Martin Sweeney, Nickie Antonio Face Off In Heated Democratic State Senate Primary

State Reps. Nickie Antonio and Martin Sweeney are running for a state senate seat. [Ohio House of Representatives]
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Two Democratic lawmakers are vying for a state senate seat in a contentious race on the west side of Cuyahoga County.

The Ohio State Senate District 23 race between State Reps. Nickie Antonio and Martin Sweeney has divided Democratic groups and become increasingly heated in the final weeks of the campaign.

Sweeney won the endorsement of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party earlier this year. Antonio has backing from other groups, such as the Cuyahoga Democratic Women’s Caucus and the Stonewall Democrats, an LGBT political organization.

On a recent morning in Lakewood, a visitor to Antonio’s campaign office said he wasn’t worried about her upcoming election. Antonio disagreed.

“You got to worry about me, though,” Antonio said, telling him she needed every vote in Lakewood and throughout the district.

Antonio has served four terms in the state House. Asked about her work in the legislature, she highlighted a 2013 effort to make it easier for adoptees to access their original birth certificates, calling it “one of the bills I’m proudest of.”

“I was the lone Democrat with a number of Republicans, joint sponsor in the House,” she said. “And then I worked this bill through the Senate.”

For years, Antonio sponsored a bill barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. It hasn’t gotten much support in the House, but now, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce backs it.

“I’ve introduced it every General Assembly,” Antonio said. “This time around, we had traction.”

Antonio has also introduced bills to end the death penalty and tighten some limits on firearms. Those have not taken flight in the GOP airspace of the Statehouse.

“I reach across the aisle and work with Republicans when I can,” she said. “They have the majority in the House right now. And sometimes I know what my line in the sand is, and so sometimes I need to speak out about that.”

Antonio’s campaign is renting space in the office of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, which supports her. She also has the Plain Dealer’s endorsement—but not the endorsement of the county party. That’s become an issue in a dustup over campaign mailers.

One of Antonio’s mailers had placed the words “endorsed Democrat” above a list of groups that support her. The mailer did not list the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.

But Mary Devring, a former executive director of the county party, accused Antonio in a letter to voters of misleading people as to whom the party had endorsed. Devring did not respond to requests for comment.

Antonio called the letter an attempt to smear her.

At his home in Cleveland, State Rep. Martin Sweeney opened a box and took out his own mailers, one bearing the words “Cuyahoga County Endorsed Democrat.”

He’s also backed by the building trades, and pitched himself as responsive to constituent calls.

“I am not very good at standing up on my soap box and say, ‘This is what I want to do, because it really makes you riled up, people that I’m representing,’ and I know it’s not going to go anywhere with the current reality of the makeup of the General Assembly,” Sweeney said.

One Statehouse bill of his that became law made it harder for tow truck operators to have their business certificates suspended. Another bill undid a state rule specifying that local tax administrators could be sued by taxpayers for their actions or those of their employees.

“And it got passed. Yay,” he said, clapping. “Pretty sexy? No. But very important? Absolutely.”

Sweeney is now facing renewed criticism over his time as president of Cleveland city council.

In 2007, the city agreed to pay $60,000 in public money to settle a sexual harassment allegation the then-clerk of council brought against Sweeney.

According to the Plain Dealer at the time, as part of the settlement, the complaint was dropped at the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, and Sweeney denied wrongdoing. The paper also reported that the city paid about $27,000 in attorney’s fees.

Sweeney said it’s a personnel issue from a decade ago that’s now being politicized.

“All my door-knocking, zero people asked about it,” Sweeney said. “The people that are promoting it are people that don’t want me to be successful in regards to becoming the state senator.”

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national group based in Washington, D.C., paid for a campaign mailer comparing Sweeney to Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer accused of sexual assault.

Antonio said she didn’t know about the mailer beforehand, and that it was “not my style.” Sweeney called it the “ultimate desperation.”

The only Republican candidate is running as a write-in. So whoever wins in a few days is likely a winner in November.

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