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.”