Republican chair responds to criticism

By BRIAN BOHNERT
STAFF WRITER
It’s a tale of two roles.
Justin Smith is the Sandusky County Republican Party chairman. He is also a member of the Sandusky County Board of Elections.
And that fact has one Clyde man very, very concerned.
In a formal protest filed Tuesday against the write-in candidacy of Rhonda Damschroder, John Brewer expressed concern over a “conflict of interest” within the board of elections, namely Smith and his dual roles.
State Rep. Rex Damschroder (R-Fremont) announced last week his wife would run as a write-in candidate for the May primary election in hopes of securing his spot in the 88th district. If nominated, she plans to step down so Rex could be appointed the Republican candidate for the November general election.
The board is scheduled to have a hearing on the legality of Rhonda’s candidacy March 5 and Brewer said recent statements Smith made to local media should prohibit him from participating.
According to Brewer’s official written protest, Smith has “already stated for the record he approves of this action by Rex and Rhonda Damschroder.”
In a recent article published in the Fremont News-Messenger, Smith said Rhonda “stands a very good chance” of winning the primary election, and he is prepared to substitute Rex into the candidate’s spot when that happens.
Smith, who is in his second term on the board of elections, said his statements pose no conflict of interest because he was speaking as the Republican Party chairman, not as a member of the board. He said those two positions have no effect on one another.
“I’m as neutral as any of the other board members,” Smith said. “I will investigate; I will listen to both concerns; I will be open minded; and ultimately, I will do what is right and what is in the best interest of the voters.”
Furthermore, Smith said he takes his job on the board very seriously and he is “personally offended” by Brewer’s allegations.
“In Ohio Law, the board consists of members of both parties. We work together to do a service; we come together; and, we leave our party interests at the door to do what’s best for the county,” he said. “As far as being politically active, all four of us are politically active. But, when it comes to what’s best for the voters, we put that behind us and do what’s best for the voters.”
In a letter to the media Wednesday, Seneca County Republican Party Chairman David Koehl stood by Smith, saying his comments about the Damschroders were “made in his role as county chairman, not his role as a board member,” so he believes there is “no need for him to recuse himself” from the upcoming hearing.
The Sandusky County Board of Elections consists of Smith, Christopher Knight, Sandra Wise and Thomas Younker, chairman.
When speaking on the Damschroder duo’s substitution strategy for the May primary, Smith said he has done his research on the rare circumstance and has found no legal issues with Rhonda serving as a placeholder for her husband.
“I have looked into the Ohio Revised Code; I’ve looked at the petition itself; I’ve talked it over with the county prosecutor’s office; I’ve talked it over with other legal people; and, I am very confident in the research I’ve done,” he said.
If Mrs. Damschroder wins the primary and subsequently steps down from the position, Smith said representatives from both counties would come together and the vacant position would be advertised.
“It’s like any other appointment the parties do,” he said. “We would have to advertise to any interested candidate who is a registered republican in good standing.”
Koehl, however, said in his statement that paragraph B of Ohio Revised Code 3513.31, labeled “Withdrawal, disqualification, or death of candidate prior to general election,” makes “no provision for advertising the vacancy.”
Koehl said there is a common misconception that the full Central Committee would make the decision to fill a candidate vacancy. While this is true for offices in which the state representative seat is in only one county, he said situations where two counties are involved specify that the chairperson and secretary of each county central committee would make the decision.
He said those four people would not be selected until the committees re-organize in late May or early June.

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