Commentary: Even Republicans On The Board Of Elections Seem Sorry To See Burke Go

Feb 13, 2019

Two guys, Tim and Alex, who would fuss and fight with each other on the Hamilton County Board of Elections every once in a while (OK, quite a bit) knew how to put their partisan differences aside at the end of the day.

Unheard of in this age of uncivil talk and smart aleck tweets in politics.

But, Democrat Tim Burke and Republican Alex Triantafilou proved for years that it could happen on the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

You really have to search far and wide to find a more dedicated Democrat than Tim Burke.

Essentially, his entire adult life was spent with the Democratic Party:

  • as a young Cleveland native who was president of the Xavier University student body in the late '60s;
  • through his years as a friend and aide to Cincinnati City Councilman Jerry Springer in the 1970s;
  • to his battles as one of the county party's "Young Turks" determined to take control of the party from hard-nosed, hard-edged John "Socko" Wiethe;
  • through his own 24 years as Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman, which ended with his retirement last year;
  • to Tuesday morning, when, at the county board of elections headquarters in Norwood, he presided over his final meeting as a chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

Burke was a member of the board of elections – one of two Democratic representatives on that body – for 26 years, longer than anyone in the history of Hamilton County, longer than anyone in this county since Ohio became a state in 1803.

Over the years on the elections board, Burke fought many a battle with the two Republicans on the board – for many of those years with Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou and lobbyist Chip Gerhardt.

Battles where he and his Democratic colleague on the board – from the late Don Driehaus to Dan Radford to Caleb Faux in recent years – split down the middle on any number of controversial issues and sent their tie votes to the Ohio Secretary of State to break the logjam.

They were often loud, and angry, and unpleasant.

But, somehow, through all of that, Burke – the leader of the county's Democrats – and Triantafilou – who runs the county GOP – became friendly adversaries, two lawyers with mutual respect for one another's skills and integrity.

It all came pouring out as the three other board members spoke kind words about Burke from inside the board room, as Burke's wife Patty and one of his daughters, Nora Burke Wagner, sat in the front row.

Tim Burke (left), with wife Patty, Alex Triantafilu and daughter Nora Burke Wagner.
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU

Triantafilou, who is as Greek as it gets, presented Burke, a Friendly Son of St. Patrick, with a pan full of baklava, made with his mother's recipe.

Triantafilou, a former judge, had been named party chairman and a member of the board of elections on March 17, 2008 – a not-insignificant date for an Irishman like Burke.

He wasn't in his office when he got a call from Burke, but someone left a Post-it note on his desk to call his Democratic counterpart.

"I called you back and we had a really nice chat,'' Triantafilou said. "I was surprised – but in hindsight, maybe not so surprised – that you would do something like that.

"That slip of paper is still hanging on the wall at Republican headquarters."

A few years ago, after much angst over moving the county's early voting location out of Downtown, the board of elections picked up and moved from the old building on Broadway to a more spacious location in Norwood, on the site of the old GM plant.

Some predicted that the move would make it nearly impossible for some voters – particularly African-Americans – to cast early ballots if they had to go all the way to Norwood.

Since the move was made – with Burke onboard – there has been a 400 percent increase in early voting.

"Moving out here is your greatest achievement as board chairman, Tim,'' Triantafilou said.

Burke joked about his GOP colleagues.

"Most people from the outside think that all we do is fight. But we all have respect for the process."

"Chip's part of the Gilligan family and Alex is the son of a UAW worker,'' Burke said. "I can't figure out why they are Republicans. But they both represent their party well."

Gerhardt told Burke that, in his years on the board, he had never heard Burke speak to anyone – a fellow board member or a voter coming before the board – with disrespect.

"Most people from the outside think that all we do is fight,'' Gerhardt said. "But we all have respect for the process.

"You Democrats have your weird traditions and weird handshakes and we Republicans have our weird traditions and weird handshakes,'' Gerhardt said. "But we know, from where we sit here on the board, that elections are conducted fairly."

Does politics intrude sometimes? Yes, said Gerhardt. But it doesn't corrupt the process.

"It's like Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone in Godfather II,'' Gerhardt said. "This is the life we've chosen."

All four laughed at that line.

Democrats and Republicans having a laugh together.

And doing their jobs.

Just like on Capitol Hill. Just like in the White House.

Unfortunately, the previous sentence is complete fiction. The Inside-the-Beltway crowd could learn a lesson from these guys.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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