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Commentary: Hamilton County Dems Learning That Being The Dominant Party Has Its Pitfalls

A sampling of Hamilton County Democrats vying for various seats include, clockwise from top left, Fanon Rucker, Gabe Davis, Kate Schroder, Nikki Foster, Charmaine McGuffey, Kelli Prather, Connie Pillich and Alicia Reece.
Rucker, Tana Weingartner/WVXU; Prather, Facebook; all others courtesy of the candidates
A sampling of Hamilton County Democrats vying for various seats include, clockwise from top left, Fanon Rucker, Gabe Davis, Kate Schroder, Nikki Foster, Charmaine McGuffey, Kelli Prather, Connie Pillich and Alicia Reece.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Hamilton County Democratic Party faced an upcoming candidate filing deadline with a sense of dread, as if it were a gigantic root canal and the anesthetic wasn't taking hold.

For the Democrats, it was usually a mad scramble to find candidates willing to stick their necks out in a reliably red county and give the voters alternatives to Republican incumbents for county and state legislative offices.

Alternatives that the vast majority of voters chose to ignore.

The candidate filing deadline meant there would be big blank spaces on the ballot, where the Democratic Party simply had to throw up its hands and allow the GOP incumbent to win re-election without opposition.

What's the point of having political parties if one of them constantly fails to field a full slate of candidates?

But that was then.

This is now – a rejuvenated Hamilton County Democratic Party buoyed by big wins in judicial races, county races and state legislative races in recent years, up-ending more than a few incumbent Republicans who had once felt all comfy and cozy, without the threat of opposition.

Now, a race where the Democrats don't have a candidate is an exception and not the rule.

They have no trouble finding Democrats willing to run for any office in a county that has been solidly blue in the last three presidential election years.

This year, 2020, is a presidential year of course, with an incumbent Republican president in Donald Trump, who has absolutely no coattails whatsoever.

While Trump was busy winning Ohio by eight percentage points in 2016, he could wrangle only 42% of Hamilton County voters into supporting him. It was far worse inside the city of Cincinnati, where he won only 25%.

The good news, then, is that the Hamilton County Democratic Party has no trouble attracting candidates these days.

The bad news, though, is that the Hamilton County Democratic Party has no trouble attracting candidates these days.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,as Will Shakespeare wrote.

Given all the demographic changes that Hamilton County has seen over the past 20 to 30 years, the Democrats unquestionably have the upper hand today. Droves of Republican voters have either moved to the GOP havens of Butler, Warren and Clermont counties, or to Florida or Arizona, or have shuffled off this mortal coil(more Will S.).

Democratic lawyers who once were reluctant to run for judgeships have climbed out of their hidey-holes and taken the plunge, and have won in considerable numbers.

For county offices, Democrats watched the then-unknown Aftab Pureval upend a Winkler (Tracy) to take over the county clerk of courts office and are now emboldened to give it a try themselves.

Early voting for the March 17 primary election opens on Feb. 19, just a little over a month from now.

Those who vote early or go to the polls on Election Day and ask for a Democratic ballot may be surprised by the number of contested races they will be asked to decide.

If they are veteran voters, it will be considerably more than they have been faced with in the past.

The contested primaries on the Democratic side include:

  • Ohio First Congressional District: Kate Schroder of Clifton and Nikki Foster of Mason are facing off to take on incumbent Republican Steve Chabot in November.
  • Hamilton County Commissioner (Todd Portune's seat): Three Democratic candidates fighting it out for the nomination: two former state representatives, Connie Pillich and Alicia Reece; and Kelli Prather.
  • Hamilton County Prosecutor: Former judge Fanon Rucker and Gabe Davis vying for the Democratic nomination to face incumbent Republican Joe Deters.
  • Hamilton County Sheriff: Incumbent Jim Neil is being challenged by one of the former top officers of his department, Charmaine McGuffey, who has also filed a lawsuit against Neil.
  • Hamilton County Recorder: Three Democrats on the ballot: Scott Crowley, Maxwell D. Kinman, Eric Wolterman. The winner will face incumbent Republican Norbert Nadel.

There are also two state representative incumbents who have primary opposition and one Democratic primary for Hamilton County Drug Court judge.

Saturday morning, at the Laborers Union Hall in Evanston, the Hamilton County Democratic Party's executive committee, made up of about 200 members, will meet to hear the recommendations of nominating committees that interviewed all the candidates.

They will then decide whether to endorse a candidate in each race, and vote on which candidate will run with a party endorsement.

Or they can save themselves a lot of hard feelings and bruised egos by voting not to endorse at all in any or all of the races.

We're not saying that fisticuffs will break out Saturday over these decisions, but some will be a little touchy.

For some, like the sheriff's race and the Portune commission seat, emotions are running fairly high, and we would not be surprised to see some internal arguing among executive committee members.

Fighting among themselves, it seems, is one of the Democratic Party's favorite pastimes.

And sometimes it can get in the way of winning elections.

We'll address the sheriff's race on its own before the election, but, for now, let's look at the county commission mess.

As we all know, Democrat Todd Portune's Hamilton County Commission seat – which he had held for nearly 20 years – was left vacant at 5 p.m. on Dec. 31, as Portune fulfilled his promise to resign at the end of the year to focus on a monumental battle against the cancer that has ravaged his body.

Hamilton County Democrats almost universally admire Portune. Who wouldn't, given the overwhelming health problems he has faced in recent years while still showing up for work and fighting for the issues he cares about?

But, knowingly or not, Portune left his political party in a bit of a pickle.

In November, Portune endorsed Connie Pillich, one of the three Democratic candidates running for his seat in the March 17 primary, in hopes of winning a four-year term as county commission.

Then, a few weeks later, Portune sent a letter to Hamilton County Democratic Party chair Gwen McFarlin saying that he wanted the party's central committee to appoint his loyal chief of staff, Victoria Parks, to fill out the final year of his current term.

Here, in a nutshell, is the dilemma the Hamilton County Democratic Party faces over the county commission race:

Last Saturday, the party's central committee voted unanimously to appoint Parks to replace Portune for the rest of the year, specifically because they believed it was Portune's wish that they do so.

Now, this Saturday, the party's executive committee will meet in the same Evanston union hall they met in last Saturday to do one of two things: endorse one of the three candidates on the March 17 ballot (Pillich, Reece or Prather); or they could decide to drop back and punt this hot potato and endorse no one.

We know that both of the major candidates – Pillich and Reece – want this endorsement badly. But how could the party justify appointing Parks for the rest of this term and not endorse Pillich in the primary election?

After all, Portune also made a point of telling the world that he wanted Pillich to follow him in office for the next four years.

Politics may be a business where saying one thing and doing another is as common as dirt, but this sort of contradiction would be hard to explain, even for a roomful of politicians.

Yes, there could be a fight. If not, it is because – perhaps right this moment – the campaigns and the party may well be working out a satisfactory resolution.

This race is the Democrats' to lose. The GOP is fielding a little-known Indian Hill businessman, Andy Black, who will likely have the money to make himself better known but will still be a decided underdog.

If there are bad feelings after this Democratic primary, they would be well-advised to knock it off immediately, if not sooner.  

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.


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Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.