Everything from ECOT to Trump colors Ohio auditor race

The race for state auditor is not typically the stuff of political lore.

But this year’s fight in Ohio features candidates with starkly different visions for the job. Also, they’re running against the backdrop of a massive scandal. And, as with so many races on the ballot Nov. 6, the polarizing presence of Donald Trump in the White House will factor into voters’ pick to run an office tasked with reviewing the performance of government agencies and keeping tabs on how they spend their money.

Ohio Democrats have been largely out of power this decade, but a number of scandals buffeting Capitol Square have them hopeful that will change this year. Zack Space, a former Democratic congressman from Dover sees that as an opportunity to broaden the mission of the auditor’s office to address what he believes are the big ills of our time.

“I’m going to follow the law. I don’t intend to act in an extra-constitutional or extra-legislative capacity, but I do intend to push the extremes of the office,” Space, 57, said Tuesday in a meeting with The Dispatch’s editorial board.

On the other hand, Space’s opponent, Ohio Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, says it’s important for state officials to stay in their respective lanes.

“Your job is to be an auditor, not a super-legislator,” Faber, 52, said in a separate meeting with the editorial board. Like Space, Faber is a lawyer and he says his experience handling complex financial cases and being a state lawmaker qualify him well to be auditor.

“The auditor’s office is the place, as Ohio’s chief accountability officer, you can make government work better,” he said. “My time in the legislature has been focused on making government more efficient, more effective and more transparent.”

Also running is Libertarian candidate Bob Coogan, 61, of Liberty Township near Cincinnati.

Space and Faber both want to increase the frequency with which state agencies are audited and both want to help the smallest units of government pay for and comply with required oversight. But Space also has ambitions that run further afield: He wants to end partisan gerrymandering (the auditor has a seat on the state legislative redistricting commission), highlight what he sees as Ohio’s regressive taxation and take on other ills.

For example, Space wants to conduct an audit to determine how much revenue schools in western Ohio lost after the GOP-controlled legislature abruptly doubled setback requirements for wind turbines, effectively scuttling many projects. He also wants to take a historical look at the performance of Ohio’s online charter schools, saying, “taxpayers have a right to know how much money has been scammed.”

The topic is an uncomfortable one for Faber. Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court drove the final nail into the coffin of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow after ECOT could not demonstrate that it was teaching the students it was billing taxpayers for.

For its first 15 years, ECOT was required to stipulate only that it provided “educational opportunities.” In other words, students essentially had to be given access to a computer and educational software, but ECOT had no responsibility to make sure they were learning anything.

Faber received $36,000 from ECOT founder Bill Lager and others involved with the school and the former Senate president spoke at its rallies. But Faber said he didn’t support the low standard the online school was held to.

“I was a big supporter of ECOT and I was a big supporter of school choice,” said Faber, who acknowledges ECOT was a failure. “The details of how ECOT was run were not something that came before us in the legislature until we found out there were questions to be asked.”

The issue seems likely to come up again in the campaign — as does that of Trump. Faber endorsed Trump, spoke at his rallies and on Tuesday said that his economic policies have been good for all Americans — including minorities. But Faber didn’t have much to say when asked whether Trump, who that morning called a black woman a “dog,” has said racist things.

“I’m just not going to go there,” he said. “The short answer is I don’t agree with everything he says. I don’t.”

Space said he understands the political alienation of Trump supporters and he doesn’t want to humiliate them. Pressed, however, Space conceded that some of the things Trump says are racist.

“He does and I publicly condemn that,” Space said. “There are lines that he has crossed that no president should cross.”

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