When voters punch their ballots for Stow Municipal Court judge and clerk of courts, they won’t see a party affiliation next to the candidates’ names.
Philosophically, lawmakers will tell you that’s because politics has no place in jobs that should require absolute impartiality.
Yet Ohio is the only state that holds an overtly partisan primary for some court posts in the spring in order to send party representatives to an ostensibly nonpartisan face-off in the fall.
Because of that quirk in Ohio’s election process, it was hard to hide the fact that this year’s lineup in Stow is largely the result of a heated political battle within the Republican party.
For judge, 18-year incumbent Kim Hoover, who fell from his party’s grace after backing a failed attempt to oust Summit County Republican Party Chairman Alex Arshinkoff, will face the party’s chosen candidate, political newcomer Kandi O’Connor.
Party leaders had hoped O’Connor would push Hoover out in the primary, but he sidestepped them by dusting off an obscure law that sent him straight to November’s General Election as a “nonpartisan” candidate.
That’s different than being an “independent” — a designation Hoover wouldn’t qualify for because he has never distanced himself from the Republican party — and the strategy caught the Summit County Board of Elections by such surprise, the board took weeks to respond to Hoover’s announcement.
In the end, the board decided not to challenge the move, because Hoover had presented impressive case law involving another judge in Ohio.
But the board — of which Arshinkoff is a member — balked when Hoover’s ally, Kevin Coughlin, played the same card in announcing his “nonpartisan” candidacy for the clerk of courts post. Coughlin was a state senator when he joined in trying to remove Arshinkoff as the local party chairman.
It took a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court to overturn the elections board and add Coughlin’s name to the November ballot.
That meant Democrat Diana Colavecchio, appointed to the clerk’s post after a vacancy in January, would face two Republicans in the Nov. 5 election: Coughlin and Frank Larson, the party’s choice.
Larson, the mayor of Munroe Falls, said there’s no question that “my entering the primary was viewed as a threat to the court” and that Coughlin entered the race “in an effort to take votes away from me.”
It might be that Hoover and Coughlin, however, are the ones at a disadvantage, because they don’t enjoy the blessings of the party — and all the benefits that entails.
Hoover noted his campaign lacks the “political party machinery to aid in fundraising, volunteers, yard sign locations and recruiting the party faithful generally to get your name and message before the general public.”
“Nonetheless,” he said, “I would not have it any other way, as it is paramount to separate any hint of political bossism from the justice system.”
A similar sentiment was shared by all of the candidates, who echoed each other in saying they didn’t want party politics to be front and center for next month’s races.
None seem to be relying on party allegiances to woo voters, and all have been campaigning on their personal strengths and their plans for office.
“People want their courthouses to be free of political influence,” said Coughlin, who said using the nonpartisan strategy to bypass the primaries has been an “overwhelmingly positive” experience.
Colavecchio, the Democrat, said she’s confident voters will be swayed by qualifications, not petty party squabbling.
“I believe that voters will educate themselves about the candidates and then weigh each candidate not by their party affiliations or non-affiliations, but on their individual merits, experience, ethics, integrity, involvement in their community and long-term commitment ...” she said.
Larson said he’s simply running “on the fact that I have a record that shows I work for the taxpayer; my record shows I have the administrative abilities, and I am financially transparent.”
Still, the rare strategy employed by Hoover and Coughlin to skip the partisan primaries and go straight to the November ballot might have widespread ramifications, if Hoover’s ringing phone is any indication.
“Many judges around the state have contacted me for ‘coaching’ as to how to file as a nonpartisan,” he said.
Most of them are judges who believe that “they have been bullied and manipulated by their local political bosses and want to shed that yoke,” Hoover said. “I am proud to lead such a cause and believe the people of Ohio will agree with the obvious logic.”
In the future, the end run might not be necessary.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor — a former Summit County judge and prosecutor — has called on lawmakers to reform the election process and end party primaries for judicial office.
“Party affiliation has no place in judicial elections, period,” she said at the Ohio State Bar Association’s annual convention in May, when she was interrupted by applause for the only time in her 25-minute speech.
Kandi O’Connor (no relation to Maureen O’Connor) said she agreed with the chief justice.
“Election of judges by popular vote makes a judicial candidate a politician by necessity,” and that includes running a campaign and raising funds, the Stow judicial candidate said. “However, the public perception of lack of impartiality increases when candidates are identified by political party on the ballot. An effective judge must maintain impartiality and remain above partisan politics.
“Political activity of judges and judicial candidates should be consistent with the impartiality and integrity required of judicial office.”