Former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste endorsed P.G. Sittenfeld for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate this week despite his past support for Ted Strickland.
Celeste said Thursday that, while he supported Strickland when he ran for Ohio governor and pursued reelection, he believes that Sittenfeld, a 31-year-old Cincinnati city councilman, is the "strongest candidate" to face incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R.) in the November election. Strickland served as governor of Ohio between 2007 and 2011 after several years representing the state’s 6th district in Congress.
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"[Sittenfeld] understands the national issues well and he has a bold agenda, more specific than most candidates I have seen," Celeste, who served as governor from 1983 to 1991, said on a conference call with reporters.
Celeste cited Sittenfeld’s willingness to advocate for gun control measures as a primary reason the young candidate has won his endorsement. Sittenfeld has been a vocal proponent of gun regulation and has called out Strickland for his pro-gun voting record in Congress and past support from the National Rifle Association.
"I am tremendously impressed by P.G.’s willingness to stand up to the gun lobby," Celeste said. "I wish we had more people in public life willing to be as bold."
Strickland, who now supports some gun-control measures, has received criticism for his apparent flip-flop on the issue. While Strickland’s representatives have said repeatedly that the former governor changed his mind following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, audio released by Sittenfeld’s campaign last month showed Strickland touting his pro-gun record and A+ rating from the NRA during a March 2015 radio interview.
Citing their differences on guns, Sittenfeld has demanded Strickland debate him ahead of the March 15 primary. Strickland has refused, which Celeste criticized Thursday. Ex-party leaders have expressed disapproval of Strickland’s decision to turn down the debate.
"I’m a very strong believer in the importance of debates to help voters see candidates clearly, be able to compare them side-by-side in a positive context," Celeste said. "I believe that robust primaries with robust debates are great for the political process and great for our people."
The former governor also said he was disappointed that the Ohio Democratic Party has not sanctioned debates between the candidates.
While Sittenfeld has picked up endorsements from a number of Democratic officials, the state party endorsed Strickland less than two months after he announced his campaign last February and others have also jumped to endorse him. Celeste described the party’s hasty endorsement of Strickland as unhealthy for the political process.
"I believe there was a great deal of what I would call ‘premature endorsement.’ I think that the Ohio Democratic Party made a mistake in making an endorsement as early as it did," Celeste said.
Celeste dismissed the idea that Strickland’s age—he is 74—was a vulnerability, but the former governor said that he views Sittenfeld as the "future" of the Democratic Party in the state. He also said that his children were enthusiastic about Sittenfeld and encouraged him to take an interest in the young Democrat.
"I don’t think age is the issue. I think it is a frame of mind that is an issue. We have a candidate that is young and wise at the same time," Celeste said.
Sittenfeld is trailing Strickland by 50 percentage points, according to a poll commissioned by the Ohio Democratic Party. Another Democrat, little-known activist Kelli Prather, is also running for the nomination.
Celeste served as director of the Peace Corps under President Jimmy Carter and, after two terms as governor, went on to become U.S. ambassador to India under President Bill Clinton.
Celeste has largely stayed away from politics in recent years, though he did file 3,000 signatures on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to get her onto Ohio’s presidential primary ballot.
Hillary Clinton has voiced support for Strickland, and Bill Clinton endorsed Strickland.