The chair of the Summit County Democratic Party is stepping down to challenge one of the last elected Republicans in Akron.

At-large Akron City Councilman Jeff Fusco will relinquish his title as party chair in an attempt to unseat Municipal Clerk of Courts Jim Laria.

Laria was appointed to the nonpartisan position in 1997. He’s won election to stay there five times.

On Wednesday, both candidates highlighted technology as a centerpiece in their campaigns.

After learning that Fusco had announced his candidacy after weeks of speculation, Laria said he’ll run on 20-plus years in office and ushering the municipal court system online. Civil cases are filed in 24 hours, he said. Criminal and traffic case filings are next, along with a recent state grant to e-file Ohio State Highway Patrol citations.

“Keeping the court modernized,” Laria said would be his emphasis. “As far as computer operation here, we have gone digital. We’ve got online payments. We have a website that is real-time. When cases are filed, they go right to the web. We’re as modern as modern could be.”

“Yeah, I tend to disagree,” said Fusco. “Talk to the customers, to people who utilize the system and that’s the place where you learn a lot in terms of our municipal court system.”

Fusco said navigating the city court’s website could be improved by “leveraging the existing relationships and infrastructure. And it’s important to work with the other governmental entities to find opportunities that we could advance the court.”

From his time streamlining governmental agencies under Mayor Don Plusquellic to overseeing or voting on the consolidation of city and county departments during his 20 years on City Council, Fusco is running as a trustworthy steward of the public dime.

“These are the kind of skills that I bring,” Fusco said.

Right in step, Laria spoke of scaling back as his budget shrank after the Great Recession, reducing his staff by “about 10 percent and still providing the same service we have in the past, and continuing to expand on that.”

Should Fusco win in November, his colleagues on council would interview and pick a replacement.

Fusco said he’ll begin fundraising after filing his candidacy with the board of elections this week. Asked about who might help him to victory, Fusco pointed to endorsements from County Executive Ilene Shapiro and Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, the top Democrats in Summit County.

“Laria is just a popular officeholder and he’ll be tough to beat,” said Bryan Williams, chair of the Summit County Republican Party.

Williams and Laria ticked off all the times Laria has beat opponents with more than 55 percent of the vote, from now state Sen. Vernon Sykes back in 1997 to Councilwoman Linda Omobien in 2011 with Senate Bill 5 driving Democratic turnout.

“I’m kind of the last Republican standing, other than a couple judges and two Akron School Board members,” Laria said. “And I think I have a pretty good record of being a nonpartisan clerk and running a pretty square office.”

“I tell you what, my campaign team and I are very hard workers,” said Fusco, the first former Akron mayor to challenge the city’s longtime Republican clerk of courts.

The Akron Municipal Court serves the cities of Akron, Fairlawn and Bath, Richfield and Springfield townships, Lakemore and part of Mogadore.

Fusco has been the party chair since 2014, taking a six-month hiatus when he elevated from council president to interim mayor in 2015. Tom Bevan, now the No. 2 in the Summit County Democratic Party, will become chair.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow on Twitter: @ABJDoug .