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Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Race, A Moment in History

Friday, February 24, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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In Cuyahoga County, five candidates are vying for the job of prosecutor. Voters will pick the democratic candidate, and likely winner, at the polls on March 6. Sounds like your typical primary election, but one like this hasn't been seen here in at least a generation. ideastream's Mhari Saito reports.

In 1935, Doris O’Donnell and her friend Mary Corrigan decided to do something typical of 13-year-old girls: Paint their nails red. But when Mary’s brother John T. Corrigan saw them walking into Catholic mass in their neighborhood church In Cleveland’s Brooklyn neighborhood sporting showy nails, Doris says he stopped them.

Doris O’Donnell: He looked at us and said, “I don’t ever want to see that again.” (laughs) And that funny little puritan bone in John T’s body that didn’t like red nail polish… you know I thought of him as the kind of person that was thoughtful, wouldn’t make hasty decisions and once he made a decision he’d let you know and I think that’s how he ran his office.

John T. Corrigan grew up to become one of Cuyahoga County’s most legendary prosecutors, heading the office for nearly 35 years. Doris O’Donnell became one of Cleveland’s most famous female reporters. O’Donnell’s crime coverage and connections to her old neighborhood meant she kept in touch with the Corrigans.  John T. Corrigan lost an eye in the Battle of the Bulge, went to Cleveland Marshall Law School on the GI Bill and in 1956 ran for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor, with the blessing of the local democratic machine.

Doris O’Donnell: We were all aware that Jack, we called him Jack, was going to run for office. It was the gossip and he got elected.

O’Donnell, now 90 years old, says that election - back in 1956 - was the last race without an incumbent for the seat, that is until this year. When Corrigan, ill, finally stepped down in 1992, an African-American judge, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, was appointed to fill the seat.  When Tubbs-Jones left for Congress in 1998, county democrats appointed Bill Mason. He won three re-election campaigns and is not running for a fourth. Lewis Katz is Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University.

Lewis Katz: It’s the first time in all the time I’ve been here in Cuyahoga County - 46 years - that the outcome of the race is not dictated. And moreover it could involve a significant shift of power in the prosecutor’s office.

Significantly this year, county democrats have not passed on their powerful endorsement to any of the current five candidates:  attorney and former Cleveland city law director Subodh Chandra, Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor and former police officer Stephanie Hall, defense lawyer and former North Royalton prosecutor James McDonnell, retired Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Tim McGinty. Geoffrey Mearns is a former federal prosecutor and the provost of Cleveland State University. He says the county prosecutor wields significant power county and state-wide.

Geoffrey Mearns: It is a large office with more than 300 employees and a large budget.  It’s the second largest public law firm in the state of Ohio the only larger one is the Attorney General’s office.

Legal experts say this year’s election takes on added significance in the wake of the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal. Residents voted to overhaul county government after a federal investigation brought down numerous top leaders and even judges. Case Western Reserve professor Lewis Katz points out the feds never clued in outgoing Cuyahoga County prosecutor Bill Mason, instead catching local law enforcement flatfooted and embarrassed.

Lewis Katz: That’s why this election is so important - we have a new system of county government and we also need an active prosecutor’s office making sure that our new county officials and local officials are acting legally.

While an independent candidate has signed on to run against the winner of the March primary, no Republican has registered to run. In heavily democratic Cuyahoga County that means the winner of the March 6 election will almost definitely take over the job next year. Mhari Saito ,

Additional Information

Hear county prosecutor candidates on 90.3’s Sound of Ideas

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