Not National News: Ohio Dem's Gubernatorial Campaign Implodes

Several months ago, based on several far from minor out-of-the-gate mistakes, I characterized the candidacy of the Democratic Party's challenger to incumbent Republican Governor John Kasich as "the wreck that is Edward FitzGerald."

In the past week, FitzGerald has utterly imploded. The latest revelation Tuesday afternoon, namely that he had "no license to drive at all from 2002 to 2008," leaves one wondering whether his party vetted him at all. Former Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial director Brent Larkin calls this "at or near the top of the list" of "bizarre developments" he's seen in 45 years of covering politics. Despite the fact that Ohio is a key battleground state and that Kasich had in some quarters been seen as vulnerable after his attempt at Scott Walker-like reforms went down in flames in 2011, national news about Fall-Apart FitzGerald is sparse — and when it appears, it's often made to look like a GOP dirty tricks exercise.

At the Politico, neither Mike Allen's Wednesday morning Playbook nor the web site's Morning Score mentioned the Fitzgerald license follies at all. Ah, but Tuesday's Morning Score clearly betrayed the perceived relevance and importance of the Buckeye State governor's race, including "RGA Hits FitzGerald" in its headline, and describing the horrors of ads planned by the Republican Governors Association (bolds are mine throughout this post):

AD WATCH: The RGA is going negative in its latest volley in Ohio, hitting Democrat Ed FitzGerald over a spate of negative headlines related to his run as Cuyahoga County executive (though it doesn’t touch the woman-in-car story the Plain Dealer broke last week). In an ad released by the association today, a young woman looks up Fitzgerald on the Internet while we listen to her internal monologue. “A scandal?” she asks. “FitzGerald gave a government contract to his former campaign manager’s lobbying firm. Not a good sign. FitzGerald used a county employee to vet his political donations, was called ‘totally inappropriate.’ Ugh.” This is the start of an approximately seven-figure advertising push, said a Republican familiar with the plans. It comes as the candidates themselves prepared to roll out new ads this week, according to the Columbus Dispatch: a positive spot from GOP Gov. John Kasich and a contrast spot from FitzGerald.

The Associated Press covered the FitzGerald driver's license story today, but oh so predictably (as of 9 PM ET) had no story at its national web site. Mark Gillispie's coverage inexplicably focused on the past five years, when FitzGerald allegedly didn't have a "valid" driver's license, and ignored the period the Plain Dealer identified as when he had no license at all. But Gillispie did raise a valid point tying into to the "woman-in-car story" the Politico only vaguely referenced:

FitzGerald lacked driver's license for 4 years

Motor vehicle records show Democratic governor's race candidate and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald didn't have a valid Ohio driver's license for nearly five years starting in 2008, raising further questions about a 2012 incident in which he was found in a car with a woman who wasn't his wife at 4:30 a.m. in a suburban industrial park.

FitzGerald had only a temporary instruction permit when a worker called police in the Cleveland suburb of Westlake on Oct. 13, 2012, to report suspicious activity at the park. FitzGerald later identified the woman in the car as Joanne Grehan, who was part of an Irish delegation visiting the region. He said Friday the group of people with whom he had been traveling had gotten lost and he was trying to connect with them.

One of his top aides, however, has disputed his version of events: Nate Kelly has said he was chauffeuring members of the delegation as a designated driver and didn't get lost.

A police officer noted in a brief report having talked to Fitzgerald but did not cite him.

If Grehan had a valid Irish driver's license at the time, it would have been legal for FitzGerald to drive with her in the car. Ohio law requires that a motorist with a temporary permit have a sober, licensed driver 21 years or older in the passenger seat next to him.

But if FitzGerald dropped Grehan off at her hotel and drove home or anywhere else by himself, he would have broken the law, a minor misdemeanor with a maximum $150 fine.

FitzGerald did not have a driver's license when he applied for a one-year, temporary permit on March 20, 2008. After it lapsed in March 2009, he went without any kind of permit or license until he applied for a second permit on Oct. 22, 2010. He applied for another permit on Nov. 15, 2011, and finally received a driver's license a year later.

It's unclear why FitzGerald, a 46-year-old former FBI agent, assistant county prosecutor, suburban mayor and county executive, the most powerful elected position in Cuyahoga County government, went so long without a driver's license or why he allowed the temporary permits to lapse.

Though the Plain Dealer has covered the two major developments well, it oddly decided that devoting an entire story to the idea that (gasp!) "The Republican Governors Association ... requested information from the Westlake Police Department about a report of a suspicious car that led officers to FitzGerald and a woman who was not his wife in a parked car before dawn in October 2012," was an appropriate use of paper and bandwidth. Imagine that: Political parties do aggressive opposition research, and sometimes it pays off. Who knew?

The award for the most bizarre recent coverage goes to Laurie Bischoff at the Dayton Daily News, who found all kinds of people who should (and I believe do) really know better to say that FitzGerald still has a reasonable chance of winning. But then again, what choice do they have, given that it's legally too late for the Democrats to change horses? Here are excerpts:

FitzGerald to stay in race, campaign says
Governor candidate admits he drove without a valid driver’s license.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald indicated Tuesday that he is staying in the race despite the latest revelation that he drove without a valid driver’s license for years.

... FitzGerald would have had to withdraw from the ballot yesterday for the Ohio Democratic Party to then field a substitute by Monday, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

... Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said in her view FitzGerald apologized for driving without an Ohio license and explained the 4:30 a.m. traffic stop. “I just don’t see this to be a really big deal right now.”

Former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Jim Ruvolo agreed. “ Obviously, he has not been having a good 10 days here, but none of it is fatal,” Ruvolo said.

University of Akron political scientist John Green agreed. “It’s too early to give up on the FitzGerald campaign based on other campaigns that we’ve seen here in Ohio. Campaigns often have bad weeks and many times they’re able to recover by emphasizing their positive message, whatever that might be. And sometimes the other candidate has trouble at one time or other. Challenging an incumbent is difficult and often challengers run behind in the summer and into the early fall.”

... Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland said Kasich does not have the race in the bag yet and FitzGerald can win, though he needs to raise more money to get his message out to voters.

Just wondering: Can't you, or shouldn't you, get arrested — or at least issued a citation — if you admit to a driving without a license for an extended time after the fact? And isn't it amazing, given the circumstances, that Bischoff couldn't find a single person with the opinion that FitzGerald's goose is cooked?

I doubt that Ted Strickland, the first incumbent Buckeye State governor to lose a reelection contest in 36 years, really believes that FitzGerald's most important problem is money. And though it's too early to definitively declare that there's more to come on the scandalous behavior front, there are strong indications that, well, there's more to come on the scandalous behavior front.

Larkin now believes, with good reason, that FitzGerald "is not just headed for defeat but could also take the whole Democratic statewide ticket down with him."

As far as the rest of the nation goes, it will apparently be a very quiet defeat. After all, the establishment press would rather die than see scandalous behavior by a Democrat in one state affect the party's nationwide perception in voters' minds. They sure haven't felt that way about New Jersey's Chris Christie, have they? — and after mountains of coverage, the evidence that there has been any kind of scandal at all in the Garden State is remarkably thin.

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Campaigns & Elections 2014 Governors Crime Media Bias Debate Bias by Omission Double Standards Labeling Political Groups Conservatives & Republicans Liberals & Democrats Political Scandals Online Media Politico Wire Services/Media Companies Associated Press Regional Media Ohio Brent Larkin Edward FitzGerald Laurie Bischoff Mark Gillispie John Kasich