Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and the rest of the Ohio Ballot Board approve the language of a proposed anti-gerrymandering amendment that is likely to appear on the ballot next year. (Photo by Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal.)
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose last week flatly refused to answer questions about whether he’s campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Senate from the same building where he’s moving his state offices. If he is, it raises questions about whether the state’s top elections officer will be blurring his duty to run a fair election with his attempt to win one of the state’s most coveted offices in the same election.
LaRose’s refusal to comment comes after he certainly appeared last month to do a campaign interview with provocateur Steve Bannon from the building at 200 Civic Center Drive. Perhaps tellingly, LaRose’s office didn’t answer questions before that story was published, nor did it dispute it after.
The state’s top elections official has claimed that he has no headquarters for his Senate campaign.
“I don’t have a campaign office, we’re a lean and mean operation,” LaRose told IHeart Radio’s Brandon Boxer on Sept. 21. “I work out of some borrowed space at the state party sometimes or wherever else.”
But that’s hard to credit when you’re trying to win a state of nearly 12 million people.
“You need space,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Ohio. “You need space to organize simple things like yard signs. A robust campaign actually needs at least one office — often more than one — if you’re going to be successful. Think about the number of media markets you have in Ohio. The secretary of state is running for the U.S. Senate.”
As a statewide elected official, LaRose likely has higher name recognition than his opponents in next year’s Republican primary — state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, and Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno. But LaRose, who’s spent much of his adult life in political office, likely has far less money than his opponents, both of whom are multi-millionaires.
Current and former employees of the secretary of state’s office earlier this month told The Columbus Dispatch that LaRose’s laser focus on the Senate campaign has already led to costly mistakes and high staff turnover.
And his decision to move the office from the Broad Street location it’s occupied for decades to one along the Scioto Mile has been raising questions for weeks. Some of the few explanations he and his office have given raise questions of their own.
NBC4 in September reported on LaRose’s plans to move the taxpayer-funded offices to 200 Civic Center Drive — which also happened to be the address at which he registered his Senate campaign with the Federal Election Commission on July 17.
LaRose said that rent will be $11,000 a year less than the cost to lease the offices the secretary of state is departing at 180 E. Broad Street. But with $600,000 in moving costs, the rental savings won’t cover the moving costs until 2077.
In addition, ABC6 late last month reported on a letter written by lawyers in the secretary of state’s office saying that the move has been in the works since 2019.
But those plans seem to have been largely unknown on Capitol Square and among the news media until last month. When asked last week to provide documentation of the first public announcement of the move, LaRose’s office didn’t respond.
“If in fact this has been planned for nearly five years, we should have been in the know for a really long time,” Turcer said.
Also seeming to belie the claim is that it wasn’t until January that LaRose’s office sought to be exempted from state competitive procurement requirements to lease the space at 200 Civic Center Drive, according to documents from the Ohio Department of Administrative Services. Among the questions LaRose’s office didn’t respond to last week was one asking why LaRose wanted to be exempted from competitive bidding to lease space in a building that also happens to house his campaign attorneys, BakerHostetler.
The secretary of state has long touted the security of the Ohio elections he’s run.
But in his quest to win the Republican Senate primary, he has endorsed Donald Trump, who is under felony indictment for allegedly trying to steal the 2020 presidential election. LaRose last month also gave a campaign interview — the one that sure seemed to be recorded somewhere in the building at 200 Civic Center Drive — with Bannon, the Trump advisor who encouraged his boss to declare victory on Election Night 2020 — no matter what the data said.
Turcer, of Common Cause, said housing parts of the LaRose campaign in the same building as his official state offices would raise the temptation for any state official to improperly use state space and resources in his or her campaign. In fact, it’s a violation of state law to solicit campaign donations from state office space.
Turcer said good appearances are especially important when the elected official is also the state’s top elections officer.
“The secretary of state runs Ohio elections and that means voters are scrutinizing him really closely,” she said. “They want to have faith that elections are well run and that’s a commitment that the secretary has made, and it doesn’t make sense to not set himself up for success by separating government work from campaign work.”
For now at least, LaRose’s approach to questions of the propriety of his move is to refuse to respond when asked by any but the friendliest of questioners.
After a Thursday morning meeting of the Ohio Ballot Board — which LaRose chairs — he answered a few policy questions from the press with meandering responses. But when asked if he was engaging in campaign activities at 200 Civic Center Drive, LaRose said, “I’m not taking questions from you,” and hurried away.
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