Republican leaders are lauding their choice of 23-year-old law student Niraj Antani to replace the late Rep. Terry Blair on the fall ballot for a south suburban Dayton area House seat, saying it reflects a changing party that is bringing in new faces.
But the pick has also stirred movement among Democrats, who see Antani as more vulnerable than Blair, who until his death last month was considered a shoo-in to get re-elected in the GOP-leaning 42nd Ohio House district.
The dynamics of the race have changed, but by much is unclear for now.
Miamisburg Mayor Dick Church told the Dayton Daily News that he rejected a request by Montgomery County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Owens to enter the race after Antani edged out a more well-known Republican, Tom Young, at the GOP Central Committee meeting called to find a replacement on the ballot for Blair.
Church, 73, said he “absolutely” would not replace Democratic candidate Leonard Johnson, 67, of West Carrollton, who says he is only “temporarily” in the race as a placeholder.
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“I have done that and once was enough,” said Church, referring to his unsuccessful 2000 run for Ohio House. “I thoroughly enjoy being the mayor of Miamisburg.”
Owens said he asked Church to run because Johnson was not sure how hard he would campaign. He also thinks Antani is a less formidable candidate than Blair, a former Washington Twp. trustee and three-term state representative for the district that includes Miamisburg, Moraine, West Carrollton, Germantown and German, Miami and Washington townships.
“They basically put an unknown into the race,” said Owens. “He may be a nice guy, but at 23 years old he doesn’t have any experience at all.”
The district leans Republican — with Mitt Romney picking up 58 percent of the vote over President Barack Obama in 2012 — and Church is viewed as one of the few Democrats who could wage a viable campaign for the House seat. Owens has not asked anyone else to replace Johnson.
While a newcomer to the ballot, Antani has been active in politics for some time, interning for the 2012 Mitt Romney presidential campaign, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner and State Sen. Peggy Lehner when she was in the Ohio House. He chaired Ohio’s Young Americans for Romney coalition in 2012.
“I am going to fight for my community. I am going to bring my youth and my energy to that fight to make sure that our middle class and our communities are represented in Columbus,” said Antani, noting that if elected he would finish law school by attending part time.
Antani would not be the youngest person elected to the Ohio House. Former State Rep. Derrick Seaver was just 18 when the Auglaize County Democrat took office in 2001. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was 21 when he was sworn into the Ohio House of Representatives in 1975.
Antani was picked on July 17 by the Central Committee’s 67 district precinct captains. Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, party chairman, said Antani is “a bright young man who is a very hard worker and he will do a good job serving” the district.
Antani beat four others including, Young, who came in second and garnered support from the establishment wing of the party. Young could not be reached for comment.
Rob Scott, a Dayton Tea Party co-founder and Kettering city councilman who was unseated as party chairman last year, said his supporters helped put Antani over the top.
“They do not like the establishment and Tom Young came from the establishment side,” Scott said.
Antani can effectively straddle the divide between the county party’s establishment and tea party factions, said Kay Wick, who sits on the executive and central committees and is a member of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
“He has friends in both sides,” Wick said. “He’s not a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of person. He’s been very helpful in reorganizing the Republican Party and trying to unify people.”
Antani, the son of immigrants from India who was raised in the Miamisburg area, is a Hindu but said he does not believe that will hurt him with Republican voters who are Christian because the faiths share common values.
“We are pro-life, we believe in families first, we believe in respecting our elders,” Antani said.
Wick said Antani brings a fresh face to the party as well as being “a very accomplished young man.” She said his selection as a candidate helps the party present a more diverse face.
“The country’s changing. It’s not the same 25-years-ago country,” said Wick. “I don’t think the party has kept up with that.”
Church knows Antani, having sworn him into his Miamisburg third grade student council and kept track of him since.
“He’s a fine young man and I think he would do fine as a state representative,” Church said.