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Former AFSCME member elected judge in Ohio

Photo credit: AFSCME Ohio Council 8
Former AFSCME member elected judge in Ohio
By Pablo Ros ·
Tags: Momentum
Former AFSCME member elected judge in Ohio

Back in November, Jennifer O’Donnell, a longtime public defender and member of AFSCME Ohio Council 8 Local 3631, was elected to serve on the Common Pleas Court of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland. Now Judge Jennifer O’Donnell, she is proud and excited to continue her career of public service while bringing a unique voice and perspective to the bench. 

O’Donnell says she was raised in a family very much oriented toward public service: her mom is a social worker and her late father was active in the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union. “I grew up with that genetic connection to wanting to help people,” she says. “Just the possibility every day that you’re potentially able to help someone is very gratifying. In many areas of law you don’t always get that satisfaction.” 

O’Donnell discusses how she decided to run for public office, what her first steps were and who helped her along the way.  

What motivated you to run for elected office? 

Our Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas is the busiest court in Ohio, with 34 judges overseeing a civil, criminal and foreclosure docket. Prior to my election, there were no public defenders elected to the bench. A good half of the judges were coming out of the prosecutor’s office. Public defenders provide a voice to the most vulnerable members of our community. So, prior to my election, that voice was not represented on the bench. This was a big motivator for me. I wanted to bring that balance and a different perspective to the bench. 

What were some of the pros and cons you weighed before making a decision? 

There were reasons not to run. Running was one more really time-consuming activity to add to my already busy life. As a public defender, I was carrying really heavy caseloads. Also, I’m a mom, and at the time my son was 2 years old. I had to have a conversation with my husband about whether this is even doable. Are you going to be able to pick up the slack at home? When I was running for political office, I was gone four or five nights a week, sometimes more. One reason not to do it was the toll it might take on my family. But my husband and I talked, and he’s always been incredibly supportive of me and my goals.  


AFSCME Ohio Council 8 members got out the vote for one of their own, Jennifer O’Donnell, when she successfully ran last fall to become a judge. Photo: AFSCME Ohio Council 8

What was the first step you took after deciding to run?  

The first thing I did after I decided to run was I reached out to our Cuyahoga County Democratic Party to figure out what would be the first step. I think it’s really important before you can have a successful campaign to make those internal connections. You want to have a wide coalition of support. So, one of the first steps was to sit down with stakeholders in cities throughout the county and with city council members from each ward and people active in the community, and to figure out what are their concerns, what is the experience of residents with the criminal justice system. I did a lot of listening in those first few months. 

During your campaign, did you get help from AFSCME? 

Absolutely. One of the things I had grown to know about being part of AFSCME is that it’s really like being part of a family, and when we’re talking about siblings in our union, it’s not just talk – it really is about showing up for one another. 

What was the hardest thing about running for office?  

I think one of the hardest things was realizing how difficult and at times brutal politics can be and developing a bit of a tougher skin. You also have to figure out who is going to be part of that inner circle that you know you can trust. It’s not very big. I think mental toughness is what got me through a lot of this experience and having that close circle that I could rely on. 

What advice would you give a member of our union who is considering running for public office? 

I would say go for it. When you’re in public service, it’s important to stay engaged. We need people to continue to run for public office. If you’re passionate and you have something unique to add to an elected office, do it. Get out of your comfort zone and do it. 


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