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Ohio city leaders say politics isn’t kid stuff

Times Staff Writer

A few months after a teenager outpolled three middle-aged City Council members in the race for mayor -- but still missed a slot in the Nov. 6 runoff by a single vote -- the city fathers of Streetsboro, Ohio, have decided that enough is enough.

Eighteen might be old enough to vote, they say, or enlist in the military and fight in Iraq.

But in this middle-class Rust Belt town where factories churn out steel pails and tubes of lipstick, it may not be old enough to hold office: Next month, voters will consider whether to modify the town charter to require that future candidates be at least 23.

The minimum-age requirement was added to a ballot measure that, among other things, would also require candidates to disclose their criminal records.

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Members of the Streetsboro City Council -- whose ages range from the 50s through the 70s -- say the move is simply practical: They want to ensure their mayor has enough life experience to manage a city of about 12,300 residents, along with a $20-million annual budget and full-time Police and Fire departments.

And they admit they were shocked that Brett McClafferty, 19, came close to landing that job this spring.

“I’m sure there are 18-year-olds out there, somewhere, who could run a city this size, but I haven’t met them,” said Stephen Michniak, a Portage County prosecutor and chairman of the commission that introduced the charter amendment. “I’m 37 now, and I know there’s no way I could have done the job when I was 18.”

Streetsboro’s unusual ballot measure has raised eyebrows across the region and prompted lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio to investigate its constitutionality. But legal and political experts say Ohio’s “home-rule” provision allows towns and cities to have a significant amount of control -- and freedom from state meddling -- over how they structure their local governments.

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“It may be legal, but it’s very uncommon for a town to make local election rules more stringent than a state’s,” said Kenneth Janda, a professor emeritus of political science at Northwestern University.

“Since the wake of the Vietnam War and the realization that people who were old enough to die in war should be old enough to vote, this country has been trying to draw people into the political realm -- not find ways to keep them out,” he said.

Indeed, youthful candidates routinely crop up in election circles here. Ohio, like California, set the minimum age at 18 for those who want to run for governor or a legislative post.

And Ohioans have previously backed candidates not old enough to drink their celebratory champagne. In 2000, voters elected Derrick Seaver of Minster, a high school senior, to the state General Assembly. In 2005, 19-year-old Amy Flowers of Athens won a City Council seat.

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Now a seasoned 21-year-old, Flowers is running for reelection this fall.

“People always raise the age issue, and then complain about young voter apathy,” said Flowers, a graduate student at Ohio University. “You can’t have it both ways.”

McClafferty, who grew up in Streetsboro, about 32 miles southeast of Cleveland, said he had always been interested in politics. Though his parents have not had aspirations to step into the public spotlight, two cousins are judges in western Pennsylvania, and a third is a county commissioner.

McClafferty said he decided to run for mayor in January, after he got fed up with local grumblings about political wrongdoing.

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Earlier this year, Streetsboro residents called on the City Council to investigate a zoning dispute and allegations that city leaders had illicitly pandered to developers. Paul H. Jones, former mayor of Ravenna, the county seat, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and income tax charges and was sentenced to serve a total of 30 months in federal and state prisons. And former Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., a Democrat whose district included Streetsboro, is serving time in prison for racketeering, taking bribes and forcing his aides to work on his Ohio farm.

“I figured that I could do better,” McClafferty said.

In late February, McClafferty, then 18, walked into the Portage County Board of Elections office and filed his intention to run for mayor.

At first, some residents thought McClafferty was doing it as a joke, or for extra credit from his political science professors at Cleveland State University. But the mood around town shifted as he chatted with diners in coffee shops, dropped off absentee ballots at nursing homes and talked about labor concerns with local union officials.

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When the ballots were counted in May, McClafferty came in third with 664 votes -- just behind city Planning Director Linda Kovacs with 665 votes, and Councilman Thomas Wagner, with 670.

The losers grumbled over McClafferty’s success.

“Six months before he ran, he didn’t even know where the City Council meeting room was,” said Councilman Chuck Kocisko, 66, who came in fourth.

Local leaders and the public later gathered to review the town’s charter. Talk of McClafferty’s razor-thin loss prompted suggestions about raising the candidate age minimum. They picked 23 because “by then, we figured you’ve had a few years of life experience,” Michniak said. “If you’re in the military, it’s four years. So is college.”

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Not everyone agrees. A local political action committee, consisting of a couple dozen young voters, has been canvassing neighborhoods with members of the Ohio College Democrats to rally opposition to the ballot measure.

And McClafferty? He has already assembled a campaign team to back his 2008 bid for a seat on the county Board of Commissioners.

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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