How bitter political rivals became improbable allies

Ron O’Brien and Zach Klein are laughing and making friendly small talk as they wait for the panel discussion to begin. When the May 22 Columbus Metropolitan Club forum on criminal justice reform kicks off, the cordiality continues. “The last time I was on this stage was when Ron kicked my butt in the debate we had for the Franklin County prosecutor,” Klein says, turning to a chuckling O’Brien. “It’s great to be seated next to him in a more friendly atmosphere.”

Klein is exaggerating. That debate was closer to a draw than a beatdown, as was his 2016 race against the incumbent O’Brien. These days, their bipartisan bonhomie makes it hard to believe that just three years ago they were bitter opponents locked in one of the most expensive and hard-fought Franklin County political battles in recent memory. During the 2016 campaign, O’Brien called Klein a “political opportunist” who has “no idea what happens in the criminal justice system,” while a Klein campaign staffer accused O’Brien of giving a “free pass to his Republican friends.” Based on the way they act today, “I would never have known that [campaign] ever happened,” says Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, who shared the stage with them at the CMC forum. “They get along great.”

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The pair’s newfound friendliness traces to December 2016, when longtime Columbus City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer announced he would retire. That decision—just a month after the election for prosecutor—opened a slot for Klein, who was elected as the city’s top attorney in a landslide in November 2017. The new job put Klein in the awkward position of working closely with O’Brien, whose office handles felony cases in Columbus while Klein’s prosecutes misdemeanors.

O’Brien acknowledges some tension at first, but he wanted to continue the good working relationship he had with Klein’s predecessors, Pfeiffer and Janet Jackson. Klein felt the same way. “Every day can’t be election day,” he says.

A turning point was Issue 1, a ballot initiative that proposed major changes to how Ohio handles drug offenses. In an August 2018 meeting, Klein and O’Brien discovered they were both against the proposal but also found things in it they liked, such as downgrading low-level drug felonies to misdemeanors and emphasizing rehabilitation over incarceration. “I was like, ‘Let’s write this stuff down, and maybe we can do something about it in a bipartisan way,’” Klein says.

After voters rejected Issue 1 in November 2018, their proposal and recommendations from the General Assembly’s Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee served as the basis for Senate Bill 3, a major criminal justice reform package now under review in committee. “I was surprised that having run against each other as recently as they did, that the two of them came together,” Obhof says. “That was an eye-opener for a lot of people, that the language in Issue 1 isn’t right, but there are opportunities for reform that we should take seriously.”

Meanwhile, an O’Brien-Klein rematch seems unlikely, at least at this point. Klein says he won’t run against O’Brien in 2020, which bodes well for their budding bromance. “He’s a young, smart, intelligent guy who is trying to do a good job,” O’Brien says of Klein. “And I’m the same—except for the young part.”

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