The face of a publicly funded advertising campaign designed to encourage seniors to sign up for Medicare is Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, and now Democrats say she is abusing her position to advance her political career.

Ads that feature Taylor paid with public money

Democrats accuse the Ohio Republican of using the ads for political gain.

Taylor, a Republican, has acknowledged she is considering a run for governor, and in October she formed Onward Ohio, a non-profit political organization that can raise money for her non-official travel and help her elevate her public profile.

The 30-second TV spot featuring Taylor aired earlier this month on Meet The Press, a Sunday morning political talk show. Bus signs and social media advertising also use the face of Taylor, a former state auditor who heads the Ohio Department of Insurance.

Ohio spent $170,000 in federal grant money on the television outreach, according to Taylor spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach.

Democrats have cried foul. “This is someone who has a history of using tax dollars to promote her own political profile,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper. “As auditor, she was particularly fond of using tax dollars to advertise her own name. This is especially cynical. These are dollars that are clearly given out to states to help Ohio seniors and instead she is using them to help herself politically.”

Kalmbach refused to respond to questions about whether Taylor is boosting her political profile at taxpayer expense. “We are satisfied with the responses provided,” she said.

Pepper said Taylor’s office should answer questions about what is driving the new advertising campaign strategy.

The money comes out of a $1.8 million federal grant for the Ohio Senior Health Insurance Information Program. The OSHIIP Facebook page now features material with Mary Taylor’s photo, compared with previous years when stock photos were used. Her photo also appears on the side of Cincinnati city bus as part of the advertising campaign.

SHIP money is earmarked for providing information, counseling and assistance that helps Medicare beneficiaries and their caregivers access Medicare services, said U.S. Department of Health & Human Services spokeswoman Christine Phillips. HHS Administration for Community Living does not routinely monitor promotional materials produced by states with the grant money, she said.

Last year, Pennsylvania spent $15,000 of its $3.2 million SHIP grant on statewide public service announcements on radio stations, encouraging seniors to sign up during open enrollment, according to a Pennsylvania Department of Aging spokeswoman.

Michigan Medicare/Medicaid Assistance Program, a non-profit that handles the $1.4 million grant in Michigan, focuses its outreach efforts on presentations, newsletters and some social media, said MMAP Director Jo Murphy.

“We rarely run TV or radio ads because the SHIP grant isn’t that big,” she said. “We don’t have the kind of money it takes to do big TV buys.”

As state auditor, Taylor spent $57,816 in her first two years on the job on mouse pads, calendars, magnets and posters for local finance officials as well as Ohio history CDs for school children. Most of the items have her name and photo on them. At the time, her spokesman argued that the items weren’t just self-promotional swag because the materials included financial reporting deadlines and fraud reporting hot lines.

The race for the GOP nomination for governor in 2018 could be a crowded field, with Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted as possible candidates, along with Taylor. And Ohio could need a new governor sooner if presidential candidate John Kasich gets elected president or vice president or leaves his job as governor to take a cabinet position.

If that happens, Taylor would become governor and not have to face an election until 2018.