Cheryl Brooks, the accidental candidate

Dave Ghose
Cheryl Brooks Sullivan

Cheryl Brooks Sullivan was ready to lose. Her opponent, Ed Leonard, was a respected two-term Franklin County treasurer backed by the Democratic Party establishment. Sullivan was an unknown who'd never run for elected office before. Leonard had endorsements, name recognition and powerful friends. Sullivan had no experience, no money and (seemingly) no chance. "My only hope was that I would get enough votes so I wouldn't be totally embarrassed," Sullivan says with a laugh.

On election night, Sullivan gathered with other Democrats for a watch party at Jimmy V's in Grandview. She was calm and in good spirits. She chatted amicably with campaign volunteers while the more serious political types huddled over their laptops. For some, there was a lot at stake-but not for her. By the end of the night, she expected her brief foray into public life to end.

It was still early when the three biggest names in the room-Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott, Franklin County Commissioner Paula Brooks and Franklin County Recorder Terry "T.J." Brown-realized they all had lost. The three incumbents, who recruited Sullivan to run for office, had fallen out of favor with the Democratic establishment by supporting Scott over Andy Ginther for mayor four months earlier. All three were defeated by party-endorsed candidates. It was a surprising sweep, but not (as it turned out) the biggest shock of the evening.

Around 11 p.m., a Jimmy V's employee told Sullivan her mother was on the line. Concerned, Sullivan rushed to the bar, where she picked up the phone. "There's a reporter here who wants to know what your reaction is," her mom told Sullivan, who lists her mother's home as her official address. With her friends doing so badly in the county elections, Sullivan had ignored the local results. She also realized her cellphone's ringer was off. She looked at her phone and saw a startling message from her daughter-a screenshot of a graphic showing Leonard and her deadlocked at 50-50.

Sullivan's campaign (if you can call it that) was beyond low-key. She joined the Democratic Civil War in Franklin County as something of an afterthought. In the months leading up to the March primary, she gave no speeches, did no interviews, raised no money and knocked on no doors. Her sole purpose seemed to be to distract Democratic Party leaders targeting Scott, Brooks and Brown. If Sullivan could draw some attention away from the others, perhaps the incumbents would have a little more room to operate in their own contested races. "I was like, 'Yeah, I'll take one for the team,'" says Sullivan, who worked on Scott's 2015 Columbus mayoral campaign. "'I'll run for office.'"

In reality, however, Sullivan was more of a blank slate than a diversion. Her campaign essentially consisted of a piece of literature mailed to Democratic voters-paid for by Brooks and Scott-that included her along with the three incumbents. Understandably, her opponent, Leonard, ignored her. If she didn't mount a vigorous campaign, why should he?

By 3 a.m., with all precincts reporting, Sullivan had pulled ahead of Leonard by about 2,000 votes, giving her less than a 2-percentage-point lead. The next morning, Leonard called Sullivan to concede. "We were as excited as can be, just happy as hell for her," says Dave Starner, a Scott campaign staffer.

For Sullivan, however, there was no giddiness, no celebration. When asked to describe her reaction, she responds with one word: "Whoa." She knew her life was about to get a whole lot more complicated. "It was sobering," she says. "It was like, 'Oh my God, now what?'"

Fitness to Serve

Sullivan greets me at the front door of her two-story stucco home on the Near East Side of Columbus. Her friends talk a lot about her warmth, humor and affability, and those qualities are apparent on this morning in late April, about six weeks after the Democratic primary. I offer my hand to the 58-year-old real estate agent in a pearl necklace, dangly earrings and plum-colored frames. She wraps her arms around me instead, even though we've never met. "I'm a hugger," she says.

Her hugging propensity isn't the only thing that differentiates Sullivan from the buttoned-down lawyers and accountants who typically occupy the Franklin County treasurer's office. As theDispatchfirst revealed on April 1-after the primary-Sullivan's personal history stands out, too. Sullivan has filed for bankruptcy three times (the last one in 2011)-a troubling trait for a treasurer. Turns out, it may have been the least troubling line on her background check.

Sullivan also was convicted of three criminal charges in Florida between 1996 and 1999: purchasing cocaine, a second-degree felony; possession of controlled-substance paraphernalia, a first-degree misdemeanor; and passing a bad check, also a first-degree misdemeanor.

The revelations have raised serious questions about her fitness for office. If elected, she would oversee a $953 million investment portfolio and the collection of $2.1 billion in annual property taxes, the second-biggest countywide haul in the state. Should someone with her record be trusted to take on such a significant fiduciary responsibility? And is she even eligible to hold the office as a felon?

The answer to the latter question appears to be yes. Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien says her drug conviction doesn't fall in the class of offenses, such as bribery, that would prevent someone from holding office in Ohio. The other question, however, is tougher to answer. Sullivan's supporters say it's unfair to judge her based on 20-year-old mistakes, while her critics say her track record reveals poor judgment and money management skills that make her too big a risk for such an important job. State law requires the county to obtain a surety bond on the treasurer to protect against worst-case scenarios, such as theft or missing money. If Sullivan's finances aren't stable, surety companies might deem her too risky, declining to provide the county with the needed bond, says Ginny Shrimplin, marketing manager for the County Risk Sharing Authority, a self-insured pool that provides surety bonds for several small- and medium-size counties in Ohio. More likely, perhaps, is that they would charge more for the bond or offer a smaller bond (which would provide less protection for the county).

"I'm surprised that somebody with that background would put themselves forward for a position like the treasurer's office, where you're responsible for the management of this kind of money," Leonard says. "It is a position of significant trust."

Sullivan welcomes the public scrutiny. "Back in December when I filed the petition to run for the office, I was well aware that the public vetting process would be extreme," she wrote in a post on her Facebook page after the publication of the April 1Dispatcharticle. "Public trial by fire. It's OK friends, I'm fit for the fight." Sitting at her dining room table, she tells me the newspaper story sort of solved a problem she was struggling with after her primary victory-when and how to discuss her past with the public. "When I got the call from theDispatch, I won't say it was a relief, but it was like, 'OK, finally,'" she says. "Now we can get started."

Remorse and Shame

Over drinks on a summer night in 1996, Sullivan and a few friends reminisced about their younger, wilder days. Sullivan, then 39, was living in Jacksonville, Florida, where she'd relocated from Columbus to work as a property assessor for the Florida Department of Transportation. Cocaine came up in the conversation. She'd hadn't done the drug in years, she says, but-fueled by liquid courage-she and her friends decided to try to score some for the evening. Driving in a neighborhood on the north side of Jacksonville, their car was approached by a guy on a bike. Sullivan got out of the car and bought $5 worth of crack cocaine from another person on a nearby front porch. It was a terrible decision: She'd walked into a police sting operation and was arrested along with about 25 other people. "It took me two, almost three years toget OK with the fact that I had a felony," says Sullivan, who was sentenced to probation. "I had a lot of remorse and shame."

It was a difficult time for Sullivan in other ways, too. In 1996, she and her then-husband filed for bankruptcy twice, though she says both petitions were dismissed before any debt was discharged. Then, on Dec. 7, 1997, her husband told her he was picking something up from the store and never came back, abandoning Sullivan and their 1-year-old daughter. "It was six years before I found out he was still alive," she says.

She continued to have run-ins with the law. In 1999, she was convicted of a probation violation-along with convictions on misdemeanor counts of passing a bad check of less than $150, possession of controlled-substance paraphernalia and driving with a revoked or suspended license-and sentenced to six months in jail.

Looking to start over, Sullivan returned to Columbus in 1999. She's been here ever since, except for a stint in Maine from 2005 to 2009. She married again (her third husband), secured a state license to sell real estate and worked as a property assessor with a private contractor for the Franklin County auditor's office. Life hasn't been perfect. She's had health scares and is now separated from her third husband, whom she says filed for bankruptcy in 2011 without her knowledge. But she says she's learned from her mistakes and has carved out a meaningful life in Columbus, volunteering with organizations like Homeport, Innis Gardens Village Civic Association and Bethany Presbyterian Church on the Near East Side and serving as a mentor to others who've struggled with addiction and sexual abuse. (Sullivan says she also is a childhood molestation survivor.) "She's a very close friend," says Sheriff Zach Scott. "She's just a very sweet person-honest and genuine. If you spend much time around her, you can't help but like her."

Scott got to know Sullivan well when she volunteered for his mayoral campaign. In fact, she so impressed Scott and his campaign staff that one of his top people, Starner, called her up in December 2015 with a proposal: Would she like to run for county treasurer? Sullivan laughed, assuming it was a joke. But Starner was dead serious, and he put the others in the room-including Scott, Paula Brooks and T.J. Brown-on the speakerphone to plead their case for her candidacy. The more Sullivan looked into the treasurer job, the more intrigued she became. As a real estate agent and assessor, she's knowledgeable about property taxes. Plus, the Franklin County land bank, a treasurer's office initiative that focuses on rehabbing and demolishing vacant and abandoned properties, fascinated Sullivan. Neighborhood blight has long been one of her greatest concerns.

Starner says he and the others knew about Sullivan's past when they recruited her. "It didn't concern us because it was 20-some years ago," he says. "If anything, she's exactly what the Democratic Party should represent." Sullivan faced significant obstacles in her life and overcame them, he says. "And look at her now," Starner says. "She's a self-made woman. That's impressive."

Stay or Go

How did Sullivan pull off her improbable victory? There's no shortage of theories. Leonard underestimated her. She benefited from surges in women and African-American voters. Leonard was the victim of collateral damage, as confused voters-urged by the Democratic Party to toss out the three incumbent renegades-inadvertently kicked Leonard to the curb, too. No explanation seems to hit the bull's-eye, however. "No matter how I try to figure this thing out, I can't really do it," says former Franklin County Democratic Chairman Bill Anthony.

Sullivan suggests a spiritual dimension to her victory. "I believe in providence," she says. "When I won the election, that sealed the deal. It's like, 'Yes, you were in it for a reason. There's no other reason you won this thing except that this is part of God's plan.'"

Newly appointed Democratic Party county chairman Michael Sexton says the party isn't pressuring Sullivan to drop out of the race at the moment. "I take the will of the Democratic voters seriously," he says. "There have been some concerns raised about her past and her ability to hold office, and there will be a process. I think we owe it to our party to completely vet our candidates over the next couple of months."

That said, both Anthony and Leonard spoke with her after theDispatcharticle came out, and both painted bleak pictures of how the coming months might play out for her. "I suggested she let stuff die down and then quietly go away," Anthony says. Democratic state Rep. Mike Curtin says nothing good will come from her continuing her candidacy. "Obviously, I don't think there's any legal way to force her out," says the former associate publisher of theDispatchand longtime civic power broker. "The only way for her to not be a candidate is to step aside, and I think efforts are going to be made to have some conversations with her to persuade her that she ain't seen nothing yet in terms of the publicity. A lot of us are hoping she'll listen to that, as opposed to putting herself through what would be a brutal campaign-and should be brutal given the circumstances we are now all aware of."

Indeed, Republicans appear to be licking their chops. Before Leonard lost, political insiders viewed the Republican nominee for treasurer, Grove City Councilman Ted Berry, as something of a sacrificial lamb. They don't anymore. "What happened on the Democratic side is entirely good news for Ted Berry," says Brad Sinnott, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party's central committee.

But Sullivan and her supporters aren't heeding the message. In fact, the more people question her, the more she seems to dig in her heels. And she does have some political trends in her favor. Democrats tend to turn out stronger for presidential elections. And some analysts-including Sinnott himself-fear Donald Trump might weaken support for down-ticket Republicans. "If Donald Trump is at the top of the Republican ticket, then we have to be concerned about the Democrats making gains in offices where they ought not to be able to compete," Sinnott said in March, prior to Trump emerging as the presumptive nominee. Another political insider with no ties to Sullivan predicts a victory for her in November: "She'll beat whoever the Republican is, because she is a Democrat running in 2016."

Sullivan cites a more personal reason for sticking to the race. Her eyes well with tears as she talks about the comments she's heard from supporters inspired by her personal story:

I feel better about myself.

You've opened up a new vision for my life.

"There's nothing that can scare me," Sullivan says. "You don't have to get on my bandwagon, but there's no way I would stop. Too many people are being encouraged, and I think that's the whole reason I was supposed to win."