The battle for the Franklin County prosecutor's office

Dave Ghose
Ron O'Brien

Ron O'Brien is the longest-serving prosecutor in Franklin County history. Zach Klein is a rising Democratic star. In the fall, the two will square off in one of the most anticipated political races in Ohio. And the stakes can't get much higher.

Ron O'Brien walks along a tree-lined residential street in northwest Columbus. The 67-year-old Republican wears his door-to-door uniform: sunglasses, running shorts, New Balance sneakers and a T-shirt that reads "Ron O'Brien Franklin County Prosecutor." His first stop is at a brick and stucco two-story house. The porch lights are on, even though it's a sunny summer morning in late July. O'Brien wastes little time waiting for someone to answer the door, tucking a flier in the front door after a quick knock. "You do this long enough, you can tell if someone is going to be home," he says.

In recent months, O'Brien has sharpened his canvassing skills. Since April, he and his supporters have been pounding the pavement every weekend. Locked in the biggest political battle of his career, the longest-serving prosecutor in Franklin County history has been spending two to three hours every Saturday and Sunday going door to door in neighborhoods all across Central Ohio, hitting around 60 homes a shift. O'Brien hasn't knocked on this many doors during a campaign in a long, long time (if ever). "I'm pretty much full-time campaigning when I'm not at work," he says.

After a slow start on this day, he approaches a house that looks promising for a Republican like him. The home's garage door is open, revealing a minivan with an anti-abortion bumper sticker on it. A friendly 48-year-old brunette answers the door. Tiffany Maholm doesn't remember O'Brien's name, but she knows his face, a familiar sight in the Dispatch and on the local TV news for the past two decades.

O'Brien chats with Maholm about the growing opioid problem in suburban areas like this. Maholm tells O'Brien she lost a cousin to drug addiction. "He was 33 … His heart gave out one day."

O'Brien mentions his support for drug courts, special dockets that emphasize treatment over punishment. He says the programs offer a way for addicts to rebuild their lives while also keeping communities safe. "If they successfully complete drug court, then we drop the charge and help them expunge their record."

"I think that's key," Maholm says.

O'Brien returns to his neighborhood tour. He's pleased with the interaction. "Very positive," he says. "I would rate her a Ron O'Brien supporter." Like lots of people in this area, Maholm is a Republican. O'Brien is looking to talk to folks across the political spectrum, however. A microtargeting app on his smartphone tells him to approach a house where several registered Democrats live. No one's home, but he leaves behind a piece of literature that champions O'Brien's record of bipartisanship. "And I'll need to get those Democratic votes this year," he says.

The Big-Little Race

In these intensely partisan times, Democrats and Republicans in Franklin County can find common ground on at least one thing. Political insiders of all stripes agree that the battle for the Franklin County prosecutor's office-the state's "big-little race," as the liberal political blog Plunderbund called it-is the most important local contest of the fall. For the first time in 16 years, O'Brien-a fixture in the prosecutor's office since 1996-faces an opponent in the November general election. And his challenger, Columbus City Council President Zach Klein, is smart, charismatic and ambitious-a lot different than the sacrificial lambs O'Brien has slaughtered in the past (that is, when Democrats have even bothered to field a candidate against him). Klein is "one of the real stars of the state," says Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper.

The importance of Klein's candidacy was made clear during the Democratic National Convention at the end of July. In Philadelphia, Klein spoke to the Ohio delegation, explaining to Democrats from all over the state why he's running and what a victory for him in November would mean. His comments were supported by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who told Ohio Democrats that Klein's contest is the third most important race in the state behind the presidency and former Gov. Ted Strickland's effort to unseat Ohio's other U.S. senator, Rob Portman. Democrats not only see Klein as their first real chance to take out a Franklin County Republican icon, but also a golden opportunity (buoyed by changing demographics and the unique dynamics of this year's presidential election) to capture an office with statewide significance that's been under Republican control since the 1950s. Because of its jurisdiction over state government, the Franklin County prosecutor's office is a law enforcement agency of enormous power.

The race raises a host of fascinating questions: Can O'Brien overcome the political headwinds that have knocked over so many other Republicans in Franklin County in recent years? Is Klein-a capable public servant with limited legal experience-ready to serve as Franklin County's top law enforcement official? Does O'Brien deserve his reputation as a fair and impartial arbitrator of justice? And what qualities do Franklin County voters value the most-the energy and creativity of Klein or the maturity and experience of O'Brien?

It's also that rarest of things in politics: a contest between two worthy (though very different) candidates. "We're fortunate to have them both," says Columbus City Councilman Mitchell Brown, a former Columbus public safety director who's worked closely with both Klein and O'Brien. Adds Democratic state Rep. Mike Curtin: "It's too bad we don't have that kind of talent up and down the ticket."

So should we expect a gentlemanly debate about ideas and visions? Not likely. "What campaigns of consequence don't get nasty these days?" Curtin asks.

A Path to Victory

Democrats didn't take long to identify Klein, a 37-year-old attorney, as an up-and-comer. In 2013, still in his first council term, Klein's name was floated as a possible running mate for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Fitzgerald, a disastrous campaign that Klein was lucky to avoid. A year earlier, Klein also flirted with challenging O'Brien, though he ultimately decided against it because of council and family obligations. "It was clear from the start that he was the guy always looking for the next thing," says a Democratic insider. "That's just who he is. He's a very ambitious person."

Late last year, Klein began making the rounds again, talking to Columbus power brokers about mounting a bid for the prosecutor's office. Klein says he heard lots of encouragement, but others say he encountered plenty of skepticism, too. Klein was reelected to City Council in November, and with Andy Ginther moving to the mayor's office, Klein, backed by Columbus civic leaders, was positioned to succeed him as council president (which he ultimately did in January). Former mayor Mike Coleman no longer was casting his big shadow over City Hall, and Klein had a great opportunity to work with his good pal Ginther to shape a new era. Why give all that up to challenge the formidable O'Brien, a guy with a lot of friends (including many Democrats) in Franklin County and whose experience far outweighed Klein's (O'Brien's peers named him the top prosecutor in the state in 2015)? "There was enormous pushback about Zach running," says a City Hall source.

Yet, in other ways, Klein also couldn't have asked for a better scenario. The election on Nov. 8 has the potential to be a windfall for Democrats, with Hillary Clinton expected to obliterate Donald Trump in Franklin County, a development that could have a major trickle-down effect on other races. Then there's the changing political dynamics of the county. In 1996, when O'Brien was elected prosecutor for the first time, Republicans controlled every countywide seat, from the recorder to all three commissioners. Today, O'Brien, Auditor Clarence Mingo and Engineer Dean Ringle are the last Republicans standing.

O'Brien is not your typical Republican. A working-class Catholic who grew up on the South Side and in Northland, O'Brien has received strong support from labor in the past (both his parents were members of unions) and maintains stronger ties with African-Americans than most Republicans. But some insiders doubt he can survive this go-around. "Ron's in the wrong place at the wrong time," says a Democratic source. "It has nothing to do with his performance in the job. It has to do with the fact that he's a Republican."

If O'Brien is looking for some encouragement, he can find a few strands of hope in the 2014 election, when four Republican statewide office holders carried Franklin County. And the Republicans are putting plenty of resources into O'Brien's reelection effort. In the most recent campaign finance reports, filed in April, O'Brien reported $645,000 in available funds, while Klein declared $314,000. Some predict both candidates will cross the $1 million threshold. Brad Sinnott, the chairman of the Franklin County Republican Central Committee, says the race may set a new record for a countywide contest. "There's a person in there who's actually run this office properly and effectively, and we're going to fight like hell to keep him there," says Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.

Prominent Columbus criminal defense attorney Sam Shamansky supports O'Brien, even though he comes from a liberal Democratic family (his uncle was the late Democratic Congressman Bob Shamansky). He acknowledges O'Brien faces a tough battle. "I think there's a very reasonable possibility that the voters ignore the qualifications and facts and just vote based on a slate card," Shamansky says. "If that happens, it's going to be a tragedy." Still, Shamansky hasn't lost hope. "I'm confident, cautiously so, that the voters of the county will recognize how lucky they are, and they'll vote accordingly."

Old School vs. New School?

Klein wants to modernize the prosecutor's office. In a July interview, he repeats the phrase "criminal justice reform" like a mantra. He talks about making the office more proactive than reactive and strengthening ties to the community. "I think people all recognize that the status quo of the criminal justice system isn't working," he says, "that we need to turn the model on its head and be aggressive and relentless in getting violent criminals off the street, but at the same time we have to recognize that a vast majority of people coming into the system are addicts, have mental health issues and some simply lack opportunity." In his view, "the prosecutor's office in the 21st century is the platform to get those people the help they need."

Klein's supporters say he'll bring a much-needed new perspective to the office, which Klein says has become "stagnant" under O'Brien. "Zach's strong suit is he has ideas," says Curtin, the Democratic state representative from Marble Cliff. Ginther praises Klein for his judgment and toughness. In particular, he says Klein was one the strongest advocates for police body cameras in City Hall, pushing for them long before Ginther embraced the idea last year. "O'Brien's been a prosecutor for a long period of time, and he's a good man and a good public servant," Ginther says. But the office needs a new direction, and "Zach Klein's the right person to do that," Ginther says.

It's easy to frame this race as old school versus new school. The reality, however, isn't so simple. Yes, O'Brien is a law-and-order, career prosecutor. But he's also embraced innovative ideas such as drug courts and plays well with others. Leaders with BREAD, a Columbus faith-based social justice organization, give him high marks for his support of a Columbus truancy program the organization spearheaded, while the head of the Ohio Innocence Project commends O'Brien for his openness to DNA exonerations. "You have the feeling there is no ego, no 'I don't want to admit a mistake,'" says Mark Godsey, the director of the University of Cincinnati College of Law program. Godsey, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York City, calls O'Brien "the most progressive prosecutor in the state of Ohio."

There Will Be Blood

From the start, O'Brien hasn't pulled many punches. After Klein filed his candidacy papers in December, O'Brien painted him as an upstart unprepared for such an important, life-and-death role. "He has no idea what this office does, and he has no idea what happens in the criminal-justice system," O'Brien told a Dispatch reporter. The tenor of the campaign hasn't softened since then.

Though young, Klein has a proven record as a legislator. But as a lawyer? And, in particular, a trial lawyer? Not so much. He's worked as a special assistant U.S. attorney in Columbus (an unpaid job), a deputy chief of legal services for the Ohio Attorney General's Office, an attorney with the Columbus law office of Jones Day and as general counsel and public policy strategist for the Mid-Ohio Foodbank (his current job). But Klein doesn't appear to have any significant trial experience. Computer court record searches (federal, municipal and common pleas) show no instances in which Klein appears as an attorney of record in any case.

That background contrasts sharply with O'Brien, a former assistant Franklin County prosecutor, a former Columbus city attorney, a former Columbus city prosecutor and a cross-designated special assistant U.S. attorney (just like Klein used to be)-in addition to O'Brien's 20 years as the county's top lawman. O'Brien's been putting criminals in prison longer than Klein's been alive and has continued to try cases while serving as the elected county prosecutor, uncommon in a large city. "I can't think of another instance where there is such a disparity in the qualifications of two candidates," says Sinnott, who's been working to elect Republican candidates for about three decades.

Prominent Democrat Yvette McGee Brown, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice and Strickland's running mate in 2010, crossed party lines to support O'Brien in this year's race. Now a partner at Jones Day in Columbus (where she worked with Klein), McGee Brown co-hosted a fundraiser for O'Brien. "I've known Ron for 30 years," McGee Brown says. "I worked for him when I was in law school. I think he's done a great job as prosecutor. It's not an anti-Zach thing, except I think that Ron has the experience to continue being prosecutor."

Shamansky, the defense attorney, says Franklin County citizens need someone with O'Brien's wisdom and experience in such a challenging job. "He's got that overwhelming mandate to be fair and just, and that's not easy," Shamansky says. "That takes a person of enormous judgment, enormous experience, enormous intelligence. It's extremely hard. It's no place for a newcomer."

Klein says his lack of trial experience is a red herring. He points out that both Columbus City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer and Klein's former boss at the AG's office, Rich Cordray, now the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, never tried any criminal cases before being elected to their law enforcement positions. Klein says the primary job of the Franklin County prosecutor is to set policy and direct the $20 million, 114-attorney agency, the second-biggest prosecutor's office in the state behind Cuyahoga County. If elected, Klein will focus on those matters.

Steven Dettelbach, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, says Klein has the skills to excel as a prosecutor even if he comes from a nontraditional background. "We just cannot be stuck in our old ways of thinking," Dettelbach says. "We have to be forward-leaning or else we are just going to remain in the same situation. Zach has proven that he has the ability to bring creative solutions to problems."

Meanwhile, Klein and his supporters seem to have identified their own wedge issue. They accuse O'Brien of failing to investigate possible wrongdoing committed by Kasich administration officials. Their top example is David Hansen, the Ohio Department of Education's school choice director who resigned in July 2015 after it was revealed he threw out failing grades for politically powerful online schools. In a July press release, Klein called for O'Brien to investigate "Ohio's failing charter schools."

"You're just not seeing the accountability you need to see," says Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman. "I think it's something that is worthy of a really robust debate between now and November."

O'Brien says he's waiting for Ohio Auditor Dave Yost to finish his investigation of the matter before deciding whether to pursue charges. Sandy Theis, executive director of the liberal advocacy group ProgressOhio, isn't satisfied with that response. She wants O'Brien to open his own a grand jury investigation. Ric Simmons, a former prosecutor who's now a law professor at Ohio State, says it would be unusual for a prosecutor to conduct a parallel investigation while another agency is in the middle of its own unless the ongoing investigation was insufficient.

The accusations against O'Brien are a bit surprising. He has a long track record of pursuing cases against both Republicans and Democrats, including his involvement in the law enforcement coalition that pursued the "Coingate" investigation that led to the 2005 ethics convictions of Gov. Bob Taft and his chief of staff, Brian Hicks, which contributed to major Republican casualties at the ballot box in 2006. Shamansky says O'Brien doesn't pick sides: "He's as devoted to justice and fairness and doing the right thing, regardless of consequences, as anybody I've ever known."

Face to Face

In December, both Klein and O'Brien attended a holiday party at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall in Victorian Village. It was the same day that Klein filed his papers at the Franklin County Board of Elections to run for prosecutor. O'Brien badmouthed Klein as he worked the room, says a person who was at the party. Then he approached Klein, wagged his finger in his face and gave Klein grief for running against him. The witness describes O'Brien as "really pissed." ?O'Brien says the incident wasn't an argument. "We talked and chatted, and I took it more as joking with him," O'Brien says. When asked about O'Brien's tone, Klein says, "He was in a festive mood," declining to elaborate other than to say O'Brien was "excited that he was at a holiday party."

In the encounter, O'Brien told Klein he ought to resign from council since he chose to seek a new political office a month after Columbus voters reelected him.

Klein shot back: "Did you have the same conversation with John Kasich when he announced he was running for president?"

The quick response impressed O'Brien. "It was a good comeback," he acknowledges.

This opponent, he discovered right away, is no pushover.