Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O'Neill says he's staying in the Democratic gubernatorial primary race and will step down from the court, despite previous promises to drop out if Richard Cordray entered the contest.
In October, O'Neill said he intended to enter the race but also said if Richard Cordray is running, he would stay out. Now that the former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief has finally declared his candidacy, O'Neill seems to be backing out of that promise.
O’Neill says Cordray and the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates are not embracing his plan to legalize marijuana and fight opioids, so he’s going to do it himself.
“I am indeed going to be a candidate for Governor of Ohio," he said. “I just don’t see any of the nine candidates running for governor that have a concrete plan that is similar to mine. I’m saying we need to legalize marijuana and use the $300 million that will generate to open the state mental health network and start treating the disease like the disease it is rather than as a criminal matter.”
Cordray is expected to be able to raise a lot of money for the campaign, but O’Neill’s not worried.
“I’m not worried about money, but more importantly, this is the governor’s race," he said. "I’ll raise money and I will match Rich Cordray dollar for dollar.”
On Thursday, O'Neill told the Associated Press he'll specify his last day in a resignation letter, which he plans to submit to Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor on Friday. The date must precede the Feb. 7 candidate-filing deadline.
Though O'Neill declared his candidacy the day of the first Democratic primary debate, he didn't participate in that debate or the one on Monday, either. He must first go through a vetting process to be included in debates and events sponsored by the Ohio Democratic Party.
O’Neill said he’s had unfruitful conversations with the party chair.
“David Pepper sent me a letter saying I could not be vetted until I received a legal opinion from the Ohio Supreme Court that I was a legal candidate," O'Neill said. "I found that insulting. I told him that. From that point forward, I tried to be in the vetting process but the party has made up its mind and I’m fine.”
The Ohio Democratic Party’s Kirstin Alvanitakis refutes that.
“Justice O’Neill has been treated the exact same way as all of our candidates running for Governor," Alvanitakis says. "The vetting process had begun in good faith and then the justice decided to reach out proactively to the chair and request, on his own, that he be removed from that process so any suggestion that he has been treated differently from the other candidates is simply not true.”
O'Neill's statement comes amid efforts by the Republican-controlled legislature, as well as several statewide Republican officials, to oust him from the court.
GOP lawmakers say O'Neill is violating the Judicial Code of Conduct by running for another office while remaining on the bench, while O'Neill argues he won't be a candidate for purposes of the rule until he files the paperwork.
After O’Neill posted an explicit Facebook message about his sexual history, four of O’Neill’s opponents in the Democratic primary called on him to resign from the bench as well.
Both former Rep. Betty Sutton and Dayton mayor Nan Whaley said his post trivialized sexual assault, and called on him to drop out of the governor’s race. O’Neill initially defended his post, but later apologized.
"I have damaged the national debate on the very real subject of sexual harassment, abuse and unfortunately rape," O'Neill wrote in a post on Sunday. "It is not a laughing matter."
O'Neill says he's resolved 47 of the 99 outstanding cases he hoped to complete before resigning. He's the only Democrat on the state’s high court, and his replacement would be picked by Gov. John Kasich, a Republican.
O'Neill says he’s not concerned that his departure would make the court more conservative-leaning. He says he most often votes along with Republican Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor right now anyway.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.