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From friendship to fisticuffs, Valley pols, officials discuss Election Day

"We are a model democracy, and I think we forget that," YSU professor Paul Sracic said. "We've all inherited a very comfortable system, and I think we take that for granted."
YOUNGSTOWN — Youngstown State University professor Paul Sracic said average Americans typically agree more than politicians do, and that dynamic was on display Wednesday night at Stambaugh Auditorium. 

Mahoning Matters moderated discussions between representatives from three hotly contested races for another installment of our “Community Matters” series, “The Valley Votes: What to Expect Next,” which can be found on the Mahoning Matters Facebook page. As the night wore on, the pairs edged closer to fisticuffs.

We heard from: 

  • President Donald Trump surrogate Geno Difabio and former Vice President Joe Biden surrogate Michael Morley;
  • Candidates for the 13th U.S. House District: incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland and Republican challenger Christina Hagan; 
  • Candidates for Mahoning County prosecutor: incumbent Democrat Paul Gains and Marty Desmond.

While Difabio and Morley kept things civil, Gains and Desmond exited the Stambaugh stage exchanging curses and threats. 

Wednesday’s forum, hosted virtually at Youngstown’s Stambaugh Auditorium in partnership with Stambaughwas moderated by Mahoning Matters Editor Mark Sweetwood and also featured:

  • Ron Massullo, deputy director, Trumbull County Board of Elections;
  • Tom McCabe, deputy director, Mahoning County Board of Elections;
  • Paul Sracic, YSU professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations and the Rigelhaupt Pre-Law Center.

The panelists agreed, turnout for the Nov. 2020 election could break records. 

The Trumbull County Board of Elections processed about 42,000 absentee ballot applications and has already received about 22,000 completed absentee ballots. 

In November 2016, only about 19,000 people voted absentee. 

The county is also shattering records when it comes to early voting. The board of elections set up an early voting center next door in a vacant bank. The set-up allows them to process early voters safely, considering the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Already, it's record-breaking," Massullo said. 

In Mahoning County, more than 49,000 people requested absentee ballots, compared with about 28,000 requested in 2016. About 10,000 people have already voted early in the county; about 12,000 people voted early in 2016, "and we still have two weeks," McCabe said. 

Reading the tea leaves from these numbers is proving to be challenging, said Sracic. Polls attempt to model the electorate, and this year, so many new people are voting, making predictions difficult. 

"There are arrows pointing in both directions," Sracic said.

Representatives for key contests were given 10-minute sessions to present their best, last-minute pitch and also answer a few questions. While Sweetwood claimed, "I'm no Chris Wallace," he more successfully than not managed to steer the speakers away from debate and toward conversation. 

Difabio and Morley disagreed on Trump's coronavirus response. Ryan and Hagan sparred on who would better serve the economic needs of the Mahoning Valley. 

"Now all you have to do is drive through Lordstown, Ohio, where I was yesterday," said Ryan. "You will see the explosion iof job creation in our community. You will see a natural gas power plant. ... You'll see the General Motors battery plant being constructed right now. ... TJX, out there in Lordstown, cutting edge logistics facility. ... And the Endurance, Lordstown Motors, which is going to be an amazing company."

In response, Hagan touted her background in the skilled trades.

"I was actually raised in the same family business that my grandfather started, going on service calls alongside my brother and husband," she explained. 

Gains and Desmond litigated ongoing personal issues that have become ongoing court issues. Desmond once worked for Gains, but was fired by him. 

"Sadly, my opponent lacks the integrity and the experience necessary for this position. He claims to be a career prosecutor, but does he tell you that I fired him?" Gains asked. 

Desmond fired back: "Despite what my opponent lies about, I actually was appointed to the special agent position. I have the official FBI documentation here."

Regardless of the polarization in national and local races, elections are "cleansing," McCabe said. Supporters of the winner will gloat for a few days, and supporters of the loser will wallow briefly, "then we pick ourselves back up and keep fighting."

In the past few years, however, campaigning doesn't seem to end at the election, Sracic said.

"We don't stop to govern," he added. 

But in their personal lives, panelists projected hope that bipartisan relationships are possible. For example, McCabe and Massullo have differing political beliefs and work closely with people across the aisle. 

"I think this country has a vast middle," McCabe said. "We have more in common with each other than differences."

Massullo agreed that friendship extends across the political aisle, noting McCabe was present at his daughter's wedding. 

Sracic explained he started the day with a call to Bangladesh officials, answering questions about the American electoral process. He was asked how Americans trust each other to carry out the electoral process and reminded the audience how crucial trust is to a healthy democracy. 

"We are a model democracy, and I think we forget that," Sracic said. "We've all inherited a very comfortable system, and I think we take that for granted."

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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