Examining key Valley races
Many of the races in the Mahoning Valley went under the radar this election because the presidency, as it does every four years, took center stage.
But there are two races — one each in Mahoning and Trumbull counties — that I want to dive deeper here.
The Trumbull County race had Commissioner Dan Polivka, who’s also the county Democratic Party chairman, lose to Republican Niki Frenchko.
The Mahoning County race involved Probate Court Judge Robert N. Rusu Jr., an independent, narrowly defeating Republican David Lee Engler.
In the Frenchko-Polivka race, there were a lot of variables that resulted in her becoming the first Republican to win a commissioner race in Trumbull County in close to 40 years.
The dynamics are compelling.
Polivka served as county commissioner for 16 years and on Warren City Council for 21 years before that while Frenchko had run twice before for elected office — years ago — and lost.
Frenchko had ongoing issues with county Republican Party leadership with Chairman Kevin Wyndham telling me less than a month before the election: “She picks fights with everybody I know, literally everybody. I stay clear of her. She’s her own worst enemy. I have nine local candidates and 90 percent of the time has been devoted to her. It’s crazy stuff. If you don’t agree with her, you make a mortal enemy of her. Everything not in her favor is a conspiracy against her.”
Frenchko objected to having Dennis Malloy, an independent candidate who unsuccessfully challenged other Trumbull County Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa, on Ohio Republican Party slate cards in Trumbull County, among other issues.
She said last month that some in party leadership, particularly Wyndham, “manipulated the process and I have a personal duty to stand up against them. I’m not against the Republican Party, but if people are doing something inappropriately, it should be expected people should stand up and say it’s wrong. When you do something right, you get a target on your back.”
So how did Frenchko knock off Polivka, beating him by 4.6 percent when the Republican establishment wasn’t with her?
There were several reasons.
One, Polivka overstayed his welcome. Under his watch, the domination of Democrats in Trumbull County has disappeared. He still hasn’t gotten the message and insists on remaining party chairman.
Commissioner Frank Fuda, a fellow Democrat, actively campaigned for Frenchko as he has had longtime problems with Polivka.
Fuda is from Niles and remains a well-liked politician there going back to his days as a 1st Ward city councilman.
Compare how Frenchko did to Malloy in Niles. Frenchko won the Democratic city by 4.8 percent, while Malloy lost to incumbent Mauro Cantalamessa, a Democrat, by 26.4 percent.
Frenchko also successfully kept Polivka from running up the score in Girard, also a Democratic city, losing by 12.8 percent. That’s not impressive until you compare it to Malloy’s loss in Girard by 33.8 percent.
Despite Frenchko saying she “didn’t ride Trump’s coat tails” and “this was not about red vs. blue,” she greatly benefited from the president’s dominant performance in this election. Trump won Trumbull County by 10.4 percent, and there were plenty of people who voted a straight party ticket.
While Malloy was on Republican campaign literature, there was no R next to his name on the ballot.
Frenchko worked hard for this victory. She defied the odds to pull off the biggest upset in a countywide race in Trumbull in several years and make history.
Regarding a close Mahoning County judicial race, incumbent independent Rusu was appointed in 2014 by then-Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, to the open probate court judicial seat with the support of the county Republican Party and was elected to a full six-year term that November.
Filing as a Republican, Engler opposed Rusu. Until this election, Engler had voted only one time in a Republican primary.
He was a longtime Democrat who served as Mahoning County commissioner, a member of the county educational service center board and as Youngstown councilman. He lost the 2014 Democratic primary for a seat on the 7th District Court of Appeals and when he filed for probate judge, he was just two months removed from finishing third in the nonpartisan Austintown trustee race among four candidates.
Yet when the unofficial results came in for the probate court race, Rusu, who greatly outspent Engler, only won 52 to 48 percent. It was the closest race in Mahoning County.
Thomas McCabe, county Republican Party chairman, said Engler’s name ID compared to Rusu’s was a significant help as was Engler being on the party’s campaign literature.