PJ Media

Who's Challenging Kasich? Dem FitzGerald Aims for the 'Common Man' Message

Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald is an ambitious Cleveland-area politico facing an uphill battle against incumbent Republican Governor John Kasich in Ohio.

In the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, Kasich leads by 18.8 points. But the race could also provide clues to this critical swing state’s political future.

A product of Indianapolis, 46-year-old FitzGerald attended Indiana University, Ohio State and Cleveland State’s law school. His service in public life includes the FBI, county prosecutor, Lakewood City Council, Lakewood mayor, and his current position as Cuyahoga County executive. After a corruption probe and subsequent convictions of Democratic bosses, the voters altered the government charter and then put FitzGerald in charge. Now he hopes to move into the governor’s mansion as the face of reform.

He appears a clean-cut lawman, of Irish descent, Catholic, who champions the middle class and the underprivileged. Robert Kennedy and his legacy is an influence. The Cleveland Plain Dealer once called him “an ambitious young mayor with a textbook knowledge of politics.” He can be wonky. He can be dry. He’s definitely energetic.

His is the family picture that adorns essential campaign pamphlets. He is married with four children; thus he likes to crack that he understands budgeting and fiscal responsibility.

He’s had a good string of campaigns in northeast Ohio. In 2007, he won the Lakewood mayor’s race with 61.2 percent of the vote, to his Republican challenger’s 38.7 percent. He became Cuyahoga County’s first executive in 2010 with a plurality of nearly 46 percent in a field of six. The Republican candidate received 30 percent.

FitzGerald is a mild-mannered, rational manager who wants to help families and empower unions. He touts his college affordability program, his commitment to shared services among municipalities, and a long list of bureaucratic endeavors. He wants to raise the minimum wage.

Though Republican detractors in the area question FitzGerald’s crime-fighting bone fides, his superior at the Chicago FBI said he was a key part of a team that broke up corrupt politicians there. He told the Plain Dealer that the team was sorry that he left, and that he was “a sharp guy.”

“In many ways it’s your typical case of an incumbent running during a rebounding economy,” says Professor Daniel Coffey of Akron University’s Ray Bliss Institute. Other, more experienced Democrats likely saw it as the wrong time to run, thus FitzGerald’s easy primary victory over a novelty candidate.

FitzGerald has some political celebrity in the north of the state. Coffey agrees he has a squeaky clean image, but questions how well he’s known throughout the region. “‘Yeah, he’s a good guy, a nice guy, but I’m not sure what he does. . .’ that’s what most average people would say of him,” he said. Coffey also points out how Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson overshadows the county head.

The general election campaign has barely begun. It’s not a real priority in the media. There’s no buzz about it yet. Kasich is largely ignoring his underdog challenger. The Democratic nominee’s chief goal, it seems, is to remind voters of Kasich’s Senate Bill 5,  a no collective-bargaining bill for state employees he pushed through on his honeymoon as a governor.

This, with a general assault on public sector employees from the right, led to a backlash and a repeal. Looking to corral public sector employees and their champions, FitzGerald assures his support for police, firemen, and teachers at every turn. “We do not turn our backs on those who watch ours,” says his website. It’s his common language on the stump, in editorial interviews, and ads.

The Republicans paint FitzGerald as an opportunist, office hopper, and associate of convicted Cleveland politicians. Fellow Lakewood councilman Ryan Demro said as FitzGerald left his post there for the executive position, “He wants to have a crystal clear record for the next office and the next office.” Demro added, “This is a guy who will do whatever it takes to score political points.”

Cuyahoga County GOP chairman Rob Frost sent an early email declaring, when FitzGerald ran for Cuyahoga County executive, “He was a member of the same corrupt Democratic Cleveland machine that lied, embezzled and stole while they were in public office.” The email included images that link FitzGerald to party boss Jimmy Dimora and auditor Frank Russo, both convicted.

The FitzGerald campaign’s economic strategy is to promote a more progressive tax code, and to return state dollars to local municipalities. He constantly criticizes Kasich for his tax cuts to the wealthy and his cut in state funds toward operating local governments. With new local tax levies as the example, he paints the governor as a tax shifter, not a tax cutter.

FitzGerald had an early campaign blunder when he nominated Cincinnati state senator Eric Kearney as his lieutenant. Kearney, a successful entrepreneur with ties to the Obamas, also publishes the Cincinnati Herald, the town’s African-American newspaper. When Kearney’s tax problems became public, he withdrew from the ticket. The sloppy vetting may have been a result of FitzGerald trying to hastily connect with African-American voters as detailed by a Columbus Dispatch article. He has since named Dayton attorney Sharen Neuhardt as his running mate.

FitzGerald’s support is coming from a variety of areas, but big labor is energized behind him. A glance at post-primary filings at the secretary of state’s office shows those PACs who’ve already given over $10,000 constitute a who’s who in teachers, police, and public employees’ unions. You’ll also see the autoworkers, Service Employees International Union, and others. The state Fraternal Order of Police, a fairly balanced and respected organization among independents, endorsed him. Labor’s real contribution will be boots on the ground nearing election.

The challenger has put out his first TV spot. It is a safe, strategic ad reminding voters that Ed’s for the working class. Generally a stock production, it includes a farmer, office worker, the candidate with sleeves rolled up in a factory, and of course firefighters, police, and teachers. It’s mostly American Pie that ends safely with a backdoor dig at Kasich: “Because Ohio was meant for all of us.” It was reported the ad cost $250,000, including a one-week buy in both the Cleveland and Columbus markets in hopes of boosting his popularity.

Yet a July 30 Quinnipiac poll said Ed FitzGerald “remains largely unknown and is gaining little ground.” Kasich has a 55 percent approval rating, leads his challenger 47 to 28 with independents, and is stronger in his party than FitzGerald is with his. In fact, 65 percent of Ohio voters don’t know enough about FitzGerald to form an opinion.

As of the last official filing, in total FitzGerald has raised $2.3 million. Kasich had raked in $10.3 million.

More recently, potential damage may come from a news story that, in 2012, as the county hosted a delegation of Irish counterparts visiting Cuyahoga County on an exchange, the police found FitzGerald and a Ms. Joanne Grehan, together, in a parked car around 4:30am. There were no violations, and FitzGerald has insisted that, as a designated driver, he had merely pulled over to reconnect with others driving in separate cars to find the right hotel. His campaign alleges the Republican Governors Association made the public records request for the citizen-reported call and police department details.