COLUMBUS — The lone Democrat holding statewide office in Ohio joined the governor's race Sunday on a liberal platform of tax incentives for solar power, expanded mental health care and legalized marijuana.
Supreme Court Justice William O'Neill pitched his candidacy as a response to what he sees as an over-managed Democratic political organization that has lost touch with its roots.
“The Democratic Party has always been the party of ideas, but we have somehow lately become the party of careful consultants who advise, ‘Don't do anything that is going to annoy anyone,’” he said at an event in Chagrin Falls. “So today I am going to do something that will surely annoy some people: I'm going to talk about ideas.”
Not all of his ideas are out of the Democratic mainstream, including support for boosting the minimum wage to $15 and taking on for-profit charter schools.
But O'Neill's plans further call for legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana. He says Ohio can make $200 million on the effort and save another $100 million by releasing all non-violent marijuana offenders from prison. He proposes using the money that will be saved to build a state-run mental health system that would “treat addiction like the disease it is.”
He also pledged to champion high-speed rail.
“If they can build it in China, France, Spain and California, there is no reason it cannot be done in Ohio,” he said. “Let's put Ohioans back to work, and build a fast, reliable rail network that will strengthen our transportation system, protect our environment, and make Ohio more attractive to big business.”
At 70, O'Neill must retire from the Supreme Court when his current term ends in January 2019 because of age limits. He joins a Democratic primary race to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. John Kasich that already includes four others. They are former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former Cincinnati-area state Rep. Connie Pillich and Youngstown-area state Sen. Joe Schiavoni.
O'Neill said he plans to leave the bench by the Feb. 7 candidate filing deadline.
Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said she urges O'Neill to use caution in performing his court duties now that he has announced a run for governor. She said there is no mechanism for the court to require O'Neill to recuse himself from pending cases, even if they might present a conflict.
The Republican chief justice encouraged O'Neill to “consider his future course of conduct” in terms of his oath of office and judicial ethics rules. She said both are intended to protect the interests of litigants, trust in the court system and the independence of the judiciary.
But both the timing and the politics of O'Neill's announcement drew immediate criticism from rivals.
Schiavoni said O'Neill has left Democrats’ one statewide seat for the Republican governor to fill, while failing to participate in good faith in election activities with fellow Democrats. The party had a dinner and gubernatorial debate scheduled Sunday.
“Any Democrat who is serious about running for governor would attend the two debates we're having today to discuss real issues in front of thousands of voters,” Schiavoni said in a statement. “Instead, Justice O'Neill has chosen to pull a press stunt on the other side of the state.”
Earlier, O'Neill indicated he would abandon plans to run if former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray joined the race. Cordray, the federal consumer chief, hasn't yet said if he'll run. Tabloid television show host Jerry Springer also has been mulling a run.
O'Neill launched a statewide listening tour in January to discuss nine policy planks that he said he hoped to see embraced by fellow Democrats in the wake of the punishing 2016 election for the party. Republicans continue to hold majorities in Congress and the Ohio Statehouse.
The only other Democrat in office after being elected statewide in Ohio is U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.
O'Neill has been an outspoken critic of the Democratic Party, which has over the years recruited primary opponents to run against him.
Three GOP statewide officials — Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor — are running for governor, as is U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, a Republican from Wadsworth.
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