Ohio2006 Blog

News, analysis, and comments on Ohio elections.

Wednesday, September 13

Ohio House 61st: Getting to Know Mark Okey (D)

Recently I drove down to Carollton to attend a fundraiser for 61st Ohio House District candidate Mark D. Okey (D-Carrollton). The sprawling 61st District spreads through Mahoning, Tuscarawas, and Stark Counties as well as Okey's home base of Carroll County.

The first thing you need to know about Carroll County is that it is drop-dead gorgeous. It's rolling terrain with woods and streams, and there isn't a four-lane highway in the whole county. A fair-sized chunk of it (355 acres) is the family farm south of Carrollton that Okey has managed for many years, while also practising law in the Canton-based firm founded by his father and raising three children with his wife Kathy.

The fundraiser was a picnic-style event in Veterans Memorial Park outside Carrollton, and everybody there knew everybody else. Okey told me that he wouldn't be addressing the crowd, saying "I know all these people, so I thought I'd spare them having to listen to a speech." Then incumbent Rep. John Boccieri (D-New Middletown) arrived, and I think he was pretty much on a first name basis with everyone present as well. I tried to ask Boccieri a few questions, but he begged for my patience while he greeted a few friends, and that was the end of that. I consoled myself with homemade baked beans, potato salad, and my choice of about twenty kinds of dessert. Honestly, I have never been to a political event so like a family reunion.

It's also worth noting that there were quite a few Republicans in the gathering. I overheard Okey introducing someone to his father and uncle, "who happens to be a Republican." Okey feels he is the kind of candidate who can reach out to moderates on the other side, and he hopes Republicans at the event noticed that other Republicans are supporting him.

The first thing you notice about Okey is that he is a big, strong, outdoorsy guy. He's 6'4" with the ruddy complexion of a farmer who loves to hunt and fish, and his handshake requires that you really stand your ground or you might go flying. Okey comes from a long line of public servants, from Revolutionary War veteran Levin Okey (who settled in Monroe County in 1800 and became an "associate judge") to Okey relatives who have served as county auditor, clerk of courts, state representative, and even Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court (John W. Okey). For the last 30 years, Mark Okey has represented working men and women, seniors, and small business owners in court, and now he wants to continue his family's tradition of public service by "serving as an ethical, value-based voice of reason" in the Ohio House of Representatives.

When I asked Okey why he is running now, he said that he knows gubernatorial candidate Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Lisbon) and "likes him a lot." "This is the type of man I want to work for," he said. "Conservative values, but a Democrat. Grew up on a farm. Appreciates gun rights." He looks forward to supporting Strickland's leadership. "You can elect Ted Strickland our governor, but if he has no support in the General Assembly then he can't get very much done."

Okey thought the climate for Democrats would be favorable this year, but then there is also the fact that Rep. Boccieri decided to run for the open 33rd District seat in the Ohio Senate, being vacated by term-limited Sen. Robert Hagan (D-Youngtown). "John Boccieri is loved," Okey declared. "He is very responsible, and people feel connected to him. They can even get him on his cell phone. I have to convince people that I'm not running against John before they'll even listen to what I have to say." Okey likes to think of himself as "a John Boccieri with thirty years of legal experience." Boccieri has endorsed Okey in this race, saying "I know Mark Okey will provide experienced leadership for the 61st District, and I look forward to working with him."

Okey has never run for office before, but felt it was about time. For guidance he approached Dr. Jack DeSario, the former Chairman of the Ohio Ethics Commission who is a political analyst and advisor and a professor at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. Okey specifically wanted a mentor with experience helping both Republicans and Democrats. DeSario doesn't take on just any candidate who seeks help, but agreed to assist Okey. Asked for his role model as a public official, Okey named "a good Republican" who just happens to have been about the same height as himself -- Abraham Lincoln. Okey admires Lincoln's "understanding of people, compassion for people." He was "a political animal, but embodied a good understanding of democracy and fairness."

Okey says that school funding, jobs, and the economy are the top concerns in voters' minds this year. They don't necessarily want to hear about the details, but they "want to know if we're committed to solving these problems." School funding should be the #1 priority, Okey said. Voters are "weary of local school districts coming back to them over and over." They want to know that Okey will work to "ease this burden."

As to the area economy, farming is the biggest part of it but there is also light manufacturing and an effort is being made to develop the area into a tourist attraction based on its natural beauty. Okey has long experience and deep knowledge of farming issues, but he did not get the farm bureau endorsement due to the influence of an insurance company that detests his success as a personal injury attorney and his opposition to further "tort reform." As to the latter, Okey points out that tort reform has already been passed, and he scoffs at the notion that frivolous lawsuits abound in the 61st District. Tough judges in the area don't hestitate to dismiss meritless cases, he said, and lawyers don't file them anyway because they "don't want to lose money."

This shot shows Rep. Boccieri with Okey and Carollton residents. Okey has an interesting view of the current state of other party. "A lot of people think that the Republican party has gone too far to the right," he said. If the Democrats win the governorship and gain some seats in the General Aseembly, Okey feels that the power of extremist Republicans will be reduced and "moderates will be the leaders." Okey believes "we have to reach out to good, honest Republicans who believe the same things we do and form alliances." This is the "mandate of the people," he said, who "don't want all this negativity, they want to see people working together." After a pause he said, "This could be my role. Reaching out."

Asked to contrast himself and his opponent, former County Auditor Brant Luther (R-Alliance), Okey called himself "better qualified" and said, "It's a matter of experience. I have it, he doesn't." The two of them are both lawyers, but Okey was trying cases when Luther "was in diapers." "I have gained a great deal of wisdom over the years," Okey said. "I can use it in the legislature to form alliances." Also, Okey noted that entering public life through this election is the "capstone to his career." For Luther, Okey believes this election is a stepping stone.

Okey will be appearing at the Tuscarawas County Fair next Monday, September 18, and will be holding another fundraiser on September 30. For details, send an email to campaign aide David Sisk at davesisk-at-gmail-dot-com.


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