Sen. Eric Kearney has stepped down as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor after confirming hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid back taxes. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler has the latest.
The announcement from Ed FitzGerald that Sen. Eric Kearney of Cincinnati would be his running mate didn’t have much in the way of drama, since word of Kearney’s selection had leaked out the day before.
“I’m very happy that today I can tell you that that search process officially is over," FitzGerald said at the time. "We have found a person that is going to be a partner with me as we turn around the state of Ohio and we lead our ticket to victory next year.”
But not long after that, reports of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tax liens against Kearney and his wife regarding the publishing business they own started to trickle out.
Last week, the trickle was a torrent, adding up to as much as $825,000 in unpaid back taxes -- plus credit card debt and questions about unpaid workers compensation premiums.
But when asked in a marathon conference call about his tax problems with reporters last week, Kearney made clear his determination several times to remain Ed FitzGerald’s running mate.
“I’m in it," Kearney said at the time. "We’re in it all the way and we’re going to see this through.”
Kearney would step down as Senate Minority Leader to concentrate on the campaign a few hours after making that statement. And he said that though FitzGerald wasn’t on the conference call with him, the candidate stood by him, and that they’d never had any discussions about whether Kearney’s tax troubles would be a liability for the campaign.
But the chorus of voices calling on Kearney to step aside or for FitzGerald to replace him had been rising for a while. The most recent was veteran Democratic strategist Jerry Austin of Cleveland, who has run national and statewide campaigns but says he’s retired and isn’t working on any now.
“It already looks bad," Austin said. "The first thing you always want to do when you’re picking a running mate is not to have stories that are going on for a week about, ‘Why did you pick him when you knew this information?’ and that’s happened now."
Austin, who says he’s helped pick five Ohio lieutenant governors, says Kearney’s departure is needed to give the ticket time to recover before November’s election. When asked who he thinks should replace Kearney, Austin offers this.
“The strongest candidate that the Democrats have right now I believe is Connie Pillich, and I would suggest that people ought to be calling on her to run for governor," he said.
Rep. Connie Pillich of Cincinnati has announced her intention to run for state treasurer.
Before Kearney was announced, there were reports that Columbus Councilman Zach Klein, State Sen. Lou Gentile of Steubenville and State Rep. Debbie Phillips of Athens were being considered. But one of the leading contenders was thought to be House Minority Leader Tracy Heard of Columbus.
At a news conference with Philips and other House Democrats blasting the economy under Republican Gov. John Kasich, Heard deflected questions about whether she’d talked to the FitzGerald campaign.
“I know you guys probably have a lot of interest in that," Heard said, "but we’re going to leave that to the politicos and the pundits to address later."
This isn’t the first time a gubernatorial ticket has been changed before an election. It happened in 2006 when Jim Petro replaced his lieutenant governor before the Republican gubernatorial primary, which he lost to Ken Blackwell – who then lost to Democrat Ted Strickland that fall.
Kearney said in a statement that the business was on a path to recover from the tax troubles, but that he’s stepping aside because, “It’s undeniable that this has come to be a distraction from a discussion of the vital issues facing Ohio."