A group of Northeast Ohio voters who spent the weekend discussing the hotly contested 16th District congressional race wants the candidates to focus on the economy, unemployment and the federal budget deficit.

The group of 22 citizens who participated in a three-day citizens forum called Reclaim November, Ohio! issued its report and statement to the candidates Sunday evening. It was a project of Jefferson Action, a Minnesota nonprofit that is devoted to promoting a more rational approach to democracy.

When congressional district boundaries were redrawn, two sitting representatives, Republican Jim Renacci of Wadsworth and Democrat Betty Sutton of Copley, landed in a head-to-head contest for the 16th District. The contest has been marked with attack ads by both sides.

The goal of the weekend forum was to allow a diverse group of people from the congressional district to discuss and decide three issues they consider most important. Jefferson Action presented the issues to both sides and will challenge them to address the topics during the campaign. The group intends on holding two more citizen election forums in the fall to examine the candidates’ stands on the issues and assess whether they have addressed them effectively.

Jim Meffert, executive director of Jefferson Action, said the weekend’s results exceeded his expectations since the group “really got to the core of the challenges facing our economy.”

“It always amazes me when you get people in a room and give them time to have a conversation with each other and interact and demonstrate how you can actually have a civil discussion and learn from each other,” Meffert said.

The full results and report are on the group’s website, www.promotinghealthydemocracy.org/results.

Meffert said 23 people began the forum Friday, which was streamed live on the Web. One person did not return on Saturday, but 22 remained for all three days. Meffert said the group has not been able to reach the person who did not return to know why.

The top three issues the group wanted the candidates to address were:

•?Weak economic growth: “There is clear evidence of out-migration and job loss at a time when we need to be creating more economic growth in order to support an aging population, education and attract companies to do business in Ohio,” the group said.

•?Unemployment: “We need higher paying full time jobs, because part time jobs are the majority of jobs available and they don’t provide health insurance or a decent living wage. Addressing underemployment is also one way to begin addressing unemployment.” The group also said working people pay the taxes that fund other programs, and when they spend, it creates more jobs, which strengthens communities. The group also said funding, portability and availability of accredited job training and vocational programs are insufficient.

•?Federal budget deficit and debt: “We need to begin reducing our debt so that we can start growing our economy and avoid further negative impacts on future generations,” the group said.

Meffert said representatives from both campaigns met with Jefferson Action staff before the event. Neither side made any commitments about what they would do with the results, Meffert said.

Renacci’s campaign had a representative at the event on Friday and Sunday. Sutton’s campaign did not have anyone at the event, but was watching it via the live streaming, Meffert said.

When reached Sunday evening, representatives for both campaigns said they had reviewed the group’s statements.

Said James Slepian, Renacci’s campaign spokesman, via e-mail: “For months, Jim Renacci has implored Betty Sutton to cease hiding her record behind false personal attacks and to finally join him in a serious and substantive debate on our economy, jobs and the debt crisis. The report issued by the citizens forum serves as both an indictment of the gutter politics that have defined Betty Sutton’s campaign and as a clear signal that Ohioans want and deserve precisely the type of issues-based campaign Jim Renacci is calling for. At a time when we face the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, voters are rightfully incensed over the failed economic policies that are crippling our country and they will no longer tolerate candidates who seek to mask their voting record behind the politics of personal distortion and destruction. We can only hope this will serve as a wake- up call to Betty Sutton, but given her track record, we’re not holding our breath.”

In a telephone interview, Anthony DeAngelo, communications director for Sutton’s campaign, said the issues brought up by the Jefferson Action group “are the same issues Betty Sutton has been a leader on and will continue to focus on, not only during the next 100 days, but beyond. She certainly looks forward to hearing from all of the voters and what they care about between now and November.

“We’re going to continue to focus on drawing the clear distinction between Betty and Congressman Renacci.”

When asked to comment about the group’s desire for fewer attack ads, DeAngelo said: “Both of these candidates have a vision for where they want this district, state and country to go. I think that voters are going to be looking to see what that vision is.”

The group also suggested that the candidates show an understanding of the three issues and how they have been accountable to voters on the issues; stay in learning mode and maintain a positive attitude; refrain from negative or misleading ads; tell how they have learned and what they would do differently on the three issues, if given an opportunity to go back; and let voters know how they can be involved and help more in addressing the three issues, such as more citizen juries or town hall meetings.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.