It was somewhat surprising to the SCPR when Craig Conley revealed to yours truly in a pre-filing telephone conversation that he had decided to run for county commissioner against incumbent Tom Bernabei.
Here is his entire press release making the announcement:
Earlier today [December 7, 2011], I filed with the Stark County Board of Elections my Declaration of Candidacy Petition as a Republican Candidate for Stark County Commissioner in the March 6, 2012 primary.
I am private sector attorney and business man. I am not a career politician and I am not a public sector employee.As The Report told Ron Ponder of WHBC 1480's Points to Ponder in an appearance last Friday and has said directly to Conley himself, - so far as the SCPR is concerned - he would have been better advised to run against Stark County Prosecutor John Ferrero.
I am a fiscal conservative, mindful that tax money belongs to the public, not to politicians, not to any special interst group that supports any particular politican.
In short, it is my position that the County, as is the case with the private sector. must learn to live within its means without further burndening its already hardpressed taxpayers.
Therefore, if elected Stark County Commissioner, I will neither support nor vote for any Stark County tax and fee increases and I will not ask the public to do so.
After all it was Conley (who, in addition to being a Stark County civic activist, is a Stark County grounded attorney of long standing) who wouldn't let Ferrero rest on the situation that Conley termed as being Zeiglergate.
While federal and local prosecutors did not find evidence that former Stark County Treasurer Gary D. Zeigler (resigned/retired on October 19th) had done anything criminally wrong; state of Ohio auditor officials and many Stark Countians (including Stark County Auditor Alan Harold) believe that Zeigler did not properly manage the Stark treasury (denied by Zeigler) in that he did not have the physical configurations and appropriate administrative practices, policies, and processes in place to have, perhaps, prevented his Chief Deputy Treasurer Vince Frustaci from making off with at least $2.46 million of Stark County taxpayer money. Some believe the amount was actually $2.96 million or so.
It was Conley who forced Ferrero to take action to recover the missing money from bonding/insurance companies and Zeigler himself (pursuant to Ohio Revised Code Section 327.37) which The Report believes was the key as to why Zeigler was ultimately amenable to retiring/resigning from office on October 19th.
There were a whole series of pressure applying tactics instituted by Conley to keep Ferrero's office on the move in recovering the missing moneys and securing Zeigler's removal from office. And the sparks flew between the two at the time.
While it was the Stark County Board of Commissioners who made the deal to obtain Zeigler's resignation, they did so on the counsel and advice of Presecutor Ferrero.
Interestingly enough, Conley tells the SCPR that one of his campaign points against Bernabei will be "the bad deal" that he thinks that the commissioners got for Stark Countians in getting Zeigler to step down from office. It was a deal in which Zeigler walked off with about $200,000 (which attorney fees are included) of Stark County taxpayer money.
The Report believes that Conley would have stood a much better chance to unseat Ferrero than he does Bernabei. What the SCPR knows of Stark GOP candidate Michael J. Grady for prosecutor is impressive and suggests that he does have a chance (once his credentials get known), if he puts together an effective campaign, to unseat Ferrero. However, as The Report sees it, that likelihood is a lot less than a Conley candidacy would have posed.
The main question posed by this blog is: how vulnerable is Commissioner Tom Bernabei to being unseated by Conley?
Answer: Conley has an uphill fight, at best, on his hands!
A better possibility of defeating Bernabei would have been Jackson Township Trustee James N. Walters. Recently re-elected as trustee by a huge margin, it is strange indeed to the SCPR that Walters did not take on Bernabei once again.
Back in November, 2010, Walters - in the opinion of the SCPR - had the highly conservative and independent Stephen Todd not been in the race, would have defeated Bernabei.
Whereas a November, 2012 replay would be much more difficult for Walters than the 2010 race (even as assuming he would get most of the 12,285 Todd votes), he at least has a political base to build upon that Conley does not have.
However, fact of the matter is that Craig T. Conley is the Republican candidate and Walters is a non-factor.
REASONS WHY CONLEY HAS A UPHILL BATTLE
So why is it that the SCPR thinks he has such an uphill fight?
First consideration is what is called the political I.D. factor.
The reason the SCPR was surprised that Walters ran so strong against Bernabei was that Bernabei had the relative advantage of having been on the ballot multiple times in Stark County's biggest city (Canton) and was repeatedly re-elected law director and was also successful council-at-large candidate. Walters had only been on the ballot once in Jackson township.
At least Walters had some voter I.D. Conley has none. To The Report's knowledge, he has never run for office.
Second, Commissioner Bernabei appears to have distinguished himself as being the chief architect of the successful effort by county officials to convince Stark County voters agree to support a county piggyback (0.5% - Issue 29) on the state of Ohio sales tax (5.5%). Moreover, as architect, he was the de facto leader of some 5,000 plus Stark County employees (Republicans and Democrats alike) who helped him achieve a substantial margin of victory.
Had the issue not passed, many Stark County business, civic and government officials projected that come 2013 Stark County would have been in financial chaos with quite of a number of county employees losing their jobs.
Is there any doubt that the 5,000 plus county employees will be solidly behind Bernabei's candidacy in 2012?
Third, the SCPR believes that key Stark County Republicans such as Stark County Treasurer Alex Zumbar, Stark County Auditor Alan Harold, and Stark County Commissioner Janet Creighton will, in a background sort of way, be supporting Democrat Bernabei.
They worked hand-in-glove with Bernabei on the sales tax issue and consequently developed a strong camaraderie with him and confidence in him that The Report believes overcomes their political party label identity with Republican Conley.
Also, Bernabei led the way whereby Stark Democrats selected Zumbar (October 31st) to fill out the term of Zeigler in teaming up with fellow Democrat Commissioner Pete Ferguson and Commissioner Janet Creighton to appoint Zumbar on the 19th, the day that Zeigler resigned.
The Report believes that Bernabei and Ferguson part of the action put Stark Dems Chairman Randy Gonzalez in an impossible political position, given all the political turmoil that Stark has experienced over the past two years or so, and that he had no choice but to ask the Stark County Democratic Central Committee to select Zumbar.
Somehow the SCPR thinks that the magnanimous role that Bernabei played will not be lost on some very powerful Stark County Republicans.
Fourth, Bernabei has the advantage in 2012 in running in a presidential year election in which Democrats and independents leaning Democratic show up in much greater numbers than in non-presidential years.
In fact, 2010 turned out to be a Republican year in Ohio and Stark County in which Democrats were swept from statewide office (governor, auditor, secretary of state, treasurer and both houses of the Ohio General Assembly) and county office (auditor and treasurer).
That Bernabei could survive in the Democratic-hostile 2010 election speaks well of his political durability especially in a year in which the environment is likely to be improved.
2012 is likely to be a competitive political environment that will bode better for Stark County Democratic candidates. Also, it will be helpful that Conley's Zeiglergate will pretty much be out of mind in November, 2012.
The Stark County Political Report likes Craig T. Conley as a Stark County civic activist.
He deserves immense credit for getting Prosecutor Ferrero rightly directed. Moreover, he has put enormous pressure on county officials to get much more efficient in how they run their offices.
For this, Stark Countians should be grateful.
However, an effective civic activist does not necessarily translate into being a viable political candidate.
Conley chose not to reactivate his Vote No Increased Taxes Committee to oppose Issue 29.
The "Vote Nos" obliterated the "imposed" 0.5% sales tax (December, 2008 by the then Commissioners Bosley, Harmon and Vignos) in the committee's November, 2009 repeal initiative.
Moreover, The Report thinks, had he won on Issue 29, his opponent would not have been an incumbent Commissioner Tom Bernabei. Perhaps former Commissioner Todd Bosley? A much easier political foil?
But Conley did not do what The Report thinks a politically attuned/savvy person should have - would have - done.
Consequently, the SCPR comes back to the main premise: Craig T. Conley, at best, has an uphill fight on his hands.
Conley is a resourceful guy and therefore yours truly does not count him out.
In the final analysis, the framework of the Bernabei/Conley match up will not primarily be political in the sense of Democrat versus Republican.
It will be a battle over whether or not Commissioner Bernabei is judged by the Stark County electorate (in the light of the campaign debate) to have been an effective voice in county government for wringing out every last cent of inefficiency from county government and, alternatively, whether or not Conley can deliver on his promise to do more than Bernabei has been able to and thereby put Stark County into a sustainable financial condition.
Conley's major effort will be to show how out of line the county's contribution rate is to county employee pensions and health insurance coverage premiums when compared to the public sector.
He is already talking about the failure of commissioners to require Stark County's 705 non-bargaining employees to pay more than 10% of their health insurance premium when it came up in a November meeting. On Friday's Points to Ponder, Conley cited the possibility that commissioners could have saved the county about $200,000 per year had they raised the employees' share to 15%.
Conley does not think that the present county financial picture is sustainable even with the 0.5% sales tax and vows to work to correct what he thinks is an imbalance in county finances.
Another interesting aspect of what Conley says will be part of his campaign is his thought that certain county employees are overworked and underpaid. He points out county assistant prosecutors as being an example about what he talking about.
Finally, he says that he will fight to end the practice of having "double-dippers" on the county payroll.
The Report doubts that Conley's nuanced play on employee pay equity will win him much county employee support. For if he had had his way (i.e. the sales tax going down to defeat), they would be looking at losing their jobs going into 2012/2013.
Undoubtedly, Commissioner Bernabei will press Conley over the next 11 months as to exactly how he proposes to achieve his announced campaign objectives given the limited power of county commissioners, and given the reality that his cures involve the operations of more or less autonomous elected officials.
Will Conley be able to come up with convincing answers? For if he can, he will be a challenge to Bernabei on the merits of his case that more work needs to be done to achieve county fiscal sustainability and that he, uniquely, is the person that voters should put in place to see to it that the job gets done.
In the end, it could be factors like Bernabei:
- being better known to voters in the sense of frequency of being on the ballot,
- getting overwhelming support from county workers out of appreciation for his having led the fight to get Issue 29 passed,
- having key Stark County Republican leaders privately, if not publicly, supporting him, and
- running in a better political environment (a presidential election year) for Democrats.
It is largely within political factors (not necessarily partisan political) where the SCPR thinks the larger part of Conley's uphill battle lies.