Less than a week before Election Day, the candidates for Franklin County prosecutor engaged in a spirited debate at the Columbus Metropolitan Club.
Mike Foley has details.
The race could be characterized as old versus new or the veteran against the up-and-comer. Ron O’Brien is the longest serving prosecutor in Franklin County’s history, elected to his first term in 1996. Zach Klein is 30 years younger and has been on Columbus City Council since 2011.
O’Brien - “This election is about experience, it’s about experience to run the largest law office in the state dealing with prosecution outside of Cuyahoga County. We have a population of over a million people. I’ve been there, I started there as a law student. I’ve had the experience to do the job. I’ve been in the courtroom. Mr. Klein has never, ever walked in a court room in his life nor ran a law office, a law office that exceeds a hundred lawyers.”
Klein - “First of all, I’m proud of my experience and it’s through that perspective that I’ve gained the judgement that’s necessary to be the next Franklin County prosecutor. These are very complex problems facing our country – issues like mass incarceration, drug addiction, human trafficking. We need to turn the dynamic of the Franklin County prosecutor’s office and frankly, prosecutor’s offices around the country, on its head to challenge the status quo of the criminal justice system.”
A deeper examination and one revealed during the debate, finds a contrast between how O’Brien and Klein see the office’s role. This exchange came on the question of central Ohio’s drug epidemic.
Klein - “We shouldn’t have to wait for people to get involved with the criminal justice system in order to get them the treatment that they need. That is the proactive role I believe a prosecutor can play. We shouldn’t have to sit back and wait for someone to touch the criminal justice system. Now I understand that is not the traditional role, but I think in the 21st century that is the role that the prosecutor should be playing – not just on addiction issues and mental health issues but also on re-entry issues – playing quarterback not just sitting on the task force. I know Mr. O’Brien sits on a task force, a re-entry task force. But who is stepping up to the plate to actually sit down with individuals that are coming out of the system and pairing them up with the job opportunities that are available. That is an active role a prosecutor can play because if you truly want to make it safer you have to give people the economic opportunity they need so they can provide for their families so they don’t recidivate.”
O’Brien –“I’m at a loss folks. I think Mr. Klein should be running for the director of employment services based on the answer he just gave. It is not the job of the prosecutor to match people coming out of prison with employment opportunities. If you have such an interest in these things rather than your political aspirations, I suggest you get involved with them and get involved with them on a daily basis and get involved with what the job is. We have a 172 people on the heroin docket today. Judge VanDerKarr before he retired told me that 71% of the people a year after they got out of his drug court were still not subject of a new arrest. I think that’s progress. I would like to continue that progress, and I’d like to defer finding jobs for people coming out of prisons to those that know more about it than me.”
The debate progressed cordially until a question about Klein’s entry into the county prosecutor’s race after being reelected to city council last November and succeeding Andrew Ginther as council president in January.
Klein - “My time as the safety committee chairman and prior to becoming council president, I saw firsthand in our community what issues like drug addiction and human trafficking, and the tolls they’ve taken on our community, and there is no better place to tackle those issues than the gatekeeper of the criminal justice system – no better place. In this county, it’s the Franklin County prosecutor’s office, and it’s been 16 years since voters in this county had a choice on who their prosecutor is”
O’Brien - “He’s running for this office because he’s a political opportunist. A year ago he told folks such as you at debates such as this – I want to be your council member, I want to work with new Mayor Ginther, I want to move the city forward. He’s a political opportunist who’s moving up the greasy pole, and he’s told some of my other friends I might add that he wants to run for prosecutor so that he can run for attorney general in 2018 – and that’s no secret in the Democratic circles or among Democratic lawyers.”
Klein – “Let me just clarify that. The only person talking about me running in 2018 is Ron O’Brien. I am not running in 2018. When I win this seat November 8, I am gonna run for reelection in November of 2020 as your county prosecutor.”
O’Brien – “Said that to you last year when he was running for council, and look what he did.”
Klein –“That is simply not true. He’s channeling his inner Donald Trump. That is not true, that is a hundred percent lie.”
O’Brien – “There’s the politician speaking again folks.”
On the issue of a special independent prosecutor in cases of fatal shootings involving police, O’Brien says those are governed by state law, and he has not seen a conflict exist to appoint a special prosecutor but would in the event of a conflict. Klein says he would also maintain the status quo, but remains open to change. Critics have called for more transparency and independent investigations into police-involved shootings. The financing of the campaigns has also received some attention, with some suggesting the race could set a record for a countywide contest. According to the most recent filings, the Klein campaign spent $816,000 – the O’Brien campaign $864,000.