Judge’s race sparks controversy

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Having been soundly defeated when she ran six years ago, Susan Maruca is hoping the second time is the charm for a seat on Mahoning County’s Probate Court bench. But it is not a goal she takes lightly.

“This is a crazy thing for me to do twice,” said Maruca. “We took a huge financial hit. I took a professional hit for it. I suspect I’ll do that and go through that again.”

Her opponent, Chris Sammarone, ran for a spot on the Seventh District Court of Appeals in 2006 and filed to run in the upcoming May primary just hours before the filing deadline, expecting at the time to challenge incumbent Mark Belinky.

Within weeks of the filing deadline, state agents raided Belinky’s home and office as part of an on-going criminal case. Belinky subsequently resigned from the bench and has withdrawn from the race.

The Probate Court handles a variety of issues, from wills and estates to appointing board members for the Mill Creek MetroParks and the Mahoning County Board of Developmental Disabilities, where Sammarone works as an attorney.

Now that both candidates are competing for an open seat, they admit the investigation into Belinky is another black eye in local politics.

“I just think collectively in our community, there may be a mistrust just for the political process around here,” said Sammarone.

“People who are disabled cognitively, physically, are in nursing homes or isolated, have no idea this is going on,” said Maruca.

While both candidates claim they would devote time to better educating the public about the functions of the court, how they are trying to reach that goal is a different story.

Sammarone has recently been criticized for trying to mislead voters by using part of a 20-year-old quote from former Youngstown State University football coach Jim Tressel in his campaign material. Maruca’s probate experience has been challenged with opponents claiming her campaign is a sort of favor done with the expectation of repayment from former law partner and Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman Dave Betras.

Maruca said Betras initially tried to talk her out of running against Belinky. Now that Belinky is out of the race, the dynamic has changed.

“We had a discussion about it, and the next thing he said to me was ‘I am not going to swing votes for you for the endorsement,’” said Maruca.

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination is still expected to face other non-party challengers in November.

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