COLUMBUS, Ohio — One of the most significant races in Ohio's August 2 primary is the legislative contest between two Cuyahoga County incumbent Democrats.
Two incumbents facing off against each other isn't the norm, but for state Democratic House Reps. Monique Smith, currently representing Fairview Park, and Bride Rose Sweeney, currently representing an area of Cleveland, this is anything but a normal year.
Redistricting and the new maps drawn this year by the Republican majority have caused the two Democrats to fight to represent the new 16th House District, which includes Westlake, Bay Village and North Olmsted.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the Ohio Redistricting Commission's legislative maps were unconstitutional and gerrymandered — and having to keep redrawing new maps, despite never being ruled constitutional, caused the election for some candidates to be delayed.
There was drama between the Republicans and the Democrats, but now — internal caucus fighting has shown its way to the public with this race.
"I became the only Democrat in the entire state of Ohio, to flip a legislative district from red to blue," Smith said. "Currently, I represent almost 70% of the new Ohio House District 16, and my opponent does not represent any of it."
Smith flipped her house by beating moderate Republican Rep. Dave Greenspan, the incumbent, back in the 2020 election. She champions fighting for reproductive and mental health care, gun safety and technological innovation.
"My highest priorities are always the health, safety, education and opportunities of everyday Ohioans," she added.
But some leaders within the Statehouse say she is actually the underdog in this race.
"I have passed nine bills in the past three and a half years — that is more than any other Democrat in the Ohio House," Sweeney said. "And I sit on the most important committee."
Sweeney has been in office since 2018, replacing her father, House Rep. Martin J. Sweeney, once he resigned. She is the ranking member of the finance committee. She also fights for reproductive freedom and said she's making it her mission to fight for fair maps.
"In this past capital budget, Cuyahoga County got more money than any other county in the state and that is in part due to my efforts of advocating for my constituents," she added.
The race between these incumbents is contentious.
"I made a decision with my family to make sure that when they cut my house out of the majority of my district, I just moved back into the majority of my district," Smith said.
Previously living in Fairview Park, she moved slightly over to North Olmsted. Sweeney moved from Cleveland to Westlake.
"The people I blame are the Republicans on the redistricting commission who very intentionally put both me and my now opponent in a position that we'd be running against each other," Sweeney added.
Smith blamed the Republicans first but also feels "devalued" by her own party and Sweeney.
"It was my assumption and expectation that [Sweeney] would also want to move to one of the new districts that had some of her current constituents, but she did not make that choice," Smith said. "She chose to move to the district that I was filed in and to run for this one."
Sweeney and Smith were under the impression that Smith was going to be running in the 17th House District because of the redistricting mess. But Sec. of State Frank LaRose ended up informing Smith she, legally, was in the 16th — which is what she wanted anyway, she said.
"I'm really trying hard to show them that [authentic relationships within a community] is how we win and that is how my campaign had a unique ability to connect with voters and flip the district," Smith said. "So it's been very frustrating and disappointing to feel that sometimes people in my party don't see that, and I think that they might be using really outdated and old-fashioned sort of parameters or perceptions about what wins a race."
Fighting publicly is exactly the opposite of what candidates should be doing, Sweeney responded.
"I did not fall into the Republican trap of saying negative mistruths about my opponent, because it's exactly what the Republican's game plan is," Sweeney said. "I've only ran a campaign that's based on my accomplishments, my quite extensive track record of delivering for those I serve."
Although Smith had a head start on the relationships with the community, Sweeney has been working day and night, she said.
"I have been knocking every single day, including my 30th birthday," she said. "I personally — not my campaign, not volunteers, I have hit over 4,000 doors."
Meeting people face-to-face is going to be how she wins, she said. This is not to say that Smith isn't also meeting people face-to-face.
"My last election in 2018, I also had a Republican opponent and I actually overperformed Joe Biden by six points," Sweeney said. "You don't do that unless you're a hard worker and people know you're going door-to-door."
While campaigning, some viewers brought concerns about Sweeney's role in House Bill 6, dubbed the "worst energy bill of the 21st century," to News 5.
The lawmaker had voted for disgraced Former Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives Larry Householder in his bid for speaker.
In June 2020, federal prosecutors accused Householder of accepting $60 million from FirstEnergy, through a web of nonprofits he secretly controlled, to ensure the passage of H.B. 6.
"I was not aware of the crimes that he was able to commit, I am not a fortune teller," Sweeney said. "And of course, hindsight is 20/20."
She only had two options for speaker that year, both Republicans, so it wasn't like she was actually campaigning for him, she added.
"I was told by people that if I didn't vote for [H.B. 6], I'd never get anything done, and I stood up to those bullies, to the people that were trying to pressure me to do something I did not believe," she said. "I voted no against House Bill 6."
She is the sponsor of the Ohio Anti-Corruption Act and was one of the first people to push for the resignation of Householder, she said.
She is proud to say that her track and voting record showed there is nothing that compromises her, the lawmaker added.
"I have not taken any dollars from [FirstEnergy] after the scandal," she said. "I would not, I have not even had any connection with them."
But when asked about FirstEnergy donating a couple of thousand dollars to her campaign, she tried to explain.
"So, yes, I received dollars, but I had, you know, I had it and I donated money back to other organizations and all of that," Sweeney said. "But at the end of the day, what is most important is that, you know, when I was faced with voting for this bill, I voted with what the people wanted, and that was to vote no on House Bill 6."
Regardless of money raised, the two incumbents are battling for one seat — and each thinks they deserve it.
"I'm connected very personally to this district and it matters to me deeply what happens here, what our quality of life is here, how our schools are funded here, whether seniors have the services that they need here," Smith said. "And I don't want to go anywhere else. I genuinely love it here. This is my little corner of the world, as I say. And it's my home."
For Sweeney, where she lacks in length of time for her connections, she has clear legislative evidence of her impact at the Statehouse.
"In Ohio, people want common sense, people who are fighting and working for them, and you can actually deliver real results and I believe I'm the candidate to do that," Sweeney said. "I will never stop fighting no matter what happens because we know what will happen — that's the only way the extremists win, if we ever stop fighting."
Each says that no matter what the results are, they will help fight to make sure a Democrat wins the seat.
The polls open Tuesday morning at 6:30 a.m. and will close at 7:30 p.m. If someone is voting by mail, the ballot must be postmarked by Monday, or they can drop it off at the county board of elections before 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night.
Links to resources for voters:
- Main elections page
- Register to vote
- The early voting schedule
- How to vote on Election Day
- Find your district