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Ohio Democrats Debate In Cleveland Heights Ahead Of Gubernatorial Primary

In one segment of the debate, the Democratic candidates for governor were asked to hold up green or red sheets of paper to show whether they agreed or disagreed with policy positions. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Listen to audio from the debate above.

The Democrats running for Ohio governor made closing pitches to Northeast Ohioans on Saturday, debating before a standing-room crowd of about 200 in Cleveland Heights.

The four candidates largely avoided taking verbal swings at one another, sticking to the issues that the moderators laid before them.

No one brought up former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s disclosure that he had received $20,000 in speaking fees from a group supportive of the Syrian government.

For his part, Kucinich didn’t directly attack former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray over his record on guns. But the former congressman did wear a button marked with the letter F—Kucinich’s rating from the NRA. Cordray received an A rating and an endorsement from the NRA when he ran for reelection as Ohio attorney general in 2010. 

Near the end of the debate, Cordray told the audience that he often agreed with his opponents. But he said Democrats can’t make progress without a winning candidate.

“But we have to be able to win,” Cordray said. “We have to go out and raise the money, which is hard work. It’s unpleasant work. But it’s what you have to do to win statewide races, and it’s what I’ve been doing day in and day out in this race.”

Asked about a time the candidates had taken on a moneyed interest and won, Cordray pointed to fines the CFPB ordered Wells Fargo to pay in 2016.

Kucinich reminded the audience of his fight to preserve Cleveland’s public electric utility from a private buyout when he served as mayor in the 1970s. He said he would fight power brokers in Columbus, too.

“As governor of Ohio, I’ll take on that statehouse gang,” Kucinich said, “the system of lobbyists and big law firms that are responsible for creating a system that’s taking the wealth of the state and accelerating it upwards into the hands of a few.”

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni said he had pushed in the statehouse for more accountability for for-profit charter schools. In his closing statement, he called himself an underdog in the campaign.

“I don’t do catchphrases and I don’t do slogans,” he said. “I work hard, I tell the truth and I get the job done. Every day that I’ve been down in the Ohio Senate, I’ve been working for people, I’ve been listening to people, I’ve been doing people right.”

Bill O’Neill, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, said he hadn’t taken campaign contributions in his run for the judicial seat. He closed his debate appearance calling for the legalization of marijuana.

“I cannot walk away from nonviolent offenders being in prison and no one doing anything about it,” O’Neill said. “And I cannot walk away from the state of Ohio ignoring the fact that the time to legalize marijuana is now.”

Moderating the debate were Amy Hanauer, the director of nonprofit left-leaning think tank Policy Matters Ohio, and Ivan Conard. Al Porter, a local activist and internet radio host, and Gabrielle Jackson, the president of the Northeast Ohio Young Black Democrats, also posed questions to the candidates.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.