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Ohio residency dispute still far from over

A unanimous Ohio Supreme Court opinion in favor of a Republican lawmaker whose voting residency had been challenged was enough to quash the dispute, right?

Nope. The high court has said its piece on state Sen. Jon Husted but Democrats will try to keep the issue alive in the court of public opinion as Husted runs for secretary of state in 2010.

Republicans, in turn, stand ready to cast recriminations against Democratic lawmakers who, like Husted, maintain homes outside their districts.

All seven justices agreed last week that Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner erred when she found that Husted did not live in the Dayton-area district he represents and where he is registered to vote.

Brunner, a Democrat, said he is not eligible to vote in the district because he stays with his wife and family in her home in a Columbus suburb. The court emphasized Husted’s stated intent to return to Kettering full time once his state government service ends.

That could have been the end of the issue î except the justices are all Republicans.

Catherine Turcer of the government watchdog group Ohio Citizen Action said Ohio residency law is so unclear that she understands how both Brunner and the Supreme Court made their opposite decisions. But the court’s political makeup fuels discussion of partisanship, just as Brunner’s party affiliation has fueled complaints from Republicans about her decisions.

“Every single decision smacks of politics,” Turcer said of the Supreme Court’s rulings. “And so how do you trust anything?”

Democrats will argue that it was all about politics, and that Husted shouldn’t be left off the hook just because an all-Republican court sided with him. The strategy is to use the makeup of the court to discount its decisions in the minds of voters.

Supreme Court spokesman Chris Davey said the court has ruled for Brunner in five out of 11 election-related cases.

“The Supreme Court of Ohio’s record in election-related matters involving Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner shows that the Court has ruled on the facts and the law and, as the Ohio Constitution requires, ‘without respect to persons,’” Chief Justice Thomas Moyer said in a statement.

Democrats also believe that voters won’t be driven by the ruling as much as by their own perception of where Husted spends most of his time.

“It really doesn’t matter what (Chief Justice) Thomas Moyer has to say about it,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, “because when you drive by (the Kettering house) today there will be nobody home.

“The reality is that this business is driven by perception. Any constituent who takes a sideways glance would say it’s not asking too much for a state senator to go home every week and flush the toilet, mow the lawn, and hand out candy on Halloween.”

Husted said he is glad to take on the Democrats when he has the law on his side. Democrats are trying to distract voters from the tens of thousands of jobs lost under Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and the difficulties finding workable budget solutions, he said.

“The Democrats don’t want to talk about that,” Husted said. “They would like to talk about petty partisan political issues to try to shield them from their problems of government. What I’m going to be talking about is how we are going to focus on real problems.”

If Democrats continue to make an issue out of the residency ruling despite the court decision, Republicans are primed to retaliate against Democratic lawmakers who they say are vulnerable to such charges.

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine has already threatened to expose Democratic lawmakers who also maintain homes in the Columbus area.

He specifically mentioned state Rep. Vernon Sykes, the chairman of the House Finance committee, who is from Akron but has a condo in Columbus. House Speaker Armond Budish, the most prominent Democrat in the Legislature, also stays in a condo in Columbus even though he hails from Beachwood in northeast Ohio.

Redfern said Budish returns to his district at least every 10 days, and that he encourages Democrats to live according to the same standard to which they hold Republicans.

Stephen Majors is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.