COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lawyers sparred Tuesday over whether a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate in Ohio is qualified for the May ballot, a dispute whose outcome could affect Republican Gov. John Kasich's re-election bid.
Libertarian Charlie Earl has the potential to draw votes from Kasich as the governor faces a likely challenge from Democrat Ed FitzGerald this fall. Kasich has faced criticism from tea party activists and other conservatives within the GOP for some of his policy decisions, including backing Medicaid expansion and drilling tax increases.
Recent polls place Kasich ahead of FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive in Cleveland, but the governor's race in this closely-divided battleground state has a chance of being tight.
The protest seeking to disqualify Earl from the primary ballot was registered on behalf of Tyler King, a Libertarian Ohio voter.
King's lawyer, Columbus attorney John Zeiger, argued Tuesday before hearing officer Bradley Smith, a former federal election commissioner, that Earl should be disqualified. He asserted that Democrats orchestrated the circulation of Earl's petitions and provided monetary and legal help to the effort.
Capital University law professor Mark Brown, representing Earl, said that Ohio Republicans are trying to force Libertarians and other third parties from the ballot. Brown brought a successful federal legal challenge to the constitutionality of new ballot access rules passed by the Ohio Legislature and signed by Kasich in November, a bill Democrats pejoratively labeled "the John Kasich Re-Election Protection Act."
Zeiger's firm laid out the following claims through documents and testimony:
— The Democratic law firm McTigue & McGinnis and employees of Strategy Network, a Democrat-affiliated consulting firm, received payments from an entity called Ohioans for Liberty to supervise, manage and organize signature gathering for Libertarian candidates, including Earl;
— The bulk of Ohioans for Liberty's funding came through an $828,000 contribution from the Ohio Democratic Party;
— A leading professional petitioner who collected signatures for Earl identified herself elsewhere as a registered Democrat;
— A Strategy Network employee who helped collect and submit petitions for Earl's candidacy had been employed by then-Ohio House Minority Leader Armond Budish, a Democrat;
— Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern and Ohio Libertarian Chairman Kevin Knedler met for breakfast in January, as signature-gathering for Earl had seemed to stall.
"The money that is funding the effort to go out and get these additional signatures (qualifying Libertarian candidates) came from Democratic sources," Zeiger told the hearing officer.
Brown said the petitioners whom Zeiger argues failed to properly disclose their employers or affiliations outside the Libertarian Party were properly qualified and legal. Petitioner Oscar Hatchett, who collected almost half of Earl's required petition signatures, testified he's turned in tens of thousands of Ohio part-petitions over the years and never been required to file the employer disclosure form cited by Zeiger.
"What we have here, your honor, is the continuation of a Republican effort to exclude the Libertarian Party and its candidates from the ballot," Brown said.
Brown told Smith Ohio's Republican-led state Legislature and Kasich failed in their effort to limit ballot access through the law "and now they're renewing their efforts before you to selectively kick their (Libertarian) candidates off the ballot using technicalities in Ohio law, using bluster and innuendo."
One party official testified that Libertarians' affiliation with the Strategy Network didn't come through Democrats but related to the firm's work on a proposed constitutional amendment to reverse Ohio's same-sex marriage ban, an effort the Ohio Libertarian Party has endorsed.
Smith, like Brown a law professor at Capital, was charged by Husted with providing recommendations in the Earl protest and a second protest to Libertarian Attorney General candidate Steven Linnabary. Husted, a Republican, aims to announce his decision by Friday.