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Politics
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Taylor Sappington is 30 years old, gay and Appalachian. He wants to be Ohio's state auditor

taylor sappington wears glasses and smiles in a blue polo and gray jacket with bare trees in the background
Courtesy of the candidate
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Chances are you have not heard of Taylor Sappington, the Democratic candidate for Ohio auditor.

Especially if you live outside of a small city named Nelsonville, nestled in the Appalachian foothills in the northwest corner of Athens County.

Chances are you are going to hear a lot more from him, because he may be the most interesting human being to run for statewide office in Ohio — ever.

Consider:

  • He is 30 years old, possibly the youngest candidate for statewide office in living memory, running against a 56-year-old career politician in Republican Keith Faber, the incumbent.
  • He is an openly gay man, the first LGBTQ major party candidate for statewide office in Ohio.
  • He had a hard-scrabble life growing up. He and his brother were raised by their mother in a trailer on a hillside outside Nelsonville, where they sometimes had the power turned off but where his mother, Amy Hawk, taught him the value of hard work and "the difference between right and wrong."
  • He ran for city auditor in 2019, won the election by a handful of votes, and immediately went to work rooting out corruption that had been running rampant in the auditor's office, in an investigation that sent a former deputy auditor to prison.

A 30-year-old gay Democrat from Appalachia. Probably not what the Ohio Republican Party was expecting.

The Republican slate of incumbent statewide officeholders in Ohio are white males in suits, generally as bland as vanilla ice cream. Can't even be made tasty even by a load of chocolate syrup. (Regular vanilla, that is. Not French vanilla, which is pretty tasty.) They have proven themselves to be good at one thing — getting elected in Ohio.

But Taylor Sappington is Neapolitan ice cream. Something out of the ordinary.

"The most important thing I want the people of Ohio to know about me is that this is a different kind of campaign with a different kind of candidate," Sappington said. "I was raised as a working-class kid; I'm earning a modest living as city auditor. I think I am someone the average Ohioan can relate to."

A small-town guy running for a big-time office

Faber, the former state senate president from Celina, is the incumbent state auditor, elected four years ago.

keith faber, in a suit and tie, stands at a podium
Jay LaPrete
/
AP
FILE – In this June 28, 2016, file photo, Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, a Republican, speaks during an event marking the renaming of Port Columbus International Airport to John Glenn Columbus International Airport in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio Senate President Keith Faber is a lead sponsor of a bill passed by the state Senate on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, that would create a review process for at least 25 state agencies under the governor’s authority, allowing lawmakers to more easily eliminate agencies. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

The auditor's office has over 800 employees and is responsible for auditing the books of more than 5,900 public offices in Ohio — including cities, counties, townships, villages, school districts, state universities, public libraries and a host of state boards and commissions.

Sappington, in his office in Nelsonville, has one person reporting to him — the deputy auditor.

Sappington is not awed by the task.

"I have no doubt that I can do this job," Sappington said in a phone interview. "And you can't fix something with what broke it."

Faber, Sappington says, has done little to investigate the FirstEnergy scandal that led to the arrest of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and other GOP associates, and hangs like a storm cloud over the entire Ohio Republican establishment.

"How many politicians do we need to haul out in handcuffs before Keith Faber realizes there is a problem in Ohio?" Sappington said.

Faber has unwittingly handed Sappington another campaign issue that he is already campaigning on — the mess created by the Republican majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission that has now had its state legislative district maps rejected twice by the Ohio Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

The state auditor, by law, is a member of that commission. Faber is one of the five Republicans on the seven-member commission. If Sappington were to win in November, he would take Faber's seat on the commission.

Right after the Ohio Supreme Court issued its decision Monday, Sappington went on Twitter with a video message for Ohioans.

"The dirty truth is that the GOP members of the redistricting commission know exactly what they've done," Sappington said in the tweet. "They know that their maps are dishonest, unfair and illegal. The supreme court saw right through them. And you should too. Don't let them off the hook."

Sappington told me the tweet was a gut reaction when he heard the news.

"I know Twitter doesn't reach a lot of people, but it reaches a lot of people who care about this issue," Sappington said. "And I want to introduce myself to those people. I need to."

The more you talk to Taylor Sappington the more you realize that his passion for public service was a product of his single mother, Amy Hawk, who raised Taylor and his brother Spencer on that hillside outside Nelsonville.

"She made me understand that I had to be right with myself first before I could go trying to influence others," Sappington said. "She taught me the difference between right and wrong. She would say that if you were about to do something and you couldn't look yourself in the eye, it wasn't for you. That's the way I've tried to live."

His record on things that were 'seriously wrong'

He is not a lawyer or an accountant, but he is clearly good with numbers and knows his way about a balance sheet.

Sappington proved that in December 2019 after being elected city auditor, having spent a term on Nelsonville City Council.

"I walked into the auditor's office on day number one, looked at the books, and I knew there was something seriously wrong," Sappington said. "Records missing or altered, documents in disarray. So, I started a crafty and quiet investigation."

After working with area prosecutors, Sappington had cracked the case and charges were filed against the former deputy auditor within eight weeks of his taking office.

Then, last fall, Nelsonville challenged the 2020 U.S. Census numbers which showed Nelsonville with a population of 4,612 — 388 people less than the 5,000 needed to reach city status under Ohio law. If those numbers held, Nelsonville would go from being an official city to just another village.

Sappington wasn't buying it. He knew there were more than 5,000 people in Nelsonville. He organized a 15-day campaign to find every living soul in Nelsonville and record them on spreadsheets. His volunteers canvassed every block. A local restaurant catered a ham and green beans dinner for the whole community, where people could come and be registered as citizens of Nelsonville.

It worked. Sappington's drive showed that there are 5,373 people in Nelsonville and the names were presented to the state.

The state of Ohio granted Nelsonville city status once again.

He is proud of the work he has done as city auditor and he is also proud to be the first openly gay person to run for statewide office as a major party candidate.

"Yes, I think it's relevant," Sappington said of his sexual orientation. "It is something that can inspire others in the LGBTQ community to aim high, to be proud of who they are and what they can accomplish."

And, he said, it "sends a message to the straight community that we are decent, hard-working Ohioans just like them."

"All of this matters," Sappington said. "It's one thing to talk about equality; it's another thing to actually have a seat at the table. I want that seat at the table."