Democrats getting better at recruiting judicial candidates

Sep 14, 2014

The Hamilton County Democratic Party is getting better these days at something they used to struggle with – recruiting candidates to run for judgeships.

On Nov. 4, we will see if they are getting any better at actually electing them.

This year, there are 13 judgeships for election in Hamilton County –a seat on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals, eight in the general division of Common Pleas Court, and one each in the juvenile, domestic relations, probate and drug court divisions of the Common Pleas Court.

Seven of them are contested races.

Six years ago, the last time those 13 judgeships were on the ballot, only two were contested races. The rest contained only one name on the ballot; and all but one of them were Republicans.

Usually, there is a tremendous drop-off in the votes cast for the judicial candidates compared to the top-of-the-ticket races, especially in a presidential year, which, of course, this is not.

And this year, even with a governor’s race which is something less than a thriller, there will be a drop-off this year as well – maybe as much as 35 percent in some of the contested races.

A lot of people just don’t vote for judicial candidates – perhaps because they are not as well known or the fact that the judicial races are placed so far down the ballot.

It’s up to the political parties to try to get the message out to their voters to not stop at the top of the ballot, but keep going and vote in the judicial races as well.

Democratic Party leaders are feeling their oats this year about the judicial races, believing they have a real chance to pick up some judgeships that have been held by Republicans.

One of the reasons, Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said, is that the demographics of the county have been changing in the Democrats’ favor in recent years. The county has not yet turned from red to blue, but is taking on a purple tinge.

That, he said, is encouraging Democratic lawyers to come out and take on Republicans in judicial elections.

“President Obama has won Hamilton County twice, and (U.S. Senator) Sherrod Brown won the county two years ago,’’ Burke said. “We have a Democratic county commissioner, the sheriff, the recorder, the auditor. It’s just a better atmosphere now for Democrats.”

Still, it is a rarity for a Democrat to knock off an incumbent Republican judge. The last time it happened in  a countywide judicial race was in 2008, when Democrat Jerry Metz defeated Republican incumbent Fred Nelson for a common pleas judgeship.

“The fact is, our voters tend to vote all the way down the ticket,’’ said Hamilton County Republican Party chairman Alex Triantafilou.

“Democrats run a little better in presidential years,’’ Triantafilou said. “But this is going to be a Republican year; and they are not going to get much help from the top of their statewide ticket.”

But Triantafilou concedes that there will be some tough judicial races this year.

Here are some that bear watching:

Probate Court judge:

Incumbent Republican James Cissell can’t run again because of Ohio’s age limit laws. The race to replace him pits two of the best-known surnames in Cincinnati politics – Democrat Charlie Luken and Republican Ralph Winkler.

Luken has been on the scene since the 1970s, serving on council and as mayor before serving one term in Congress. He then went on to work as a news anchor at WLWT (channel 5); and became mayor again in 2001 in Cincinnati’s first direct election for mayor. Luken, Burke said, “is well liked, well regarded and well known. And he is working hard on this campaign.”

Winkler is the son of a retired judge and brother of another, while his wife is clerk of courts and his late mother was a state representative and Green Township Trustee. Winkler himself has served on both the Municipal Court and Common Pleas Court. “He’ll run on his experience on the bench,’’ said Triantafilou. “He has it; his opponent doesn’t.”

Ohio First District Court of Appeals:

This is an open seat; and the two candidates are both well-regarded Municipal Court judges – Russell Mock for the Republicans; Fanon A. Rucker for the Democrats.

Rucker, Burke said, “has a decent shot; and a lot of it depends on turnout in the African-American community, where he is well known and respected.” And, Burke said, if he wins, he will have the distinction of being the first African-American to be elected to the First District Court of Appeals, Burke said.

Mock, on the other hand, “is going to have more resources to spend,’’ Triantafilou said. “And he is one of our bright, shining stars. I feel good about about this one.”

Common Pleas Court (term beginning Feb. 10):

This one pits the Democrat incumbent Metz, who six years ago defeated the GOP incumbent. “He does more door-to-door work than any judicial candidate I have ever seen,’’ Burke said.

He’s opposed by Charles Miller, a lawyer for Keating, Muething & Klekamp, who has been showing up at parades and community events with armies of volunteers, all wearing campaign T-shirts with a Miller logo that looks almost identical to the logo for Miller beer. Triantafilou says Miller will have the financial resources to run a competitive campaign.

Domestic Relations Court:

Republican Amy Searcy left her job as the director of the Hamilton County board of Elections in May when she was appointed to the vacant judgeship by Gov. John Kasich. Prior to becoming elections director in 2009, Searcy had served as a magistrate in the Municipal Court.

Her Democratic opponent, Ray Pater, has never served as a judge, but Democratic party leaders says the Clifton Heights resident knows how the domestic relations court works because he heads the Butler County Child Support Enforcement Agency.

Neither candidate has been on the ballot before, so it could be a very competitive race.

Juvenile Court:

Democrats believe this can be a competitive race; Republicans are convinced they win fairly easily.

Either way, it has an interesting dynamic to it.

The Republican incumbent is John Williams. He was appointed to a vacant judgeship after losing a 2010 Juvenile Court race to Democrat Tracie Hunter. He had a tiny lead on election night in 2010, but Hunter went to federal court; and, after 18 months of litigation, was declared the winner when a federal judge ordered disputed provisional ballots to be counted. Hunter is now a suspended judge; and is on trial on nine criminal counts.

Her lawyer in the battle to have the disputed provisional ballots counted was civil rights lawyer Jennifer Branch.

And, now, Branch is the Democratic candidate trying to unseat Williams. Branch has support from labor, from the gay and lesbian community (she is a lawyer in the litigation to overturn Ohio’s ban on same sex marriage), and doubtless has support from Hunter’s supporters, particularly in the African-American community.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, will pull out all the stops to elect Williams, a long-time favorite of the county GOP leadership.

The other two contested races for Common Pleas judgeships pit Republican Patrick Dinkelacker, now an appeals court judge, against Democrat John M. Mereness, a first time candidate with over 20 years as a lawyer specializing in business law; and Republican Carl Stich Jr., appointed to the bench last year, against Democrat Pat Foley, another first time candidate with 37 years of experience as a lawyer.

Burke said the challenge will be to get Democrats to turn out to the polls; and he believes the fact that there is a Cincinnati Public School levy on the ballot will help turn out Democratic voters in the city.

Triantafilou is banking on this being a good Republican year statewide and his belief that GOP voters are more likely to vote the entire ballot than Democrats.

In the end, it will be about what every election is about – which party is best at getting its voters to the polls.