Have you heard the name Sykes? How about Comunale?
What about Milkovich? Or Johnson?
These four local Democrats are counting on Akron-area voters knowing — and remembering — their names when they choose Statehouse candidates Tuesday.
Name recognition is important in any election, but it’s paramount in a nonpresidential, nongubernatorial primary in which statewide turnout is expected to top out at about 20 percent, said John Green who heads the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
“You don’t have a presidential campaign or presidential primary to drive turnout,” Green said. “Name recognition becomes critical.”
Emilia Sykes and Summit County Councilman Frank Comunale are competing for the 34th District seat now held by Vernon Sykes, Emilia’s father. Assistant Akron Prosecutor Greta Johnson is challenging state Rep. Zack Milkovich for the 35th District seat he has held for two terms.
These are Summit County’s only Ohio House primary races. The winners will face Republican competition Nov. 4.
The four candidates have been trying different ways to reach voters, including all of them turning to direct mail. Comunale, who has spent more than $100,000 — nearly double the amount of the other three candidates combined — has mailed 14 pieces. A few take shots at Sykes and how her father and mother, Vernon and Barbara Sykes, have held the Statehouse seat she is seeking for 30 years.
“YIKES! They’re playing the old NAME GAME with yet another politician named Sykes,” reads a piece that features a family playing a “Name Game” board game that is designed “for 3 or more political players with the same last name.” The mailer doesn’t mention Comunale, except in the fine print that says his campaign committee paid for the ad.
Green called it an attempt by Comunale to turn the Sykes family’s name recognition into a negative rather than a positive.
“He is trying to associate negative information with the name,” Green said. “Most of the time when you know a candidate’s name it has a positive association. They have served in office or are well-known for another reason.”
Both Comunale and Sykes are well-known names in the Akron area.
Sykes enjoys name recognition from her parents’ public service, and Comunale has it from his eight years on the Summit County Council and from S.A. Comunale Inc., his family’s fire suppression company.
Sykes is hoping people will vote for her on her own merits. She has a law degree and a master’s in public health and works in the Summit County Fiscal Office. She also is helping to gather signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would make voting a fundamental right.
“I want people to get the opportunity to know who Emilia is and vote for me rather than the name I was given,” she said in a recent interview.
Comunale said he wanted to give Democratic voters a choice and didn’t see anyone else stepping up to challenge Sykes.
“This is not my birthright,” he said. “I’m the more capable candidate at this juncture.”
Sykes criticized Comunale in a recent mailing for a $250 donation he made to Right to Life in December 2012, emphasizing how she supports “reproductive choice.”
Comunale said he is Catholic and made the contribution, which was for education. He said he supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose.
“Those type of wedge politics don’t work well,” he said.
Asked about his “Name Game” mailing, Comunale said he thought it was “whimsical.”
Comunale has spent nearly four times the amount Sykes has doled out, with most going to mailed literature, according to pre-primary campaign finance information filed with the secretary of state.
“I had to do this,” Comunale said of his fundraising. “I am the older guy. I will not make the best-dressed or best-looking list ... It’s imperative to get my message out.”
Comunale’s campaign finances have come under question, with state Sen. Tom Saywer, D-Akron, who is advising Sykes’ campaign, filing complaints with the Summit County Board of Elections and the Ohio Elections Commission saying Comunale improperly operated two campaign committees at the same time. The elections board is investigating.
The state elections commission on Wednesday found probable cause that Comunale violated state law with his two committees and set a full hearing for Monday. The commission dismissed a complaint that Comunale made a false statement in a campaign piece.
Comunale says he has done nothing wrong.
Milkovich presumably has better name recognition than his opponent, Johnson, largely because he has served in the Ohio House for four years, while she has never held public office.
Johnson does, however, have the support of several prominent politicians whose names are well-known and has been touting this fact in her campaign literature. The list of people endorsing her includes Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, Barberton Mayor Bill Judge and Summit County Executive Russ Pry.
“Our local elected and community leaders agree ... It’s time to elect effective leadership to the Statehouse!” Johnson said in one mailing.
“I don’t know how you can be an effective legislator when you don’t have any relationship to work with other leaders in the district,” she said in an interview.
As with previous campaigns, Milkovich is couching himself as an ordinary guy who is in touch with the needs of his constituents, largely because of his marathon door-to-door campaign and town hall meetings.
“I feel like the government has not been listening to regular, working people,” he said. “I’m a better listener.”
Asked about the endorsements Johnson has received, Milkovich replied, “That’s OK.” He said the only endorsement he wants is from voters.
Johnson has been critical of Milkovich for voting for a state budget that eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood and cut aid to local governments and for supporting legislation that would allowed people to challenge state or local laws on the grounds that they interfered with their religious beliefs. The bill was withdrawn in February after criticism from gay-rights groups said it would have allowed business owners to discriminate against people.
“And he ascribed his name to that,” Johnson said.
Milkovich said he voted for the original version of the state budget but against the legislation after it was amended in the Senate. As for the other legislation, Milkovich said he is an Orthodox Christian, was an immigrant to this country and doesn’t think anyone should be discriminated against.
“I am a true believer in the Lord,” he said. “Children need something to believe in. This can be a gateway to bringing back prayer in schools.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/swarsmith. Read the Beacon Journal’s political blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/ohio-politics.