Joe Hallett: Kearney’s tax woe could doom gubernatorial ticket

First Posted: 12/9/2013

Like hyenas on a wounded wildebeest, Statehouse reporters chewed on state Sen. Eric Kearney last week.

Ninety-five minutes later, the Cincinnati Democrat limped back to Ed FitzGerald. Their once-promising gubernatorial ticket was at death’s doorstep.

Did it survive until today? This column, slapped on the page on Tuesday, might have missed the funeral.

If there still is a FitzGerald-Kearney ticket, it probably won’t last long. The problem of Kearney’s huge unpaid tax debts won’t go away. Kearney’s financial obligations have become FitzGerald’s political liability. They constantly will get in the way of his attempts to portray Republican Gov. John Kasich’s tax policies as reckless and hurtful to the middle class. Even Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s top elected Democrat, said as much on Friday.

Just hours after Kearney hung up the phone from his get-it-all-behind-me call with reporters, the editorial board of FitzGerald’s hometown newspaper, The Plain Dealer, rendered a unanimous verdict: Kearney must go.

The Washington media quickly sank its teeth into the raw hide of the Democratic ticket, signaling that national stories henceforth about the Ohio governor’s race will carry some variation of this phrase: FitzGerald, who is nagged by his running mate’s tax problems …

The Republican National Committee gleefully emailed around a Washington Post story headlined: “Worst rollout of the year? Ohio candidate owes $1 million in back taxes.”

OK, Kearney can quibble: The total amount he, his wife and their company owe in taxes to the federal and state governments (aka taxpayers and voters) is closer to $825,000.

Kearney said he’s not going anywhere — “I’m in to stay” — confident that voters not only will understand his tax debts and appreciate his efforts to pay them off, but they also will have empathy for his experience, and the FitzGerald-Kearney ticket will be even stronger.

Tellingly, FitzGerald was nowhere near the conference call. His relative silence on Kearney’s tax problems guarantees that he will be asked about them at every turn. A better strategy for getting the issue behind the campaign would have been for FitzGerald and Kearney to meet the press together and answer every last question. Kearney was left to face the hyenas by himself.

Kearney and his wife publish three newspapers primarily for African-American readers in Cincinnati and Dayton. They deserve praise for keeping those valuable community assets alive and for making efforts to work through their tax problems.

But if he stays on the ticket, Kearney (and FitzGerald) will get a recurring question: Why should voters entrust management of their tax dollars to someone who can’t manage to pay his own taxes?

Kearney’s response: “Going through those types of challenges and trying to work out these types of obligations and payment plans and various things is something I think relates to the average Ohioan. … A lot of small-business owners across the state of Ohio will understand exactly what I’m saying, and since they will have somebody in the lieutenant governor’s office who will intimately understand their concerns, they will be pleased with that.”

Following that rationale, would it be logical, then, to entrust a polluter to oversee the EPA, an arsonist to be state fire marshal or a high-school dropout to be superintendent of public instruction?

Kearney still can have a political future. But it’s clear now that FitzGerald did not properly vet his running mate, and it’s hard to see FitzGerald in the governor’s office if Kearney remains on the ticket.

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