Gubernatorial candidates coming to Martins Ferry

MARTINS FERRY — Concerns about education and other issues that matter to residents of East Ohio will take center stage when the four Democrats who hope to be the next governor of Ohio launch a series of debates in Martins Ferry next month.

David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Martins Ferry High School was chosen as the site of the initial debate because Belmont County and the surrounding region is an area that has been overlooked by state lawmakers and the administration for years. He cited cuts to local government and public school funding, as well as the decision to take severance tax funds generated by natural gas and oil exploration in the area to settle a lawsuit elsewhere, as evidence that local concerns are not a priority in Columbus.

“We don’t think eastern Ohio has done very well by the Statehouse … ,” Pepper said. “That part of the state has really been ignored by the folks in charge. Our candidates are looking to change that.”

The four current candidates who have declared their intent to run so far — former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former state legislator Connie Pillich and current state Sen. Joe Schiavoni — will meet at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at Martins Ferry High School. Pepper said they hope to debate in all of the state’s regions, with possibly three debates this year and three more next year, all ahead of the 2018 election.

Martins Ferry City School District Superintendent Jim Fogle said he has remained in communication with the event organizers, who have inspected the district facilities to make certain they are suitable.

“I was contacted by our former mayor, Phil Wallace, and he requested to use our facility for the event,” he said. “Some of the committee workers had to come to our site and see if it would suffice as far as what they needed in terms of the number of seats, parking spots, concession area, stage.”

Fogle said he answered questions about the upgraded bandwidth of the district.

“They’re going to do a livestream on Facebook, so they’ve been in touch with our technology coordinator,” he said. “Any chance we get to host an event such as this, we take advantage of it for several reasons, but for one, to showcase our facility which we’re very proud of.”

“It’s a terrific opportunity for the school district to host the candidates. It’s something that’s needed to get their point across, and it’s a great opportunity for Martins Ferry to host that,” added Martins Ferry Board of Education member Scott Ballint.

The Republicans have three statewide officeholders and a fourth-term congressman running to succeed two-term GOP Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 presidential challenger to Trump who is term-limited. They are Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and Rep. Jim Renacci.

Pepper said the Democrats want to highlight that they will be the candidates of change as they try to bounce back from a Republican sweep of 2014 statewide races. They also hope to help Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown hold onto his seat in his 2018 re-election race.

Pepper expects the Democrat candidates to talk about the impact of Republican policies have had on the state when they visit Martins Ferry, which is situated in a region where Republican Donald Trump ran strongly in the 2016 presidential race.

“Beyond eastern Ohio, we have had seven years of trickle-down economics from Columbus,” Pepper said. “The Statehouse has been taking local government funds and school funds, then the state gives that money out as tax (break) increases at the high end while local communities, schools and those who provide direct services are living within recession year budgets.”

In addition to voters in Martins Ferry and all of Belmont County, Pepper said the party will be inviting residents from a number of nearby counties to attend the event. Thousands more across the state — and even Ohioans serving in the military or other capacities overseas — will also be able to view the debate online, as the party plans to stream the event on Facebook Live.

Pepper said Ohio is struggling in “every measure” under the Kasich administration. He said the state’s economic recovery has been stalled for 55 consecutive months and added that its public schools have fallen from a national ranking of fifth to 22nd and still falling. He said public schools are being defunded in favor of private, for-profit charter schools, which he said are often “a scam.”

Pepper also noted the Republican candidates for governor already are disagreeing about plans for debates of their own to be held during the campaign. He said this is a contrast to the Democrat candidates, who are eager to share their ideas with people across the Buckeye State.

“Our goal is to really have the issues of the region front and center,” Pepper said of the first debate in the Purple City. “It’s a chance to highlight the positives and the challenges in the region.”

Pepper said he doesn’t expect the party to endorse a candidate during the primary. Other candidates still could jump in, including former Attorney General Richard Cordray. Pepper said Monday he doesn’t know whether Cordray will run, but he said with debates beginning, candidates should make up their minds soon.

“The campaign is starting,” he said.

Staff Writer Robert A. DeFrank contributed to this report.