The explosive allegations in a local Ohio House race come as scores of women have made accusations of sexual misconduct involving powerful men across the country and an entire movement has grown up around the hashtag #MeToo.
But what distinguishes those cases from the back-and-forth verbal punches thrown by Jocelyn Smith, 36, of Fairborn, and Rep. Rick Perales, 58, of Beavercreek, is this: Smith and Perales are running against each other.
“We frequently have candidates accusing each other of misconduct, but it isn’t personal misconduct between the candidates,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Cedarville University Center for Political Studies. “That makes this unusual to say the least.”
Perales and Jocelyn Smith are the only candidates on the May 8 Republican primary for the Ohio House 73rd District seat that Perales has held since 2013. The winner faces Democrat Kim McCarthy of Sugarcreek Twp. on Nov. 6.
Allegations and denials
Smith alleges that Perales, R-Beavercreek, forcefully kissed her and choked her in his Jeep after the two of them left a Fairborn restaurant together in January 2015. She never filed a police report and said she continued texting, talking and visiting with Perales afterward because, she says, she was trying to achieve several political objectives.
Perales denies kissing or choking Smith, but he acknowledges having a sexting relationship with her that he says went on for about two months. Perales says Smith sent him partially nude photographs, which Smith denies. Both say they never had sex.
Smith held a news conference Tuesday, where she labeled Perales a “sexual predator” who used his power as a state legislator to not sponsor a bill she wanted. Perales, she said, refused to sponsor a bill to create a specialty license plate to benefit pancreatic cancer.
Perales says Smith never asked him to sponsor a license plate bill but that he did co-sponsor and vote for the House version of SB159, a bill that included the pancreatic cancer plate and passed in 2016.
Smith also demanded that Perales resign from office and leave the race. Perales says he will not step down.
The Dayton Daily News broke the story of the allegations, which have been carried in news outlets from across the country. They also caught the attention of Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, who will investigate to determine if any House rules were violated, according to Brad Miller, press secretary.
The #MeToo movement may have changed the landscape for what male behavior women are willing to tolerate — and caused many women to come forward and get involved politically — but experts said it doesn’t necessarily mean the accused will suffer politically.
Mark Caleb Smith, who is no relation to the woman running against Perales, said the country has come a long way since allegations of an extramarital affair derailed Democrat Gary Hart’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.
Take Donald Trump, for example. In 2016 voters elected Donald Trump president after multiple women accused him of groping them and an Access Hollywood video showed him bragging that he could grab a woman’s vagina if he wanted.
Mark Caleb Smith said evangelical Christians, who once would have dismissed any candidate for sexual misconduct, have supported Trump and others because they are getting the conservative judge appointments and deregulation they want. In the long run, he said, that could cost evangelicals some moral high ground they may regret losing.
“They’ve made a calculated decision that the benefits that accrue from a Trump presidency are worth whatever costs that come later,” he said. “I think we are at a moment where evangelicals are going to have to wrestle with: How do character and virtue matter in relation to our public officials?”
He said voters may be more likely to punish what they see as hypocritical behavior, like when U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, was forced to resign in the wake of allegations that he had inappropriately touched women. Franken often portrayed himself as a supporter of women’s rights.
One factor in how damaging the allegations against Perales might be is whether or not people believe them to be true. But Mark Caleb Smith said he may pay a political price even if the candidate’s allegations are left unproven.
“Perales’ inability to completely disentangle himself from the accusation, since he admitted to what he deemed an inappropriate relationship with Smith, will make it harder to rebut the allegations,” he said. “At the same time, (Jocelyn) Smith has a complicated history that undermines her credibility.”
Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton, said allegations like these could cause voters “to question whether they really know who a candidate is. So much has changed with the #MeToo movement.”
Nicole Carter, director of the Women’s Center at Wright State University, said women are more willing to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct in the wake of high profile cases such as movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Justice who lost a Senate race to a Democrat in heavily Republican Alabama after he was accused by multiple women of having inappropriate relationships with them when they were teenagers.
Carter said women still often do not report misconduct out of fear they will not be believed and of what they will have to endure once the allegations become public. False reports are rare, Carter said, citing a national statistic that an estimated 3 percent of reports of sexual abuse, harassment and unwanted attention are untrue.
It’s not known if Jocelyn Smith is telling the truth — no witnesses to what happened in Perales’s Jeep have come forward, for example — but several people have challenged her credibility.
Michael Talev a Cleveland consultant who worked for her campaign last year says she told him she had a non-violent, consensual sexting affair with Perales and wanted to send copies of the texts to his wife, kids and grandkids. He says he quit over that, but Smith contends she fired him for non-performance.
High school basketball referee Teri Hobbs of Fairborn also said she knows first-hand of Smith sending unwanted nude photos of herself to other referees when Smith was employed to officiate games for the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
Tim Stried, spokesman for the OHSAA, said last week: “I can confirm that the OHSAA received complaints about Jocelyn Smith, and also that she sent us complaints. I can’t go into details, but I can say that the complaints were regarding several topics.”
He said Smith hasn’t been a licensed official for a couple of years, and that her basketball license was suspended for not attending required meetings.
Smith said she stopped officiating when her mother died.
“When you no longer want to officiate, you just don’t go to the meetings, which makes you automatically suspended,” she said. “There’s nothing more to it than that. I can get reinstated any time I want.”
She was also fired in 2008 as a Clark County Sheriff’s deputy after allegedly showing topless photos to three coworkers, pointing pepper spray in an inmate’s face as a joke, having inappropriate contact with a former inmate, and insubordination, court documents show. She filed a lawsuit in an effort to get reinstated, but was unsuccessful.
More to come?
The public probably hasn’t seen the last of the allegations coming from the Smith camp.
Ralph Wunder, her campaign advisor, warned in late March that a “big shoe” will drop this week “proving who’s the liar in this story. Stay tuned.”
Smith later added an allegation that Perales had “fondled” her and then Wunder announced that Smith would take a polygraph test in an effort to prove she was not lying.
But the test did not occur. On April 5 Wunder announced the test scheduled for that day was canceled after the polygraph examiner decided against doing it.
Wunder also accused Perales of attempting to cover up an altercation he had with with another man at Elsa’s on Linden Avenue in Dayton in October 2013. Wunder alleged that “a jealous boyfriend beat Perales senseless” in the fight.
But the manager who was on duty that evening told the Dayton Daily News last week that Wunder’s characterization of the incident is completely wrong.
Matt Fowler, who is now retired, said Perales was talking to a woman in her 70s at the bar when she asked him for his business card. A man the woman did not know then grabbed the card out of her hand and became belligerant, Fowler said, calling Perales “political scum.”
“What’s wrong, do you have a problem?” Fowler quoted Perales as saying, and the man then knocked Perales to the floor. Perales, a former college boxer, then began punching from the ground and got up before Fowler pulled the other man away and ushered him out of the restaurant, he said.
Fowler said he felt there was no need to report the incident to the police because the fight was over and the aggressor — who he did not know — was gone. He said Perales had an injured lip but told him he didn’t need medical treatment.
The Daily News did report on the fight shortly after it happened, and Perales’s account then closely matched what Fowler said last week.
“It was unprovoked. I can’t even tell you why, really can’t,” Perales said at the time. “You know, it turned out that I took a couple. It was a 45-second issue. Then I defended myself a little and it was over.”
Other stories by Lynn Hulsey