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A Cordial Introduction For Ohio's Democratic Governor Candidates

Ohio Democratic Party/Twitter
Ohio governor candidates Connie Pillich, Joe Schiavoni, Nan Whaley and Betty Sutton.

We've sort of become accustomed to candidates meeting in debates and spending as much time ripping into each other as they do talking about their own ideas.

This was not the case last Tuesday night, when the four Democrats running for Ohio governor met on a high school auditorium stage last Tuesday night in Martins Ferry, an Ohio River town in Belmont County.

These four – Dayton mayor Nan Whaley, former state rep. Connie Pillich of Montgomery, former Ohio Senate minority leader Joe Schiavoni, and former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton – were as pleasant as could be to one another.

Genial. Buddy-buddy. If they had been handed grade school report cards, they would have had the notation “plays well together.”

They just each think they would make a better governor than the other three.

This was the first of six such debates the Ohio Democratic Party plans to stage in various regions of the state. It's a bit complicated though.

There are still two Democratic Bigfoot characters sitting out there mulling over whether or not to jump into the race.

There is Richard Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general and state treasurer who now heads the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), who would have to leave that job before he can legally talk about partisan politics.

And then there is Jerry Springer, the former Cincinnati mayor who has spent the past 27 years hosting the most raucous low-brow show in television history. But Springer most definitely has a serious side; and has been laying hints around that he might be convinced to jump into the governor's race.

They might have to drag some more chairs onto the stage for the next debate, the time and place of which should be announced by the party soon.

Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper told WVXU he has "no idea" what Springer and/or Cordray intend to do.

"I just don't know,'' Pepper said. “Maybe we add a chair or two; maybe we don't. We'll just have to wait and see about that."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
Richard Cordray

In the meantime, Pepper is glowing and crowing about what a great success the Martins Ferry debate was.

"We stuck our flag in the ground in eastern Ohio and said that we are here to stay,'' Pepper said.

That is significant because Martins Ferry, which, with a population of about 7,000, is the largest city in Belmont County. And Belmont County, right across the Ohio River from West Virginia, is at the very heart of the long stretch of southeastern and eastern counties that runs from eastern Clermont County all the way up into the Mahoning Valley, home of Youngstown.

Why did Donald Trump win Ohio by such a substantial margin last fall, you ask?

Because, in large part, this region of the state, where there is chronic unemployment and an economy that generally lags far behind the rest of the state, was fertile ground for Trump's populist style message and his promise that he and he alone could fix it.

In Belmont County, for example, a whopping 68 percent of the electorate voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton, whose campaign spent far less time wooing that region than it should have.

"There are a whole lot of people from that part of the state who believe they've been forgotten by Columbus, that they don't count for anything,'' Pepper said. "That's what's I've heard from them over and over again."

So Tuesday night, the Democratic candidates saved their salvos for the Republicans who run state government and the legislature – Gov. John Kasich and the overwhelmingly Republican Ohio General Assembly, who are the ones who took away millions from local communities when they cut the state's Local Government Fund.

The Democratic candidates stayed away from talking about the four Republicans running for governor – Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci. Plenty of time for that later.

The debate was live-streamed and there were watch parties at Democratic gatherings in the major cities and on university campuses statewide.

"It accomplished everything we wanted it to accomplish,'' Pepper said. “Our candidates were on message. This was not a nasty attack on each other. They talked about the direction they want to take Ohio over the next four years."

And, Pepper said, it got an enormous amount of media coverage in that part of the state – just what the doctor ordered for a set of candidates who are well-known in their own corners of the state, but not so well known elsewhere.

David Niven, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, was one of those Ohioans watching the Martins Ferry debate online.

"What you had were four very nice people out there on stage giving renditions of their stump speeches,'' Niven said. “None of them are that well known statewide. But even the least known of them has one thing going for him or her – they’re running against other people who also aren't well known."

If Cordray or Springer – or both – were to jump into the race, Niven said, "it would shift the balance of power."

It might even thin out the field a bit, Niven said.

Both Springer and Cordray have higher profiles than any of the other candidates, Niven said.

"Springer is famous, but it is a different kind of fame than what you usually see in a candidate,'' Niven said.

He said he could see the TV talk show host appealing to many of the same voters who voted for Trump last fall – even though the two are miles apart in their political beliefs.

Cordray was the guest speaker at the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council's Labor Day picnic at Coney Island. His performance was panned as being lackluster and boring.

Niven said it was understandable – Cordray is still a federal official, bound by the Hatch Act, which prohibits most executive branch officials from engaging in partisan politics.

"Cordray was legally bound to be boring when he spoke at the picnic,'' Niven said.

Springer has the charm and a rousing speaking style, while Cordray is a little more low-key, although he is more than capable of a good campaign stump speech.

"Being charming is not what he needs,'' Niven said of Cordray. "He has stature. He has done things. He has a resume."

Cordray could go out as a candidate for governor and tell voters that, as head of the CFPB, he recovered $12 billion for millions of consumers taken advantage of by unscrupulous lenders.

That's not a bad issue to run on.

But, as of now, neither Springer nor Cordray are candidates.

So the caravan moves on; the parade of Democrats continues, with five more debates to go.

"I have not heard anything formal about (Springer and Cordray), and until we do, we don't do anything but continue our debates," Pepper said.

And, sans Cordray and Springer, Ohio Democrats will continue looking for one of the four to become very famous very fast. Famous in a good way, that is.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.