Photo finish expected in Ohio primary

The race among the six Democrats vying to become the nominee in today’s primary in Ohio’s 13th Congressional District turned nasty this past weekend as the three leading Democrats tried to separate themselves from the pack.

Capri Cafaro, the multimillionaire shopping-mall heiress, attacked party favorite Betty Sutton in television ads, charging that “extreme special-interest groups” support Sutton.

But Sutton’s campaign counterattacked, her campaign manager said. The campaign placed automated phone calls to voters in which the caller says, “Cafaro took an immunity deal in the bribery scandal of [former Rep.] James Traficant [D-Ohio] and admitted to money-laundering.”

A woman named Cindy places the call, but she does not identify herself. In real life, Cindy is Betty Sutton’s sister.

The Cafaro campaign received one of the robo-calls at its campaign headquarters, but Anna Landmark, Sutton’s campaign manager, said that she was not aware of the call and that the call to the campaign was not intentional.

“That should tell you how desperate our opponents are, and our opponents are desperately trying to save face,” Cafaro spokesman Pete Zigler said.

Although Cafaro has no criminal record, her father was sentenced to jail for bribing Traficant, who was thrown out of Congress in 2001. She worked as her father’s political operative in his Virginia-based aerospace firm.

National Democrats are leery about her winning the nomination while they trumpet allegations that Republicans have created a “culture of corruption” during their 12-year reign in the House.

Cafaro has poured $1.9 million of her fortune into the race, according to politicalmoneyline.com. This is her second attempt to win a seat in Congress; in 2004 she lost to Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio).

Democrats who want to see Cafaro lose also called a direct-mail piece from her campaign misleading. It features a photo of her with former Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), which opponents said suggests that they endorsed her.

Neither Glenn nor Edwards has endorsed Cafaro, but Zigler said Cafaro has known them for years.

While there is no apparent front-runner in today’s primary, a poll released last week by WKYC, the local NBC affiliate, showed that former Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-Ohio); Sutton, a labor lawyer; and Cafaro each had 24 percent of the vote. The remaining three Democrats, including Gary Kucinich, brother of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), trailed the leaders.

Sawyer has relied on his status as a former lawmaker and on widespread name recognition. But as a member he voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement, angering voters in the heavily unionized district.

Sutton has capitalized on that by securing endorsements from labor unions and the feminist EMILY’s List and behind-the-scenes help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“Clearly, given the momentum that she has demonstrated, she is poised to win,” said Romona Oliver, the spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, arguing that Sutton would win because she is the favorite of labor unions, whose voters make up 38 percent of the district.

Sutton spent $250,000 on television ads in April and had nearly $21,000 on hand at the end of March.

The Democratic winner will face Craig Foltin, the GOP mayor of Lorain, in November. The seat opened up when Brown decided to run for the Senate.