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Meet Bill O'Neill, Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Runnning For Governor

Amy Sancetta
Associated Press
In this Oct. 29, 2010 photo, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O'Neill stands with then-Gov. Ted Strickland.

After serving on the Ohio Supreme Court for 15 years, Bill O'Neill's new year began with an attempt by Senate Republicans to kick him off. Before it could go any further, though, he stepped down himself to pursue the goal that's been on his mind for months: running for Ohio governor. 

In the fall, O'Neill - then the only Democrat elected to a statewide office - announced his attention to pursue the Democratic nomination for governor. That led to an outcry from Republicans, who said O'Neill couldn't campaign while sitting on the bench. But O'Neill, who is 70 and barred from seeking another term, never filed his paperwork to run.

It wasn't the only controversy that O'Neill was embroiled in last year. In the wake of sexual assault allegations against then-Sen. Al Franken, O'Neill courted the "dogs of war" by writing a detailed Facebook post about his sexual history. O'Neill was pushed to apologize for the post, which both Democrats and Republicans criticized as trivializing sexual assault, but again resisted calls to resign.

Now that he's off the court, O'Neill still plans to stay in the limelight of politics.

"Last year, I was just starting to review what am I going to do in retirement, and then I see this opioid crisis happening in Ohio and it really is a clarion call to duty for me," O'Neill says.

O'Neill is touting a plan to address the opioid crisis with money made from legalizing, and regulating, recreational marijuana.

"It's a nationwide trend. Marijuana has medicinal qualities," O'Neill says. "It is being smoked in Ohio as you and I speak, but we're not getting the tax revenue."

O'Neill also argues education needs to be better addressed by the governor's office, and plans to establish a cabinet position to address education issues. He even picked as his running mate an elementary school principal, Chantelle Lewis of Lorain, Ohio. 

O'Neill spoke to WOSU's Debbie Holmes about why he's looking to a governing position for the first time, and why legalizing marijuana is at the top of his priorities list.

Debbie Holmes: A Facebook post of yours drew controversy last year because it talked about your sexual history. Do you think that will affect your chances any?

Bill O'Neill: No I don't. I mean, again, it's unfortunate, but the reality is I'm the only candidate in the race that's actually talking real issues. So hopefully, that's behind us and we can get down to the work of actually talking about what's important in Ohio.

Credit Statehouse News Bureau
Then-Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O'Neill announced his plans to run for governor in October, unless Richard Cordray stepped in. Cordray did enter, but O'Neill has stayed in the race.

Debbie Holmes: What are the major issues that you want to address?

Bill O'Neill: Well, as you know, I'm a registered nurse and I am just horrified by the 4,000 people a year in Ohio that are dying of the opioid crisis. And I just don't see that the state is doing anything about it. So I've been advocating reopening the state hospital network, probably building 10 new hospitals, and really address the crisis.

And I know that costs money, so in order to pay for it, I believe the time to legalize marijuana is upon us. That will generate $500 million a year in taxes. I don't know why we're not doing that tomorrow.

Debbie Holmes: So that will be one of your top priorities, then, legalizing marijuana?

Bill O'Neill: No question about it. I think the time has come. It's a nationwide trend. Marijuana has medicinal qualities. It is being smoked in Ohio as you and I speak, but we're not getting the tax revenue. And it's not being regulated.

Debbie Holmes: Why do you want to run now? You've had such a very diverse background. You served in the military. You worked as a television reporter. You were a restaurant owner, a pediatric emergency nurse. Is being governor just one more thing on your bucket list?

Bill O'Neill: No ma'am. My bucket list is still pretty full. Last year, I was just starting to review what am I going to do in retirement, and then I see this opioid crisis happening in Ohio and it really is a clarion call to duty for me because, it's almost like you're walking down the street and you go past an alley and there's a mugging going on. Do you have the right to go off into retirement and pretend that's not your problem? No. I'm ready to address real problems in Ohio.

Credit Bill O'Neill / Twitter
O'Neill resisted months of calls to resign from the Ohio Supreme Court, and survived a push from Senate Republicans to kick him off the bench.

Debbie Holmes: Most people you're running against have a strong background in legislating or governance. What qualities do you bring that are beneficial leadership?

Bill O'Neill: You know, I've been a judge for 15 years. I've been an assistant attorney general. I don't think there's a single issue that approaches the governor's office that I haven't ruled on as a judge or as an assistant attorney general. I've got a very complete background. I'm ready to lead.

Debbie Holmes: So how would you rank your priorities then, one through five?

Bill O'Neill: Oh, I think legalizing marijuana is clearly number one. Releasing the nonviolent marijuana prisoners from prison would be number two - that's costing us $100 million a year. Opening a mental health network with at least 10 hospitals would be the number three. Raising education to the level it needs to be in the cabinet would be number four. And I would have to say $15 an hour minimum wage is number five.

Debbie Holmes: How would you describe yourself?

Bill O'Neill: I guess I'd describe myself as one that's coming towards the end of a life of dedicated service to the public, from my service in Vietnam when I was a young guy, and my service representing people. You know, not to trivialize the matter, but I'm the only one in the race that has represented a black teenager wrongfully accused of a crime and walked him out of the courthouse as a free man.

Debbie Holmes: How will you as a Democrat appeal to voters who supported Donald Trump?

Bill O'Neill: Boy, I don't know. I certainly didn't support Trump, but you know, I think if we learn nothing in '16 it was that the Democrats didn't have a message. There just was no message. And my message is, let's legalize marijuana, let's open the hospitals for the opioid people, and let's look at this education crisis that we're in today.

Last week, 12,000 kids found themselves without a school to go to. Looks like there's about a $100 million missing. And anybody who comes to this race proud of their legislative background I think maybe needs to the review that.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.