DAYTON — State Sen. Jon Husted’s residency dispute will be decided by judges, but analysts say the court of public opinion will determine his political future.
“I operate under the assumption that being on the front page of the newspaper is never good news for a politician,” said former Ohio Lt. Gov. Paul Leonard, now a political lecturer at the University of Dayton. Leonard, a Democrat, also served as mayor of Dayton in the 1980s.
“It’s not going to help him. Whether people understand the debate and its specifics, or they just know that he’s embroiled in controversy, that’s not good news for a politician.”
Husted, R-Kettering, is running for secretary of state in the 2010 election, and faces re-election to his 6th District senate seat in 2012.
“No doubt this issue will be used against Husted in his bid for secretary of state,” said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Center for Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “It is unclear, however, how much primary or general election voters will care about the issue, given the lack of clarity in the law.”
The residency question
On Monday, Sept. 21, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner ruled that Husted does not live at the 148 Sherbrooke Drive home in Kettering where he is registered to vote. On Tuesday, Husted asked the Ohio Supreme Court to overrule her.
Husted accused Brunner, a Democrat and candidate for U.S. Senate, of making a partisan decision and overstepping her authority.
“First of all, I think people will see through this, that I’m running for secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner is the secretary of state and that this is a partisan game that she’s been playing,” Husted said on Thursday, Sept. 24.
“Secondly, I think in the Dayton area I hope that what people will see is how much I love the Dayton area, how much I’ve fought to remain a voter of the Dayton area and how committed I am to continuing to stay there.”
Residency questions have long dogged Husted, who was elected to the Ohio House in 2000 and became Speaker in 2005. He was elected to the Ohio Senate in 2008.
Husted contends he lives in Kettering, but spends most of his time at his wife’s home in Upper Arlington because of the demands of his job in the Legislature. He said he intends to return to Kettering when his public service ends, and that the Ohio Constitution allows state legislators to leave their district in service to the state without losing their residency status.
Brunner’s decision impacts only Husted’s residency for voting purposes. The legitimacy of his Senate seat is up to the Ohio Senate to decide, and Senate President Bill Harris, R-Ashland, said last week that he believes Husted is the “duly elected senator from Kettering,” according to Harris spokeswoman Maggie Ostrowski.
The Montgomery County Board of Elections investigated complaints about Husted’s residency and twice deadlocked this year, with Republican members supporting his residency and Democrats saying he hadn’t proved it. Brunner broke the tie, ruling that he does not live in Kettering and that his voter registration should be canceled.
Brunner cited 2008 utility records indicating little consumption at the Kettering house, Husted’s own admission that he spends most of his time with his wife and kids at her home, and the fact that his wife votes in Franklin County. Brunner also said the Husteds co-owned a condominium in Franklin County and claimed it as a “principal residence” for property tax purposes.
Under Ohio elections law, the “place where the family of a married person resides shall be considered to be the person’s place of residence,” Brunner noted in her ruling. She cited a 6th District Court of Appeals case from 2006 that upheld cancellation of a Kelleys Island councilman’s voter registration because his wife lived full-time and voted in Florida.
Brunner also rejected Husted’s contention that the Constitution protects his residency status in Kettering.
Husted said Brunner’s actions illustrate how a partisan secretary of state can destroy the credibility of the office.
Brunner denied making a partisan decision.
“I could not, with credibility, under all the law that I looked at and the evidence that was there, make a finding that he lived in Kettering,” she said.
Husted asked the court for an expedited ruling overturning Brunner’s decision so he can meet the Oct. 5 voter registration deadline and because his candidacy declaration for secretary of state must attest that he is a qualified elector of his voting residence.
In his lawsuit against Brunner and the Montgomery County Board of Elections, Husted said Brunner had no right to subpoena documents and search the public record for evidence she said proves he does not live in Montgomery County.
The county board relied on Husted’s January testimony before its first tie vote. Board member Dennis Lieberman, a Democrat, said Husted did not provide documents Lieberman wanted, and the two Republicans on the board refused to seek a subpoena.
Potential for embarrassment?
The impact of the case on Husted’s political future will hinge, in part, on the state high court’s decision, said Nancy Martorano Miller, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. But even if he prevails in court, she said Democrats will make sure lingering questions remain about his residency.
“I would think they’re going to use the tack that he was knowingly being dishonest about his intention to return to Kettering after his term in public service ends,” Martorano Miller said. “So if he’s dishonest about that, then what else has he been dishonest about and would be dishonest about?”
Husted has enjoyed strong support from local voters, and incumbents tend to be re-elected, said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. If his statewide bid fails and Husted runs for re-election to the Senate in 2012, the residency issue by then may be “ancient political history,” Smith said.
“But constituents do remember certain things, and scandals, legal disputes or public embarrassments tend to hang around in the public’s consciousness,” Smith said.
“This is not really a scandal yet, but it is potentially embarrassing, and voters in the 6th District will be reminded of it, especially by Husted’s future opponents.”
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