What's in a name? Perhaps a little less these days

VOTE FOR RUSSO — PLEASE 

What's in a name? Perhaps a little less these days

When Strongsville defense attorney Michael Astrab told friends he'd decided to run for a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judicial seat this year and revealed who his opponent was, he got "the look" from every one of them in return. The look said Good luck, but you're committing career suicide.

Astrab's opponent is Bridget McCafferty. Not only is she a well-connected Democrat, a tireless campaigner, and a friendly, engaging person — her name is Bridget McCafferty. For many voters, that's all that matters.

"My name is Slovak — the most ballot-unfriendly name in Cuyahoga County," sighs Astrab. "It's not Irish or Italian. I'm half Irish, but it's the wrong side of the family. My mother's name was Kerwin."

Astrab won't say he got lucky late last month, but it's hard to spin it any other way: McCafferty was indicted in the county corruption scandal. "I was in the shower when she got arrested. I got out, and my phone was ringing and my Facebook was blowing up. There was definitely a momentum change. What bothered me was people calling and saying, 'Congratulations, Your Honor!' I'm up against a very powerful opponent."

McCafferty hasn't withdrawn from the race, and if reelected, she can take the oath but can't take the bench until she is cleared. She continues to draw her salary while a visiting judge is paid to work for her — a fact Astrab has hammered hard in his campaign. Despite his own blemish-free record, he says McCafferty could be reelected. After all, she's got the name.

Judge Mary Jane Trapp of Ohio's 11th District Court of Appeals practiced law in Cuyahoga County for a couple of decades. She remembers how talk of powerful names was as common as talk about the weather. "It was an urban legend around the Justice Center that there was a hierarchy of Irish names. You'd talk to the bailiffs and they'd say, 'A Gallagher always beats a Kilbane, and a Kilbane will always beat a Corrigan.'"

For decades, the right name has made all the difference for countless Northeast Ohio candidates. But as a handful of popular names have been sullied by the county corruption scandal, observers wonder how the ages-old name game might be affected. As Astrab says: "What was a blessing is now a curse."

In 2008, respected Judge Joseph Russo was running for Ohio Supreme Court. One day he reportedly ran into then-Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo, who pulled him aside and said, "Don't ruin the good name."

Long considered a golden moniker in county politics, Russo is the name of no fewer than four current judges in Cuyahoga County's Court of Common Pleas, with another Russo in juvenile court and yet another in county probate court. Given Frank Russo's guilty plea in the county corruption scandal, are all other Russos tarnished by name association?

"It's a comment on the potency of the ballot name," says attorney Subodh Chandra, vice chair of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association's Judge4Yourself committee, part of a combined effort among Cuyahoga County bar associations to promote the nonpartisan candidate ratings each has created for decades.

"Many familiar names serve with distinction, and it becomes one of the challenges. With so many candidates on the ballot, it's difficult for the average voter to sort one out from another, especially when so many have similar surnames." Chandra recalls how when he first came to Cleveland in the mid-'90s, he and his wife, also an attorney, would confer with each other in adjacent voting booths.

"We'd be whispering to each other, 'Is this the smart Russo or the dumb Russo?' 'Is this the mean Corrigan or the nice Corrigan?' And that was two lawyers talking to each other! So imagine the difficulty of your average citizen who isn't in courtrooms every day. As a consequence, heritage and surnames determine judicial races, and that's not what this country is about."

Two races involving the name "Russo" in recent years highlight the potential of efforts such as Judge4Yourself. In 2004, a judicial candidate petitioned the court to have his middle name changed to "Russo" for ballot purposes. He lost with the court and with voters.

Two years later, Christine Agnello Russo, a strikingly underqualified candidate, made a run for a judicial seat. Though she had used her maiden name throughout her legal career, she adopted her ex-husband's name — Russo — for the ballot. Her desultory campaigning suggested she felt the name would carry her.

But her Republican opponent, Joan Synenberg, campaigned tirelessly — even at Democratic events. Also helpful: In 2006, Judge4Yourself launched its biggest promotional drive to date, and Synenberg received perfect scores from the bar associations while Russo drew zeroes across the board. Once word got out, Christine's last name could have been McFlannery O'Russo and she wouldn't have stood a chance.

Judge4Yourself.com is a promising start to help voters cut through the confusion in a county with nearly 90 judicial slots to be filled. Attorney Deborah Coleman, who chairs the initiative, says the group was credited by The Plain Dealer with influencing a race last year for Bedford Municipal Court. Judge Harry J. Jacob III was running as an independent against fellow independent Madeleine Lesco and Democrat Pamela O'Bannon. Namewise, he should have been doomed — being a woman is considered an advantage because, as Mary Jane Trapp says, "There's this idea out there that women are more trustworthy."

As a female Democrat with an Irish name, O'Bannon should have been a shoo-in; she defeated the incumbent in the primary. But all the bar associations rated both Lesco and O'Bannon "not recommended" and gave Jacob a rating of "good." Jacob won.

Coleman hopes it's a sign that voters are fed up with the name game. She says Judge4Yourself plans to expand efforts to promote the bar association ratings and focus more on primaries, since the result of the Democratic primary often determines the ultimate winner in these parts.

"It's a burden on groups like ours trying to educate voters when the primary time frame is so short," she says. "We're eager to talk with both parties about looking more closely at the credentials of the candidates. When it comes to judges, the name is not as important as integrity, competence, and respect for people."

Send feedback to apantsios@clevescene.com.

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