COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A top Democratic government official in northeastern Ohio said Monday that he's forming an exploratory committee to consider a bid for governor in 2014.
With the move, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald becomes the first prospective challenger to make a move against Republican Gov. John Kasich.
FitzGerald said he's concerned about the direction in which Kasich is taking the state.
"I believe Ohio has been let down by its leaders, especially a political establishment in state government who stopped listening to the people," he said in making his announcement. "They're more interested in scoring partisan points or taking care of the insiders than focusing on what's best for the middle class."
Kasich took office after ousting Democrat Ted Strickland in 2010 in one of Ohio's most expensive governor's races. The first-term governor says he plans to run for a second term. He has raised more than $2.7 million over the past two years and has $2.1 million on hand.
FitzGerald, 44, a former FBI agent and Lakewood mayor, was elected in 2010 to lead a new county executive-council government in Ohio's most populous county to replace a scandal-plagued commissioner form of government.
Monday's move allows FitzGerald to raise money without formally declaring his candidacy.
Democrats view FitzGerald's law-and-order background as a strength against Kasich, a former congressman, investment banker and Fox News commentator. Kasich's backing of an unpopular collective bargaining overhaul that was ultimately overturned by voters in 2011 jeopardized his popularity among safety forces around the state.
FitzGerald hinted at the Senate Bill 5 fight in his announcement.
"Do we really have to settle for a state government that robs our communities, forcing cuts to police, firefighters and teachers? Or is something better possible?" he asked. "Do we really have to settle for a governor who wants new taxes on everyday Ohioans while giving big tax breaks for those at the top? Or is something better possible? I think something better is possible."
The Ohio Republican Party questioned FitzGerald's ties to corruption that permeated county government and to the coming of a new round of politicking in the bellwether state.
"Just to be clear, isn't FitzGerald the same person who the Justice Department called 'Public Official 14' and opposed reforming Cuyahoga County's corrupt government?" said party spokesman Matt Henderson. "Ohioans just can't wait for two years' worth of more negative attacks — from another politician no less."
FitzGerald enters the race as Kasich's approval rating is at the highest point of his governorship. A Feb. 28 Quinnipiac University poll found 53 percent of Ohio voters approved of the job Kasich is doing, compared to 32 percent who disapproved. That same survey showed FitzGerald with the largest disadvantage — 10 percentage points — against Kasich among potential Democratic challengers.
Other Democrats trailing by slightly slimmer margins are former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who's serving as President Barack Obama's consumer watchdog; U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles; and former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton of Chardon. Strickland opted out of a rematch in January.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.