Can Ohio Democrats spin scandal to their advantage?

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Apr. 30—When Nan Whaley launched her campaign for governor, she pointed a floodlight at an issue Democrats shied away from in the last election: alleged corruption on the other side of the aisle.

The Dayton mayor's opening message was less about her and more about her potential opponent, Gov. Mike DeWine. The governor hasn't been linked to any wrongdoing in Ohio's nuclear bailout scandal, but is nonetheless the state's top Republican officeholder and the incumbent Democrats are hoping to unseat in 2022.

"The same politicians have been in charge for 30 years as Ohioans have fallen further behind," Ms. Whaley said in a statement announcing her candidacy, just about summing up her message at this early stage.

Ms. Whaley is betting that an issue Democrats largely overlooked in 2020 might pave her path to the governor's mansion. But Ohio Democrats have a record of mixed success spinning scandal to their electoral advantage.

In recent times, it worked best following 2005's Coingate scandal, which seemed to have all the elements of a juicy drama: The unusual hook of rare-coin investments, ties to the Bush-Cheney campaign, and ethics convictions that rose to the level of Republican Gov. Bob Taft, who failed to disclose golf outings with Coingate's central figure, Tom Noe.

The result was a near-sweep for Democrats in 2006 that installed Gov. Ted Strickland and Sen. Sherrod Brown. While Mr. Taft was term-limited and couldn't run again, Mr. Brown managed, in a rare feat, to oust an incumbent, then-Sen. Mike DeWine.

Democrats were less successful in 2018, when they tried to paint the controversy surrounding the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow as another iteration of Coingate. The online, taxpayer-funded charter school was eventually revealed to be padding its attendance and was ordered to repay the state $60 million. Critics also played up the link between its founder, Bill Lager, and Republicans.

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But despite how the episode may have come across, it didn't rise to the level of criminal wrongdoing in the eyes of prosecutors, and Democrats were unsuccessful in linking ECOT and corruption in a way that resonated with voters. 2018 ended in another Republican sweep.

Earlier the same year, federal agents raided the home of then-House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, who resigned, but no charges ever stemmed from their investigation.

The latest instance of alleged wrongdoing in Columbus surrounds House Bill 6, the 2019 law that bailed out two failing northern Ohio nuclear plants and passed the $1.3 billion cost onto utility customers. The FBI implicated former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, and four lobbyists and advisers in a $60 million racketeering scheme that former U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said is "likely the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio."

Ms. Whaley's team is hoping to pull off what Democrats didn't do in 2020, making their case against Republicans hinge on what they see as a culture of corruption with implications beyond Columbus. Her first policy proposal in the coming weeks will be a slate of ethics reforms.

"The trick is to connect that this scandal isn't something that's going on someplace else. This is actually a scandal that's hurting you and your family," said Michael McGovern, Ms. Whaley's senior campaign adviser.

"This was a relatively late-breaking scandal, but as time goes on, particularly with these two big statewide races in Ohio ... I think you're going to see a lot more Ohio-focused conversation and talk about all the ways in which Ohio state government is fundamentally broken," he said.

Asked to respond to Ms. Whaley's campaign messaging, Ohio Republican Party spokesman Tricia McLaughlin attacked her record as mayor.

"Instead of asking Ohio voters for a promotion, Nan Whaley should focus on fixing Dayton's poverty rates, which are among the highest in the nation, rising violent crime, and crumbling infrastructure. Where are her ideas or solutions? So far, all she is offering Ohioans is baseless partisan attacks," Ms. McLaughlin said.

Ms. Whaley's Dayton operates under a city manager form of government, where elected officials appoint a chief executive, the city manager, to oversee local government operations. Toledo utilizes a strong mayor and city council system, where the city council serves as the city's primary legislative body and the mayor serves as the city's chief executive.

The timing of the arrests and subsequent pleas last summer didn't set up House Bill 6 as an easy election issue. Mr. Householder pleaded not guilty in September and still awaits trial. And while he was removed from his role as Republican House leader, he still maintains his innocence — and his House seat. Two other key figures, political adviser Jeff Longstreth and lobbyist Juan Cespedes, accepted plea deals in October and avoided the trials their colleagues will eventually face that may stir more general interest in the case.

The lack of convictions may have made it a challenging issue for Democrats in 2020, as well as the convoluted nature of the scandal itself — which the FBI presented as a web of dark money entanglements and bribery at the highest levels of state government.

But distilled to its essence, Ohio's nuclear bailout scandal isn't especially hard to grasp, said David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

"People understand bribes. They understand basic corruption. That part of the story isn't hard to tell," he said. "I'm just flabbergasted that this scandal wasn't being discussed in just about every 30-second ad cut by Democrats."

Without statewide races anchoring the top of the ticket, Democrats running in the statehouse may not have wanted to discuss a speaker that a majority of House Democrats helped install in 2019, and a controversial bailout that a handful of them also supported.

David Betras, the former Mahoning County Democratic leader, said he couldn't understand why Democrats haven't used HB 6 to their advantage: "We had the biggest corruption scandal until this corruption scandal, and we couldn't seem to put it around Republicans' necks," he said.

Former Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper, who resigned after the 2020 election, admitted that Democrats didn't get the message across to voters.

"Clearly, the connection wasn't made," Mr. Pepper said. "It's fair to say that amid scandal to scandal, clearly Democrats have not figured out how to message it so it actually changes outcomes. It would be foolish to argue otherwise."

Mr. Pepper said that for scandal to stick, "it either has to be almost so bizarre, like Coingate, that people just can't understand how it happened. Bizarre and simple at the same time. 'Wait, we lost millions of dollars on rare coins?' That sounds so crazy that people internalize it.

"Just how they thought it was crazy a candidate didn't have a driver's license for years," he said, a reference to Democrat Ed FitzGerald, whose 2014 gubernatorial bid flopped after another scandal — when it was revealed he drove without a valid license for a decade.

In a statement on the nuclear bailout, the new leadership at the Ohio Democratic Party signaled that HB 6 is still on their radar.

"The Ohio GOP may wish this story was behind them," said spokesman Matt Keyes, "but we know there's much more to talk about as we work to hold Republican politicians accountable to the people they're supposed to serve."

First Published April 30, 2021, 9:00am

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