Despite a whirlwind selection process that left many scratching their heads, including Eric Kearney himself, the Cincinnati lawyer and newspaper publisher heads to the Ohio Senate poised for a quick ascent into Democratic Party leadership.
On Nov. 14 Kearney, who's never held elective office, informed party leaders that he wanted to be considered to fill the final year of Mark Mallory's term. Two days later he was announced as the new senator from Ohio's 9th District, which covers most of the city of Cincinnati and surrounding towns such as Norwood and St. Bernard.
Now, before he even takes office, he's being touted as the kind of politician who could lead the Democratic Party statewide.
Five of the Democrats' 11 senators can't run for re-election in 2006 due to term limits, including three of the party's four leaders: Minority Leader C.J. Prentiss, Assistant Minority Whip Robert Hagan and Mallory, who was assistant minority leader. With Kearney now able to run as an incumbent for two four-year terms of his own, he has an opportunity to make a big impact in Columbus.
"Eric fits that leadership mold," says Hagan, who was instrumental in choosing Kearney. "With the way things are playing out, with open seats and scandals among the Republicans in Columbus, there's a real opportunity ahead for people like Eric to show what they can do. It could be a very quick move up the ladder for him."
A key part of political leadership is the ability to raise large sums of campaign money, not only for yourself but for party colleagues.
Clearly Kearney is seen as someone who contributes to the cause in more ways than one.
"Here in Ohio, the Republican Party has more money than we could ever hope to get or beg for," Hagan says. "Fund-raising is critical to any success the Democrats can have, and Eric has raised money for (U.S. Sen.) Barack Obama, (Columbus Mayor) Michael Coleman and (2004 presidential candidate) John Kerry, among many others."
Kearney knows that his connections played a role in his selection, but he doesn't know how much it mattered — nor does he care.
"I haven't asked C.J. Prentiss or Bob Hagan why they picked me, and I'm not going to," he says. "If I got it for that reason, great. If I got it because I wear a bow tie, fine. I don't know. I'm just honored to serve the people of the 9th District, and I just want to do a great job."
He is sworn in Dec. 6.
Not a 'big political animal'
Kearney seemingly came out of nowhere to beat three state representatives and two Cincinnati City Council members for Mallory's seat. He didn't even throw his name into the ring until the last minute, calling Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke Nov. 14 to express interest in the position.
The next day Kearney drove to Columbus to meet with party leaders in the Ohio Senate. He says the meeting took about 45 minutes and that, of the senators who interviewed him, he'd met only one before — Prentiss.
"It was like sitting around with five or six friends in a room talking politics," Kearney says. "They wanted to know my positions on key issues like charter schools and vouchers, and I tried to give them long, thoughtful answers. They said, 'No, we need yes or no answers.' "
Hagan says he wanted to get a feel for how Kearney would react under pressure in the legislature.
"We usually don't have the luxury of engaging in long debates about votes," he says. "I didn't want to be rude, but I told Eric that in the Senate they go around and take your vote and you have to say 'Yes' or 'No.' He handled himself very well."
Kearney didn't think so.
"I drove home that night and thought it'd been a good experience but that it was just a formality," he says. "I thought there was no way I was going to be chosen."
The following day, Kearney says, he heard from a friend in Columbus that party leaders were going to select Councilman David Pepper, so he called Pepper to congratulate him. He was driving to a court date that afternoon when he got a call on his cell phone from Prentiss.
"I thought, oh, this is the call where they tell me, 'Thanks for your interest but no,' " Kearney says.
Instead, Prentiss invited him to represent the 9th Senate District.
"I swerved my car off the road," Kearney says. "All I could say was, 'I'm so grateful for the opportunity, and I'm looking forward to serving.' "
Hagan says that, although Kearney's ability to raise money was a big factor in the decision, his outsider status was a plus.
"If this was all about fund-raising, Pepper would have been our first choice," Hagan says. "But I was impressed that Eric wasn't a big political animal. He didn't have any negatives or political baggage, and he's not cocky or overconfident. He's the genuine article."
Hoping for 'dynamic' Cincinnati
Although concerns have been raised about Kearney's lack of a record supporting Democratic Party principles, Hagan isn't troubled.
"I know he's an independent in many ways," he says. "But Eric has a better feel for Democratic principles than many Democrats have. All of us in the party leadership take our legacy seriously, and we want to be sure that when we leave (office) we have Democrats there fighting for Democratic ideals. I'm confident Eric will be a leader in that fight."
Kearney dismisses talk that he doesn't have a business or political record that might indicate his priorities in office. As a small business owner — including Sesh Communications, which publishes The Cincinnati Herald — he says his No. 1 issue would be small business creation.
"I want to make it easier in Ohio for entrepreneurs to create small businesses and for small businesses to prosper," he says. "I'm passionate about opening up economic opportunities and revitalizing the district."
He says he'll also prioritize increasing home ownership rates in Cincinnati and working on bringing better health care to all citizens.
"Think how dynamic that would be in Cincinnati," he says. "I have some ideas, but I have to learn how to get things done up there. I'll be on a learning curve for a while."
Kearney met Mallory Nov. 19 to get started on his learning curve.
"I talked to him about the key players, about the process," Mallory says. "I gave him my philosophy for getting things done in Columbus that I believe led me to be very, very successful in terms of being able to get bills passed and get things done, just flat out. The body of work that I've laid out is probably pretty appealing to him based on what he knows this community needs and what he knows are things that are important to Ohioans in general.
"I would be honored if he took up my body of work, but I expect that he will have ideas of his own. I don't have any thoughts that he'll be living in some shadow of me."
MARGO PIERCE contributed to this story.