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Strickland to pick running mate soon

Gov. Ted Strickland, whose popularity has declined with the economy, will soon pick his running mate and begin his 2010 re-election campaign in earnest.

While political observers say the importance of the lieutenant governor nominee shouldn’t be overstated, voter unease is complicating an election that once looked solid for the Democratic governor. A recent poll showed Strickland in a virtual tie with Republican challenger John Kasich.

“Governors, in picking running mates, try to balance the ticket and bring somebody, or a strength, to the ticket that they don’t necessarily have themselves,” said Paul Beck, who teaches political science at Ohio State University. “In Strickland’s case, that might be organized labor. That might be a more Democratically inclined part of the state than southeast Ohio.”

The names of potential Strickland picks circulating around Columbus in recent weeks would each add a benefit — some more tangible than others — for the governor.

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams, 38, has been touted by political observers. Williams — who is black and has a background in finance and banking — hails from a major Democratic stronghold in northeast Ohio, the state’s most populous Democratic region. Northeast Ohio’s six congressional districts contain nearly 3 million voting-age adults — and all but one of them have a Democratic representative.

One catch, though: Williams was elected mayor in 2005 as an independent, which could make some Democrats question his party loyalty. Williams has previously described himself as a strong Democrat.

State Rep. Matt Szollosi, another leading young Democrat in the Ohio House, is one of the most oft-mentioned names in the running-mate sweepstakes. Szollosi is from Toledo, a city far from Strickland’s home in Appalachia.

Perhaps most importantly, Szollosi has strong fundraising and political ties to organized labor, a traditional constituency that is particularly crucial in getting Democrats elected.

Szollosi founded a law firm that specializes in labor law and could call on a rolodex of labor allies who can spread their good will with campaign donations and help with the nuts and bolts of get-out-the-vote efforts.

Either of these candidates would provide a fresh new face to go with Strickland, who is more than 30 years their senior.

Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut has been widely mentioned but is not expected to be picked. Fingerhut has extensive political experience, having served as a state lawmaker and candidate for the U.S. Senate. He was elected to Congress in 1992, the same year Strickland was first elected.

Strickland selected Fingerhut, who is well-regarded around Columbus, to lead Ohio’s higher education system. Fingerhut also provides geographic balance because he is from Shaker Heights in northeast Ohio and could help connect the ticket with a generous Jewish donor base.

State Rep. Jay Goyal of Mansfield, a young lawmaker who is known among Ohio’s 40,000-strong Indian-American community, has been a strong contender and is still considered to be in the mix.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles in northeast Ohio reportedly turned down Strickland’s offer to be lieutenant governor earlier this year.

Franklin County Commissioner Paula Brooks also expressed interest in being considered, but it is unclear that she ever was.

There are some who think Strickland’s choice of a running mate is only important to political junkies.

“Who cares?” said Cleveland Democratic consultant Gerald Austin, noting that Ohio voters no longer choose the governor’s No. 2 as they did in the past. “You have to choose a lieutenant governor because the law says you have to. It doesn’t really matter.”

History shows, over the past 30 years or so, that only a handful of lieutenant governors go on to become a statewide force.

Former U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine was lieutenant governor from 1991 through 1994 before he became a senator, and George Voinovich was lieutenant governor in 1979 before he became mayor of Cleveland, and later governor and U.S. senator.

But they are outnumbered by obscure names.

Stephen Majors is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.