money’s worth, they’ll look in another direction.”
FitzGerald enters the race as Kasich’s approval rating is at the highest point of his governorship. A February Quinnipiac University poll found 53 percent of Ohio voters approved of the job Kasich is doing, compared to 32 percent who disapproved.
Voters’ views of Kasich have improved since the dark days for his administration triggered by his support of a division bill limiting the power of Ohio’s public employee unions. The bill, which brought thousands of angry protesters to the Statehouse for months, was repealed by voters in 2011.
FitzGerald told reporters he didn’t know whether he would face a Democratic primary opponent. A divisive primary fight could drain resources that otherwise might be used against Kasich in the general election.
“The chances of there being a serious primary, a competitive primary is probably diminishing daily,” he said.
Within days of the FitzGerald announcement in March that he was exploring a run, the Democratic primary field cleared out of FitzGerald’s path.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a 39-year-old Niles Democrat, said he believed he could do more for his region, state and country remaining as a congressman. Former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton said that after careful consideration she’d decided not to challenge Kasich.
Those announcements have left only former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray’s aspirations for the office a mystery. He had once said he intended to seek the governorship, but has since gotten a top job as President Barack Obama’s consumer protection watchdog. His appointment remains under scrutiny on Capitol Hill.