Former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin is trying for a political comeback, but is facing a battle to even get on the ballot.
Coughlin filed last week to run nonpartisan in the Stow Municipal Court clerk’s race, a move he says is permitted by a law he co-sponsored during his time in the state legislature.
But both Republican and Democratic members of the Summit County elections board are questioning whether Coughlin can run nonpartisan, given his strong ties to the Republican party and the fact that a partisan primary was held for the office last Tuesday.
“At this point, we are researching,” said Tim Gorbach, the board’s Democratic chairman. “We are not 100 percent sure he cannot be on the ballot.”
The board has until July 15 to certify nonpartisan candidates.
Coughlin is the second candidate to file to run nonpartisan for a Stow race in the Nov. 5 election. In a surprise move, Judge Kim Hoover filed to run nonpartisan, attempting to avoid a primary battle against the party’s chosen candidate. Hoover, who has long been on the outs with the party, cited a 2007 Ohio Supreme Court case in which the court sided with a Republican judge in Warren County who filed to run nonpartisan, sending him straight to the general election without a requirement that he disaffiliate himself from his party.
Alex Arshinkoff, a Republican member of the elections board and the county GOP chairman, initially denied that Hoover could run nonpartisan, but now acknowledges he can because of the 2007 Allen v. Warren County Board of Elections decision. But, he argues that this case doesn’t apply to candidates other than judges.
“Clerk of courts isn’t a judicial office,” said Arshinkoff, whom Coughlin was involved in unsuccessfully trying to unseat as chairman in 2008 and 2010. “It is a partisan office.”
The Summit County debate on who can run nonpartisan comes as Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Summit County native, is proposing sweeping changes to the state’s method of electing judges, including eliminating party affiliations in judicial primaries.
Coughlin, who served in the Ohio House and Senate from 1997 to 2011 and now has a public affairs and communications consulting firm, says he is allowed to run nonpartisan just like Hoover.
As evidence, he points to a bill he co-sponsored with former state Sen. Kim Zurz, now the Democratic deputy director of the Summit County elections board, in December 2006 that moved the Cuyahoga Falls Municipal Court to Stow. He said the bill also changed how the Stow Municipal Court clerk was elected, providing that the clerk be elected “in the same manner” as Stow judges, which means “candidates for clerk may be nominated by petition or by partisan primary.” He said this provision became effective Jan. 1, 2009, and hasn’t been changed.
This is the first time this issue has come up since the court was moved to Stow.
“The clerk is elected in the same manner as the judges,” Coughlin said. “What’s good for the judges is good for the clerk. If they certify Hoover, they have to certify me. There is no distinction between the two.”
If the board refuses to certify his candidacy, Coughlin said he will challenge the decision in the Ohio Supreme Court.
“At the end of the day, I believe both Hoover and I will be on the ballot, whether it’s because the board came to the same conclusion or the Ohio Supreme Court orders it to do so,” said Coughlin.
Board members, though, don’t think the issue is that straightforward.
Gorbach wonders if two tie-vote decisions made by former Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner in 2007 related to disputes in Summit County could have some bearing in this situation.
In one case, seven women filed to run as independents for Cuyahoga Falls Municipal Court clerk. The Summit County elections board deadlocked on whether the women should be allowed to run, with the Republican board members arguing the candidates were nonpartisan and should be given ballot access. The Democratic board members said the women couldn’t run as independents because they were affiliated with the Republican Party and also because they failed to file petitions in time. Brunner sided with her fellow Democrats, based on the lateness of the petitions.
In the second case, Brunner again sided with the board’s Democratic members, saying Edna Boyle, the former Republican director of the Summit County elections board, couldn’t run as an independent for Barberton law director because of her numerous ties with the GOP.
Gorbach said it might sound like the board is looking for a reason to deny Coughlin ballot access. He said that isn’t the case, but that when he heard Coughlin planned to run as a nonpartisan in this race, his question was, “How can he do that?”
“You’re allowed to run or you’re not allowed to run,” Gorbach said. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”
Coughlin claims neither of the tie votes Gorbach highlights are comparable to his situation because they involve elections in other cities under different rules.
Matt McClellan, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, said his office tries not to weigh in on situations involving a particular candidate. If the elections board has a tie vote on the issue, he said, Husted will then be required to make a ruling.
The partisan primary for Stow clerk was uncontested, which means current Clerk Diane Colavecchio, a Democrat, and Munroe Falls Mayor Frank Larson, a Republican, automatically advance to the November election.
Coughlin says he understands why the parties don’t want him to join them on the ballot. The clerk’s office carries with it about 17 jobs and he is running on a promise to de-politicize these positions, while also modernizing the office.
“They know I will win,” said Coughlin, who represented part of the court’s jurisdiction when he was in the Statehouse. “They know I will scrap the political patronage system and hire qualified professionals based on merit. But they cannot deny my right to run for the office. If they do, I suspect the Ohio Supreme Court will clear me for the ballot and slap the BOE for abusing its discretion.”
Arshinkoff agrees that neither party wants Coughlin on the ballot because of the precedent this would set and how an unfettered ability to run nonpartisan could weaken the two-party system.
“If we start this thing, pretty soon we are back to independents running for everything,” he said. “Why have a primary when you can go right around it? Partisan people can hide and get on the ballot. That doesn’t make any sense.”