ASHLAND -- Three of the now four Republican candidates competing to represent their party in the November election for Ohio’s 22nd State Senate District faced off Wednesday, Feb. 5 in a two-hour debate held at Ashland University’s Jack & Deb Miller Chapel.
Cory Branham of Richland County, Tim Hoven of Medina County and Ron Falconi, the current mayor of Brunswick, Ohio, answered questions about jobs, education, refugees and the second amendment's right to bear arms, often sharing similar perspectives, but disagreeing on who could better represent their conservative values at the state level if elected.
Organized by the Medina County Friends and Neighbors (MCFAN), the event was moderated by former Republican congressman Jim Renacci and former Ashland GOP chairman Bob DeSanto, who posed a series of questions prepared by MCFAN and submitted Wednesday by audience members.
A fourth Republican candidate for state senate race and current District 2 Representative in Ohio’s House of Representatives, Mark Romanchuk was expected to attend, but unable to last minute due to his duties as a state representative, according to event organizers.
Initially, five candidates were expected. The fifth was Michael Reynolds of Wadsworth, who announced he was suspending his campaign in an effort to “unite Medina County conservatives” earlier on Wednesday at a campaign event for Brunswick Mayor Ron Falconi.
“It was an easy decision to step back and support Ron Falconi for state senate,” said Michael Reynolds in a press release. “I got into this race because of my concerns that the swamp in D.C. was seeping into Columbus. And I was right.
“Despite assurances of neutrality from top-level Republicans, I have seen the heavy hand of Columbus and the Ohio Republican Party try to put its thumb on the scale in favor of another candidate and deny everyone a level playing field to make their case to the voters. As a result, Medina County is in danger of losing our representation in the legislature.”
He encouraged all Medina County Republicans to support Falconi.
However, it would take more than this to push Falconi to the top. The 22nd State Senate District represents approximately 370,000 across Medina, Richland and Ashland Counties -- and nearly one-third of Holmes County.
The winner of the Republican primary on March 17 will run against Democratic candidate Steve Johnson of Ashland in November. The winner of November’s race will fill the seat left by Republican Larry Obhof Jr., who is restricted from running again due to term limits.
Making Ohio Competitive: How candidates would look to bring people to Ohio
To address Ohio’s declining population, the candidates highlighted plans to strike “job-killing regulations” and offer more competitive taxes.
Following the 2010 census, Ohio lost representation in the United States House of Representatives. The Buckeye State conceded two seats at that time, and with the next census on the way, there’s already concern about further loss in national representation.
In early 2019, Ohio was listed as the sixth most “left” -- or moved out of -- state during the previous year. It ranked directly behind Kansas on the unfortunate list.
Shelby native and Crestine resident, Branham blames this at least partly on jobs -- or the lack thereof. He called 2019 “almost a job loss year for Ohio” and cited “job-killing regulations” as a culprit.
“There’s 270,000 job-killing regulations in Ohio. That is squarely in the top ten of the United States. That’s competing with the likes of California and New York. So we have got to kill the regulations,” said Branham, who served in the US Air Force and considers himself a “grassroots candidate.”
The first-time candidate went on to praise recent legislation that is meant to help professionals in other states more easily attain jobs in Ohio, but he argues Ohio residents need to be the priority.
“It’s got to be an Ohio-first mindset and that starts with cutting red tape… The people in Columbus are killing us with the red tape, and I’ll be the one who actually cuts it,” he said.
As for the solution to the problem, Branham believes “talent, timing and the right temperament” will help fill the gap between job seekers and employers with empty positions. Later, after the debate he’d highlight a need for Ohio to be more supportive of all post-high school career paths, especially technical training.
Branham’s opponent, Hoven also mentioned “choking” business regulations, but says Ohio’s declining population is most associated with its taxes.
“Ohio’s trying to cover it all. High sales tax. High property tax. And that’s why people leave. It’s just that simple,” Hoven said.
In a straight-to-the-point fashion, Hoven says the easiest answer is to lower taxes as the cuts are needed to keep people here.
The 68-year-old political newcomer was the candidate who was least likely to run out of time when answering questions. Once done, he signaled to the moderators that he felt he’d answered the question sufficiently.
Falconi, who spoke third for this particular question, said there’s a need to lower taxes and evaluate the regulations keeping businesses from coming and staying in Ohio.
As Brunswick mayor and a former city councilman, he explained how he’s always looked to not only bring businesses to his community, but to also retain them. On city council, Falconi has served as a chairman for the economic development and the planning and zoning committees.
This municipal experience along with his experience as an attorney and assistant prosecutor, he believes would serve him well as a state senator.
“I want to take the lessons I’ve learned down to Columbus,” said Falconi.
He encouraged people to investigate his voting record, saying he’s consistently supported legislation in favor of business.
Evaluating Education: Candidates share common opinion on Common Core
All three candidates said if elected, they would not support the Common Core Standards for Ohio Education.
When asked about whether or not he believes the current standards are effective, Falconi offered a resounding no. He would support a voucher system for families to choose their school.
“Better schools will be rewarded, and underperforming would have to figure out what they are doing wrong,” he said.
Branham, who currently works as a social studies teacher, says the current standardized testing and core guidelines are ineffective.
“The tests limit the professional in the room,” he said, adding that Ohio teachers are required to continue their education throughout their career. “In every other profession you call that a doctor.”
He said he’d support either total abolishment or a revamped version, one where teachers would be able assess students based on their abilities.
Hoven, who remembers simpler times where classrooms were stocked with McGuffey Readers, called Common Core “a mess” and said teachers are quitting because of how they are treated in schools.
When vaccinations were discussed, all three concluded that parents should have a choice, but schools and public facilities should also have a say. They’d support facilities that would require children to be vaccinated.
“It’s a balancing act. Parents rights and the rights of everyone else,” Falconi said.
Feeling Safe: Candidates talk guns, drugs and which bathroom to use
If elected, Falconi, Hoven and Branham promised to support second amendment rights and to oppose legislation that would threaten those rights and agreed opioid usage remains a problem in Ohio and bathrooms should exist in sets of two, one for men and the other for women.
In his nearly 70 years, Hoven said he has known of people in the LGBTQ community, but until recently there had been no “special requests” for bathrooms. Still, if it's wanted, he said, he encouraged those interested to fund the initiative at desired locations.
None of the candidates would support legislation allowing members of the LGBTQ community to choose which bathroom they use or what sports team they join.
In regards to fighting opioid and other illegal usage, Falconi suggests immediately removing the current process of “hoops to jump through” for those recovering, especially parents, would be “a disaster.” He would fight against any such drastic changes.
Branham says he’d be “screaming at the rooftops” if elected to make it clear that help is needed. He also sees a need for better promotion of existing programs.
Hoven suggested sending people out of the state or country for treatment.
“It’s not treatment (as of now). It’s a waste of money. And it doesn’t work,” he said.
Refugees and Illegal Immigration: Candidates argue compassion is not worth the cost
The son of two immigrants, Falconi says his background makes him the ideal candidate to address this type of issue in the state senate.
The Brunswick mayor, who describes himself as pro-Trump, promised to work towards enforcement of immigration laws, which would allow people to come into the United States the legal way.
Sanctuary cities, he said, should face a penalty for supporting illegal immigration.
Branham says he feels compassionate for refugees, but believes its more important to prioritize Ohioans.
"We have no business taking on the world's problems," he said.
"How can we support hundreds of thousands of dollars (towards refugees) when we have veterans in cardboard boxes," a veteran, Branham later continued.
Taking terms or taking turns?
If elected, Hovan says he’d only serve for one term. In fact, he believes that should be standard procedure.
“Being a politician is not a trade... One term, then go home, and get someone else there,” he said.
The social studies teacher in the room, Branham explained how politicians come to serve more than two four year terms. The term limit is two four-year terms, but the loophole is that if someone takes a term off and does something else for four years, then they can go run again for the same position. Hence, the “career politician.”
He and Hovan both blatantly said they’d support harder term limits. Falconi said term limits do exist, and “it should be that way,” but didn’t elaborate further.
Branham said he’d aim to serve District 22 as a state senator for eight years -- or two terms -- but could see “moving up” and working in politics for 20 years.