Judicial candidacy remains touchy subject

LISBON — The Ohio Supreme Court is still considering whether Heaven Guest should be allowed to run for Columbiana County Common Pleas Court, but that did not stop the county elections board from taking up the issue again at this week’s meeting.

Board member Larry Bowersock wondered if they were setting a precedent by rejecting Guest’s petitions to run for judge in the November election as an independent candidate, saying the rationale used to make the decision could be used in disqualifying nearly every independent candidacy.

“I just don’t agree with the way it was done,” he said.

On May 29, the election board voted 2-2 along party lines to reject Guest’s candidacy petitions, with Republican David Johnson citing her close and recent affiliation with the Democratic Party. Among other things, he noted she was appointed to the county Democratic Party Central Committee on Feb. 27, with the paperwork of her appointment filed with the elections board a month later.

About 90 minutes after the vote, Guest came to the elections board office and provided a copy of a hand-written note dated April 14. The note was addressed to county Democratic Party Chairman Nick Barborak and stated she was resigning from the central committee because her “political views are independent.” Six days later she began circulating petitions to run for judge as an independent.

Bowersock doubted any independent candidate could get on the ballot if they used the same criteria as Johnson and Vic Maroscher, the other Republican board member. Most of the people, if not all, allowed to run as independents in the past had been a Democrat or Republican before.

“There are very few that are independents” who did not start out having ties to one of the parties, Bowersock said.

To support his argument, Bowersock pointed to the recent candidacy of Salem City Councilman Sal Salvino. Salvino ran as an independent but his campaign committee and petition circulators were almost all Republicans, including Johnson himself. He said it was the same thing with an independent candidate running for Salem city treasurer, who lost in the general election.

Bowersock said they should have rejected those independent candidacy petitions based on the criteria used in rejecting Guest’s petitions but the board approved them instead. Johnson, who is elections board vice chairman, told Bowersock he should have objected at the time.

“So we challenge any independent candidate if we want?” Bowersock asked.

“If you have a basis, yes,” Johnson said.

Johnson said his objection was based on Guest’s multiple ties to the Democrat Party, with her recent appointment to the central committee the most critical. Johnson questions the timing of the withdrawal letter, noting it was handwritten and submitted after they voted to reject her petitions

State law requires political parties to advise the elections board of changes to their central committees, and the board has yet to receive any correspondence from the county Democrat Party regarding Guest’s withdrawal. Until that happens, Johnson said Guest is still officially a member of the central committee.

The decision is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court. After Secretary of State Jon Husted broke the 2-2 vote by ruling Guest remained affiliated with the Democratic Party based on the totality of the evidence, she appealed his decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to expedite a ruling in the case because of the impact it could have on the election. The deadline for submitting final written arguments was Aug. 1.

The only other candidate for judge is Republican Megan Bickerton, who won the GOP nomination by defeating longtime Judge C. Ashley Pike in the May primary election. Johnson maintains the Democrats did not run a candidate by the filing deadline because they believed Pike would win.

“They were all backing Pike until it became apparent he was going to lose,” which is when Guest launched her effort to get on the ballot as an independent, he said.

Bowersock also questioned the practice of Johnson circulating candidacy petitions and later approving them as a board member. He checked with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office and was told this was a violation of the ethics policy. After the meeting, Johnson said he also checked with the state and was told he had done nothing wrong.

“I asked if I did something wrong and I was assured I had not,” he said.

Johnson said he would have abstained if the same party affiliation questions had been raised about independent candidacy petitions he helped circulate, but that never occurred.