COLUMBUS — A Democratic lieutenant governor candidate in Ohio who faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal tax liens dropped out of the race Tuesday, saying his financial troubles were taking away from debate on important policy issues.
State Sen. Eric Kearney, a Cincinnati attorney, said in a statement that he would no longer be gubernatorial contender Ed FitzGerald's running mate as FitzGerald challenges Republican Gov. John Kasich next year.
"This has come to be a distraction from a discussion of the vital issues facing Ohio, and the choice voters must make in this election," Kearney said. "The stakes are too high: We need a change of leadership to move Ohio in a new direction that puts more Ohioans back to work and builds a better future for our children."
Kearney, his wife, Jan-Michele, and their Cincinnati publishing business, KGL Media Group, owe roughly $700,000 in state and federal tax liens. A foreclosure proceeding, credit card debt and unpaid workers' compensation premiums also had been revealed in a series of bruising media reports, which also highlighted conflicting accounts about how much FitzGerald knew of the details before Kearney's selection.
In an interview after the decision, FitzGerald said the ticket's inability to effectively draw attention to an uptick in Ohio unemployment shortly after Kearney's candidacy was announced persuaded him the controversy had become a distraction.
"We weren't really able to even talk about that or communicate that," he said. "We had to keep talking about all the nuances of these business transactions that this business had gone through."
Kearney said he and his wife remain committed to KGL, which does business as Sesh Communications, and the Cincinnati Herald, its flagship publication.
"We were dedicated to keeping alive one of our nation's oldest African-American newspapers and committed to our employees and their families," he said.
FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive in Cleveland, said he anticipates picking a new running mate early in the new year — dismissing Republican suggestions that he so mishandled the situation over the past three weeks that he also should drop out of the contest.
Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf said failing to fully vet Kearney caused the flap to escalate, blaming FitzGerald.
"His lack of judgment and honesty will haunt him for the remainder of this campaign," Schrimpf said in a statement. "We still don't know how FitzGerald allowed this to happen, but we know the entire time nothing Ed Fitzgerald or the Ohio Democrats have said has been true."
FitzGerald, a former FBI agent, said the controversy set a standard for the campaign of tying candidates to the performance of businesses in which they have a stake, and that won't bode well for Kasich, a former managing director of failed investment bank Lehman Brothers.
"If John Kasich had been on my list to be lieutenant governor, I would have disqualified him based on his business experience," FitzGerald said. "Because he ended up saying he should run for office even though his business experience was walking away a millionaire while pensions in Ohio lost a couple hundred million dollars after the business that he was a director of went bankrupt."
That conversation may have to wait until Ohio Democrats figure out how to defuse fallout from the Kearney flap without alienating key interests, including black voters and powerful politicians.
Shortly after FitzGerald's Nov. 20 announcement of Kearney as a running mate, the ticket scored the important endorsement of U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, an influential Cleveland congresswoman with pull in the city's powerful, Democrat-dominated black community.
Fudge was aware of Kearney's financial situation at the time, said an aide of hers — meaning the decision to remove him from the ticket stands a chance of backfiring and alienating a popular politician with the power to get out votes for FitzGerald. Fudge, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was in South Africa on Tuesday and unavailable for comment.
Interest in retaining racial diversity on the FitzGerald ticket had some turning their attention to the possibility of recruiting Ohio House Minority Leader Tracy Maxwell Heard, an up-and-comer on the state political scene who is black.
Appearing at a news conference on Ohio's economy Tuesday, Heard declined to address the speculation surrounding the gubernatorial ticket. She said she was leaving the topic to "the politicos and pundits to address."
FitzGerald said race was not a determining factor in selecting Kearney and would not be for picking his replacement. He said a variety of candidates were being considered from different parts of the state.