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While former state Rep. Betty Sutton (D) has emerged as the early favorite among party insiders in the open-seat contest in Ohio’s 13th district, her ability to win the Democratic primary could be complicated by the entrance of a wealthy shopping center heiress in the race.
Capri Cafaro, who lost to an incumbent in a neighboring district in 2004, is expected to reveal soon whether she will run for the Cleveland-area seat that Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is vacating to run for Senate.
Former Rep. Tom Sawyer (D), who represented the 14th district from 1986 to 2002, is also running in the May 2 primary.
Democratic strategists are touting Sutton’s candidacy largely because they view her as the party’s strongest nominee in a district that favors Democrats. She has already garnered the support of two unions, and backers say that more organized labor support will follow.
Sutton, 42, has worked as a labor lawyer since leaving office in 2000.
The former lawmaker also is likely to get the backing of EMILY’s List, the Democratic interest group that helps funnel money to women candidates who support pro-abortion rights.
“She comes to this race very prepared as an attorney and also as a state and local official and I expect she will be a very strong Congressional candidate,” said EMILY’s List Campaign Services Director Martha McKenna, who added that Sutton has had experience winning tough races.
Still, if Cafaro runs, the price tag for victory will no doubt be inflated.
Cafaro, 28, spent $400,000 of her own money to win the 14th district’s five-way Democratic primary in 2004, and she has the ability to heavily self-fund again.
However, she ultimately garnered only 37 percent of the vote in November against Rep. Steven LaTourette (R), a disappointing showing considering she spent almost $2 million total on the race.
Party insiders are also concerned that Cafaro’s personal baggage could jeopardize the party’s ability to hold the seat.
Her family is well-known in the Mahoning Valley area. Her father, J.J. Cafaro, was sentenced to probation in the bribery scandal that landed expelled Rep. James Traficant (Ohio) in federal prison.
The elder Cafaro pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Traficant in exchange for Traficant’s help in a now-defunct high-tech business venture.
Capri Cafaro was given immunity and testified in the trial against Richard Detore, an engineer at the firm who also was implicated in the Traficant bribery scheme.
Still, Cafaro has garnered some early support for her bid, if she runs, and her backers are confident in her ability to defeat the more seasoned politicians in the primary.
Late last month the United Auto Workers union Region 2B, state CAP executive board issued its endorsement of her candidacy, even though she has yet to decide whether to run.
Cafaro supporters say that other labor groups have been encouraging her to enter the race and that if she does she will have significant support from labor.
Youngstown-based media consultant Vic Rubenstein, who worked for Cafaro in 2004, has said a benchmark poll commissioned for Cafaro showed favorable results, although he declined to discuss specifics.
“I think it would be very ill-advised for EMILY’s List to become involved in this way,” Rubenstein said, referring to the group’s enthusiasm for Sutton. “Cafaro is a stronger, better and more acceptable candidate to middle America and no one better typifies middle America than the 13th district.”
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