There are several unwritten rules in City Politics. One is you win elections by keeping Party discipline. Another is incumbent judges never lose an election. Perhaps the most basic rule is that voters have short memories.
These three rules may come into play in November. Here’s the skinny.
Rule One. Party discipline wins elections. Regardless of whether we’re talking the Dems or the GOP, it is essential to keep everyone rowing in the same direction, lest chaos ensue. In practical terms, this means supporting Party leadership, and the candidates that leadership picks, especially those already in elected office. Upstarts must not challenge those in office unless Party leadership sanctions the move.
This doesn’t always hold, of course. Witness the twenty seventeen election for Toledo mayor. Incumbent PHH looked beatable, so Wade jumped into the fray. And beat her, against the efforts and wishes of the local Dems. But this exception proves the rule, as usually when such disunion occurs, Parties fall apart. Witness the A- v. B-team Dems of the mid-aughts, or the Stainbrook takeover of the GOP more recently.
Rule two. Incumbent judges almost never lose. This is so deeply ingrained that incumbent judges rarely have opposition. This may stem from the fact that wanna-be judges are typically lawyers, who need the good graces of incumbent judges to be successful. Running against them may arouse their wrath. It may also stem from the fact that most voters have no idea who to vote for in judicial races, and simply vote for the familiar name.
Both these points played out last year, when Tom Puffenberger challenged incumbent Judge Josh Lanziger for a seat on the Toledo Muni Court bench. Both candidates are the sons of long-time local jurists, Judges Jack P and Judith L, respectively. So both had great name recognition. Puff came close, but the rule held. The incumbent judge kept his seat.
To test these two rules, enter incumbent LC Common Pleas Judge Alfonso “Jess” Gonzalez.
Breakin’ the rules
Over the past decades, only a few sitting judges in the County have failed to be re-elected. Mark Schmollinger met the likes of a seasoned name in local politics, Wittenberg, when he lost his Common Pleas Court seat to Charles Wittenberg, a judicial novice, but with a good name at the voting booth (Sol Wittenberg, his uncle, had been elected for several terms as a County Commissioner). And Pat Foley fell to the same election day fate when he ran up against the venerable Cook name, losing his seat to Common Pleas Court Judge, Gary, he the son of Mud Hen icon and longtime Toledo City Council member, Gene Cook.
While Jess got his seat the old fashioned way, similar to Schmollinger and Foley, by appointment from the Governor, there are some differences to point out. Jess has prior judicial experience, as a Magistrate in the Court for almost a decade. Neither of the incumbents who lost re-election had that experience.
But Gonzalez has had an issue, outside the courthouse, when he was arrested for, and later pleading guilty to, a DUI last fall. During the arrest, the Judge mentioned his position to the arresting officers several times. Not a good look, for sure. But he has now served a sentence and endured a reprimand from the Ohio Supreme Court for that conduct.
He’s running to retain his seat this year. With the full faith and credit of the GOP. Will Party discipline hold? Will members of the GOP peel off and challenge his fitness for the bench? Remember Rule One above. He’s unopposed in the GOP Primary, meaning it’s on to the General in November.
Will any plucky D see his misstep as vulnerability and break Rule Two? Yep, in the form of a challenge from Lori Olender in the November election. Olender, a longtime prosecutor, has been rumored to be eyeing a run in several previous elections, but always followed Rule One and never bucked Party leadership. Now she’s breaking Rule Two and challenging an incumbent judge.
Rule One has held so far in this race. Both Parties have one candidate. But it seems that this single incident is not enough of a reason to oust a sitting judge. Name recognition for the challenger, which has resulted in the removal of incumbents from the bench in recent memory, is not present here. Also, the dearth of Hispanics as members of the local judiciary ( in Lucas County, blacks and Hispanics comprise 25% of the population and of the 30+ local judgeships in State Appellate, Common Pleas and Municipal Courts, there are several sitting African American judges and Gonzalez is the sole Hispanic) is a reason to keep a Judge who brings a more diverse perspective and background to the bench.
What about Rule Three? How short are voters’ collective memory? Will they forget Jess’ dalliance? Will voters prefer Olender, a prosecutor with no judicial experience, or the incumbent, the appointee who, by all accounts, is doing a good job on the bench?
November will tell the tale. Are the Rules of City Politics meant to be broken?