The League of Women Voters of Kent held its regular meet-the-candidates event at the Kent United Methodist Church on Oct. 8, but although they invited all local challengers, only the Democratic candidates attended.
The result for the 100 Portage County residents who attended was a one-sided introduction to the Nov. 8 election, which will see judges, county commission candidates and many other races on the ballot.
The event, known as Face 2 Face, is a forum reminiscent of speed dating: Candidates circulated among tables to field unscripted questions from voters on any topic.
Face 2 Face was sponsored by Kent State Votes, the League of Women Voters of Kent, Portage County NAACP, NAMI of Portage County, the Kent Lions Club, the Brimfield Lions Club, and the Kent State Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Invitations were extended to Republican and Democratic candidates for the 14th congressional district, the 72nd Ohio House of Representatives district, Portage County commissioner, Portage County auditor, and the State Board of Education (9th District). Invitations were also extended to candidates for Portage County Court of Common Pleas, general and domestic relations divisions.
The Portager attended the event and sat at a table among voters to document the candidates’ discussions. We will follow up with Republican candidates this week to understand why they all chose not to attend the event.
Portage County Common Pleas Court, General Division
Judge Laurie Pittman, a registered Democrat, is running against Wesley Buchanan to head Portage County Common Pleas Court, General Division. Pittman is the sitting judge.
Buchanan, a registered Republican, did not attend the event.
During her conversations, Pittman said the prosecutor’s office is over-indicting people, which has resulted in county judges juggling one of the highest caseloads in the state.
In 2005, Ohio’s Republican legislature placed felony drug trials in county courts, reasoning that county judges had more resources to offer to defendants than did municipal court judges. Good thinking, but court dockets exploded, she said.
Though a third judge could ease the workload, Pittman said there is simply no room for a third judge at the county courthouse.
When possible, Pittman and her staff encourage plea bargaining and settlements. The strategy seems to work to move cases.
“One-third of our cases are decreased to either misdemeanors or low-end felonies,” she said. “We are absolutely keeping our head above water, and moving the cases. I haven’t had a jury trial in over two years.”
Pittman pointed to a number of intervention programs she encourages defendants to complete, noting that most probationers lack not only jobs, but job skills, and have not completed high school.
“If they’ve fallen down to the ground, we help them get back up. If I sentence someone, they have to get a job and they have to get a GED,” she said.
Some cases must go to trial. Pittman said she will preside over “quite a few” murder trials next year.
Pittman said her wish list would include updating the county courthouse and remodeling it so it is safe. Using the county’s annex building, now earmarked for a daycare center, could ease the court’s space constraints, she said.
Portage County Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Division
Judge Paula Giulitto, a registered Democrat, is running unopposed to retain her seat in Portage County Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Division, better known as family court.
Giulitto said she sees some 1,200 to 1,300 cases a year, and expects more due to the state legislature’s decision to restructure what cases the county juvenile court hears. Instead of juveniles with married parents or guardians being sent to Domestic Court and those with unmarried parents or guardians being sent to Juvenile Court, as of last month, both sorts of cases are being sent to Domestic Court, she said.
Domestic violence, mental health issues and alcohol abuse are behind many of the cases Giulitto sees.
Referring to marijuana, Giullito said, “I would probably say alcohol is the bigger problem than drugs in regard to the number of cases where I’m seeing it. When drugs are involved, it’s a severe issue. So there’s a lower frequency count, but when it exists, it causes more problems.”
Alcohol abuse, she said, tends to impact families more deeply and more frequently, she said.
Noting that children suffer the fallout when their parents or guardians stop taking prescribed medications because they feel better, Giulitto said she struggles to find families the help they need.
Money matters. Giulitto said she cannot order people to seek counseling because if she does, insurance won’t pay for it. Instead, she encourages them to seek help, and focuses on working with the adults to ensure the child and family in front of her remain safe.
“Anybody who’s going through a very traumatic change in their family, whether it is the death of a family member or a loss, through a divorce, that’s traumatic, that’s emotional,” she said. “So quite frankly, anybody in my Court, on any day, is going to be having some mental health issues.”
It is commonly thought that people do not seek help until they’ve hit rock bottom. Not necessarily, Giulitto said.
“Sometimes you think you’ve hit rock bottom, but then the floor falls out again. At the end of the day, I have to protect that child,” she said.
Portage County Auditor
Portage County Treasurer Brad Cromes, a Democrat, seeks to succeed Janet Esposito as county auditor.
His opponent, Republican Matt Kelly, did not attend the event.
The auditor’s office handles real estate tax assessment, setting the valuation on properties for tax purposes. It also carries out accounting functions, manages the county audit, maintains the county’s weights and measures program, oversees dog licenses, and other assignments.
Noting that properties are reassessed every six years, Cromes said he will work to eliminate tax bill surprises. A simple letter to property owners should do it, he stated.
“That kind of falls into the category of doing more communication,” Comes said. “And being more present. Janet [Esposito] is famous for having an open door policy, and everyone knows her, and she’s really great at answering questions. But that open door policy only matters if you can find the door. It’s up to us to reach out and share that information, and we can send those letters.”
Property owners who are unhappy with their assessments can appeal to the auditor’s office, he said, stopping short of guaranteeing that total relief would be forthcoming.
The county’s usual property tax delinquency rate of about 5% to 10% balloons to 30% or 40% for mobile homes, so Cromes said the state treasurer’s association is working with the auditor’s association to craft legislation aimed at ensuring all people pay their fair share.
“It matters more than most because we have significantly more mobile homes than most other counties. Depending on who you ask, we’re either second or fifth in the state in the number of mobile homes. It’s a lot, and if we don’t make it up there, it’s getting made up somewhere else,” he said. “It gets paid somewhere.”
Foreclosing on a mobile home may not be an option because some are not with the $2,500 it takes to complete the process, he said.
As county auditor, Cromes said he would increase community outreach, proactively explain what the office does (and why) and encourage staff input.
“What would you do if you were in charge for a day? What would you do differently? Are there other options? Are they better or not? Sometimes the answer will be, ‘No, we do it because it’s good’ and sometimes it’ll be, ‘Yes, we should do something else.’ So that’s how I’ll do that,” he said.
Board of Portage County Commissioners
Geraldine Hayes Nelson, a Democrat, is running for county commissioner.
Her opponent, Republican Mike Tinlin, did not attend the event.
Running for county commissioner is a tough road, “but I’m a person that deals with tough problems,” Nelson said.
“I understand that I have to give back to my community because someone gave to me, and that is my responsibility,” she said. “It is tough, but I am looking out for my grandchildren. I want them to be able to grow up in a world where it’s safe, where they wont be treated by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Nelson said she is willing to work with Republicans and Democrats, in office and out, to protect democracy.
“We got to work together. We can’t fight. We can’t have this,” she insisted. “I am the first person to say I don’t have all the answers, but I’m counting on the people of the community.”
After almost 30 years in Kent State leadership positions, Nelson retired as executive director of Employee Engagement and Outreach for Human Resources. Her transferable skill sets include overseeing grants and budgets, and keeping a strong eye on assessing positive returns on investments.
It comes down to “helping people to the best they can with the limited funds we have,” she said.
Sensitive to the needs of Portage County’s largely rural population, Nelson took issue with her opponent’s vision of developing land in the name of jobs.
“It’s the people,” she said. “You’ve got to listen to the people. What will work in Paris Township will not work in Shalersville.”
What will work, and must, is training today’s youth so they are ready for good-paying jobs that actually exist. That means encouraging vocational education (now called career education), and funneling teens to Maplewood Career Center and two-year degrees instead of touting four-year degrees for everyone.
“There are jobs in Portage County. We just have not trained our people with those skill sets,” she said.
Commissioners must not only be good stewards of the county’s neighborhoods, but also of its many parks, she said. Also on Nelson’s radar is climate change, which she states is not only real, but a number one challenge across the county. Instead of delegating it to a back seat, Nelson said the commissioners must take it into account with every decision they make, and engage with other county agencies and citizen groups.
U.S. House of Representatives
Democrat Matt Kilboy is running to represent most of Portage County in the 14th congressional district. (Suffield and the Village of Mogadore are in the 13th district.)
His opponent, Republican David Joyce, did not attend the event.
Kiboy said his top priority is health care, specifically ending the massive profiteering in that industry.
“There’s a reason venture capitalists have a lot of money invested in healthcare systems. It’s because they make a lot of money back,” he said. “We need to start focusing on preventing people from getting sick and injured because if we do that, people will lead healthier, happier lives, and we also save a ton of money in our economy. We spend about $10 to $15 trillion dollars a year on healthcare, and we don’t get much in return.”
Kilboy also said he would regulate marijuana and cannabis the same way alcohol and tobacco are regulated.
“Studies have been done outside this country for years. It’s just as safe, if not safer, depending upon how you use cannabis and alcohol. We just need to move past that,” he said.
Kilboy applauded President Biden’s Oct. 7 executive order to expunge the records of people convicted of simple possession under federal laws.
“I want to go further and continue to expunge,” Kilboy said. “The African-American population has been disproportionately affected by drug laws. We’ve been fighting a war on drugs for 51 years. We’ve lost the war. Let’s move on.”
A U.S. military veteran himself, Kilboy said it took him four months to be seen by a V.A. doctor. The Veteran’s Administration and the Department of Defense will know Kilboy’s got his eye on them, he promised.
Regarding the economy and the environment, Kilboy said there is no way to turn back the hands of time.
“We are where we are; what we could do is stop further progression of [climate change] and then mitigate the damages in front of us. So I want to see our version of Intel [a major microchip manufacturing investment] here in Northeast Ohio, and our version is manufacturing of solar panels, manufacturing of wind turbines and doing research and development, whatever,” he said. “We need to keep fighting because we can’t stop it. Wind and solar and even hydros are safer. We’ve got to keep fighting smarter.”
Kilboy, who joined the Navy in 2010, said it scares him to see America headed in a bad direction.
“The Supreme Court has just been gutting civil rights left and right. This fall there are two cases before the United States Supreme Court that are going to affect voting rights, and really, our democracy. We’ve got to continue to pass legislation and pass protections to protect all of us, all Americans,” he said.
Rights stripped from minorities eventually affect majority populations as well, Kilboy said.
“These are rights for all of us that they’re trying to take away, so there’s a lot of work to be done. I think the most important thing is, I’m running into that fire. I’m running into that burning house. I take my oath very seriously,” he said.
Readily recognizing that he is not a career politician and that this is his first foray into politics, Kilboy said he knows he has a lot to learn. If he is not elected in November, “This is not my last run,” he said.
Ohio House of Representatives
Democrat Kathleen Clyde is running for state representative of Ohio’s 72nd district, which includes Ravenna, Kent, Aurora, Streetsboro, Charlestown, Edinburg, Franklin, Freedom, Hiram Township, Village of Hiram, Mantua Township, Village of Mantua, Randolph precincts A and B, Ravenna Township, Rootstown, Shalersville, and Sugar Bush Knolls.
Her opponent, Republican Gail Pavliga, did not attend the event.
Clyde said her primary focus is women’s reproductive rights, which she refers to as women’s reproductive health care. Noting that Ohio’s six-week abortion ban was lifted Oct. 7, she called the 20-week law now in effect “also dangerous.”
Clyde noted that her Republican opponent is on record as supporting a full ban on abortions.
“If women’s reproductive health care is important to you, there’s a very stark difference between the candidates in this office,” she said.
Legislators would do well to get out of doctors’ offices and to stop interfering in medical decisions, Clyde said.
“This is about women’s reproductive freedom and their access to safe reproductive health care, right? And it’s an important issue in this election because Roe v Wade was overturned. It is the state legislature that will decide the law of the land in Ohio,” she said.
Clyde also focused on charter schools, which pull money away from public schools with every student they enroll. The push to privatize the country’s educational system, turning it over to largely unaccountable private companies, must end, she insisted.
“Even if I’m in the minority, when I go to Columbus, I am standing up for what the values are of the people in our county. We got to keep up with the fight,” Clyde said.
Identifying herself as a moderate Democrat, Clyde said the county, not to mention the state and country, have got to stop extremists from either party. A product of rural Portage County herself, she said she is well aware that those areas are largely Republican.
“I still feel like it’s important to reach out there,” she said. “And when I’m elected, everybody is a constituent, whether they are Republican or Democrat. That’s important to me. And I think that’s an important part of reaching out is like, ‘Hey, we got to put the spears down and, and try to find some common ground.’ That’s part of public service.”
Gerrymandering is another huge problem, but Clyde pledged to find the common ground she insists county residents share. Part of that common ground involves finding clean, affordable energy.
“I think we also need to do things like support the development of electric vehicles. We saw some good federal legislation on that front, and we need to do our part here locally to support that development. That will result in cleaner air with less emissions. … There’s so much we can do,” she said.
Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.