The Ohio Democratic Party hosted its annual State Dinner at the Greater Columbus Convention Center Sunday, with big Democratic voices in attendance, including keynote speaker Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and special guests like Ohio’s senior U.S. Senator in Washington running for a third term next year, Sherrod Brown.

(L-R) Rep. Connie Pillich, Mayor Nan Whaley, Sen. Joe Schiavoni and Congresswoman Betty Sutton conduct their second officially sanctioned interview debate of the day.

Democrats who trooped to downtown Columbus were handed a Halloween-orange campaign flyer from one of the three declared women candidates as they entered the convention hall.

“It’s SCARY what 24 out of 28 years of Republican rule has done to Ohio,” said a campaign piece distributed by Betty Sutton campaign supporters.

It’s a conveniently overlooked fact of history that Democratic candidates and party officials hope voters across the board come to understand in next year mid-term elections.

In 2018, term limits open up all statewide seats, with control of the very important Apportionment Board and redistricting commission at stake. The party that controls two of the panel’s three offices – Governor, Auditor and Secretary of State – can control the future of legislative map-drawing for a decade or more. The panel convenes once a decade following a census to calibrate federal and state voting districts. What happens in Ohio in 2020, the next presidential election year, depends in large measure on who wins what seat in 2018.

The stage in the ballroom at the convention center was adorned with blue uplighting with five American flags hanging behind four rostrums, each with campaign signage designating each of the four declared candidates for governor: former state Rep. Connie Pillich, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

Bill O’Neill Announces For Ohio Gov Seat

The quartet conducted their second officially sanctioned interview debate of the day, following news from earlier in the day that their quartet might become a quintet.

The headline Sunday about a fifth candidate didn’t come from two other A-listers, Cincinnati politician turned media mogul Jerry Springer or Consumer Finance Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray. It came from another Ohio Democrat with statewide ambitions, who happens to hold a statewide office as one of seven justices of the Ohio Supreme Court. Bill O’Neill added his voice, and 8-point plan for Ohio to the current four candidates.

“Today I am going to begin a new chapter in what some have called a storied life,” Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill said from his home in Chagrin Falls on his campaign website. “If we want to win in 2018 we need new ideas. And if there is going to be a revolution in thinking…let it begin right here.”

Controversy erupted instantly after O’Neills’ announcement Sunday, with questions arising over whether he can still serve on the high court until he submits official paperwork required to go beyond announcement to official candidate, and his status with cases before the court.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor cautioned O’Neill in undertaking his court duties now that he’s announced a run for governor. O’Neill, the only Democrat on the court, might find cover due to the lack of mechanism for the court to require O’Neill to recuse himself from pending cases, even if they might present a conflict, the AP reported.

The current term for the 70-year old O’Neill, who was not present in Columbus Sunday night, expires in January 2019. The AP reported that O’Neill says he plans to leave the bench by the Feb. 7 candidate filing deadline. O’Neill’s announcement was curious, since he previously said he wouldn’t enter the race if Cordray, a former Ohio Attorney General and Treasurer who President Barack Obama picked to be chief of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, decided to run.

CFPB is an agency headquartered in Washington that Republicans including President Donald Trump want to rein in by first firing Cordray, who they say wields too much power. For Cordray to jump into this race now would likely mean leaving his D.C. post to do so, a resignation Republicans would rejoice.

In Columbus, Schiavoni issued a statement to media on O’Neill’s news that even O’Neill acknowledged was “fair criticism.”

“Any Democrat who is serious about running for governor would attend the two debates we’re having today to discuss real issues in front of thousands of voters,” Schiavoni said. “Instead, Justice O’Neill has chosen to pull a press stunt on the other side of the state.”

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told a hall filled with Democrats that Ohio could turn blue like Virginia.

Back in Columbus, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged on the 900-plus attendees to change Ohio blue again.

Virginia U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine was selected by Hillary Clinton to be her running mate last year. Hindsight suggests that had she selected Sherrod Brown, she may have won one the four key Midwest states she lost, and become the president everyone expected her to be.

Clinton went on to lose Ohio to Trump by over eight points, and Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by much closer margins.

The series of four interviews Sunday involved each of the candidate answering the same set of questions delivered from the stage by a local TV political show anchor who moderated the 60-minute debate, or via video from voters on topics ranging from healthcare to government reform and more.

Criticism of the quartet’s meetings emerges from the notion that the candidates are too much in agreement on many issues key to Democrats, while simultaneously failing to distinguish themselves from the pack in ways that might help some voters, and some reporters, tell them apart.

The executive committee of the state party met prior to the event.