Without a statewide issue in this off-year election (in 2009, Ohio voters approved casinos; in 2011, they rejected the anti-union Senate Bill 5), local candidates and issues garnered what little excitement Tuesday’s balloting could generate.
Locally, much of the available attention focused on races for clerk of court in the Barberton and Stow municipal court districts. In the Barberton district, appointed incumbent Diana Stevenson trounced Zack Milkovich, a state representative in his second term. In the Stow district, Kevin Coughlin, a former state senator, squeezed out a victory in an unusual three-way contest that included Diana Colavecchio, also an appointed incumbent, and Frank Larson, the mayor of Munroe Falls.
The jobs are, well, clerical. Yet court clerks, who don’t make policy decisions, do have responsibilities, handling millions of dollars in fees and fines and, in both Stow and Barberton, helping bring the courts into the computer age.
What, then, can explain the level of interest in these two races? To a large degree, challengers Milkovich and Coughlin had to see the clerk’s job as a secure power base.
Each is a political maverick, Coughlin, a Republican who ran as a nonpartisan, is on the outs with Summit County GOP Chairman Alex Arshinkoff, against whom he once launched a coup attempt.
Milkovich, a Democrat, is a close ally of Ernie Tarle, a former Akron City Council member. Tarle clashed repeatedly with Mayor Don Plusquellic, whose memories of long-ago political battles are as legendary as Arshinkoff’s. Milkovich won his seat in the Ohio House in 2010 by taking out the incumbent, John Otterman, in a Democratic primary.
Once elected, court clerks enjoy generous salaries, six-year terms and the power to appoint deputy clerks, easily drafted for after-hours political duties. After all, it is pretty hard for a deputy clerk to say no to the person on whom he or she depends for a job. (For now, both Stevenson and Coughlin will fill out the balance of an unexpired term.)
A Milkovich victory in the clerk’s race might have created a beachhead in Barberton, and perhaps Norton, for Tarle and other Akron dissidents. While that would have been a relief for Plusquellic, it promised to be nothing but trouble for Barberton and Norton.
In the end, the race turned on the fact that Stevenson, a lawyer, former magistrate and former assistant county prosecutor, was well qualified, while Milkovich lacked administrative or legal experience.
With a solidly Democratic House district in Barberton, parts of Akron and parts of Coventry and Springfield townships, Milkovich’s only fear is a primary challenge as he looks ahead to a re-election campaign next year.
Coughlin filed as an independent to avoid a primary battle with Larson, the Republican Party’s nominee. The gamble worked. Coughlin, aided by name recognition from his state Senate races, eased by Colavecchio, with Larson trailing.
Coughlin will join another independent-minded Republican who has opposed Arshinkoff, Judge Kim Hoover, in the Stow Municipal Court. Hoover, too, ran as a nonpartisan, avoiding a primary fight with Kandi O’Connor, the GOP nominee. When the two faced off Tuesday, Hoover won another six-year term.
Hoover originally wanted Coughlin to run against Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Robart, but Coughlin ended up opting for the clerk of court’s race, seeing a need to help the judge update the court’s technology, eventually moving to a paperless system for documents.
How Coughlin uses his newly acquired power base remains uncertain. He and Hoover (who called Arshinkoff “more irrelevant all the time” after the votes were counted) would certainly have a platform from which to launch another effort to oust the GOP chairman.
The other possibility is that Coughlin could turn his eye toward another race, possibly for Falls mayor in 2017.
Both parties long have been content with the archaic practice of electing court clerks. With the advent of civil service, there are few opportunities for patronage left other than clerk’s offices and, of course, boards of elections.
Had Milkovich and Coughlin both won on Tuesday, bucking party control, perhaps the prospect of continuing to fill a purely administrative post through an election would have seemed less appealing, finally putting weight behind the sensible idea of letting judges appoint court clerks.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.