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Government and Politics

Politics can be a family business, for better or worse
Ohio's term limits are leading to political baton-passing

Tim Rudell
Steve Brooks says political names are often a plus, but not always.
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The family name can be critical to continuing success for a family business.  And as WKSU’s Tim Rudell reports, that is especially true when the family business is politics.

LISTEN: What's in a name?

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Tuesday, the Democratic Primary ballot in three northeast Ohio Statehouse districts will include the last name of a current office holder who is not allowed to run anymore…because of term limits.

In the 9th House District, Janine Boyd of Cleveland Heights is running for nomination to the seat her mother Barbara is leaving. Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown hopes to succeed her husband Bob Hagan in the 58th district.  And, the daughter of 34th District’s Vernon Sykes, Emilia Sykes, of Akron, wants to follow her father in office.

Leaving a positive impression
Stephen Brooks of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute says the legacy connection can be a plus. “Especially if a person has been term limited, that means they’ve been elected a number of times the overall impression of the person that is leaving is a positive one.”

Brooks stressed the theoretical “rules” of local elections say they are driven by familiarity and impression — so name-recognition and what it triggers can be critical.  Frank Comunale of Akron, who is running against Vernon Sykes daughter, Emelia, thinks so too, and that there can even be a second-tier effect on voters who shy away if they feel their favorite can’t win.

“The name has held the office since Ronald Reagan was president, that’s challenge A.  B, because the name has been in existence for a long time people say ‘Golly Frank, you don’t have a chance.’”  

Cutting both ways
But, one of the family-name candidates, Michele Lepore-Hagan, says the being related to a popular office holder is double-edged. She’s found significant backlash. And she says she feels that either way, people are missing the point by dwelling on her family ties.

“You know…being the wife of Bobby Hagan does not qualify me to run for this office. But is certainly doesn’t disqualify me.”

Professor Brooks says that in reality, comments by voters about things like a candidate riding coattails are more after-the-fact observations, rather than decision making matters.

“Much of how we vote is rationalization.  We choose who we want and then we choose the pieces that come out of it to justify our vote; especially in low-information elections—which local elections are.  And so, the people that are not inclined to vote for the former office holder or the relative use that as a convincing point to themselves and to other people.”

Not so simple
But both Michele Lepore-Hagan, a legacy-linked candidate in a Youngstown race, and Frank Comunale, running against a family-connected opponent in Akron, say the family factor shouldn’t be over stated. There are other challenges.  

“This is also coupled with running as a woman," says Lepore-Hagan. " have people saying I’m just running because I want to replace my husband, to continue it.  But also, are you qualified because you’re a woman?” 

Comunale say he’s finding that being an older person running against a younger one, his age is also an issue.

“The name has held the office since the 1980s.  But the current candidate wasn’t even born yet…and I have gray hair.  So there are lots of challenges. “

But, in Lepore-Hagan and Comunale’s races, and the one in House District 9, there is the family factor.

So is there an advantage, and if there is, for whom?

“The specific question you’re asking has some unique aspects," Brooks says. "But it essentially follows all the rules of local elections.And those rules end up, I would argue, favoring the relative.”

Emilia Sykes is the relative running against Frank Comunale in the 34th district; Michele Lepore-Hagan is the one in the 58th…running against Michael O’HaraCynthia McWilson, and Janet Tarpley.  And in the 9th District it is Janine Boyd, opposed by Sean Malone

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