Gwen McFarlin: No Co-Chair, No Problem

Nov 28, 2018

The law of unintended consequences doesn't always lead to bad consequences.

Ask Gwen McFarlin, the Springfield Township trustee who, at the start of the month, was the co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and now, as November comes to an end, is the one and only chairwoman of the party.

Although she hadn't expected it, McFarlin is just fine with that.

"I am prepared for this job, and I want to build on the success we had in this election," she told WVXU.

McFarlin is now chair of a political party which is, for the first time in anyone's living memory, the dominant political party of Hamilton County.

Back in June, the Hamilton County Democratic Party's central committee met in an Evendale union hall to choose a successor to Tim Burke, who was retiring after about a quarter of a century as the party chair. The central committee overwhelmingly went for the team approach.

They elected McFarlin and former state representative Connie Pillich as the co-chairs of the party.

There were practical reasons for this at the time.

First of all, there were those in the party who believed the African-Americans – the loyal of the many factions of the Democratic Party – should be represented in the local party's leadership.

McFarlin fits the bill. Back in 1995, she became the first African-American elected to the Springfield Township Board of Trustees.

And, while there have been periods where the party was run by co-chairs, there had never been a time when the party was run by two women.

And Pillich and McFarlin were considered a good match, each bringing her own skillset to the table – Pillich, with her ability to raise prodigious amounts of campaign money and McFarlin, with her skills as a grassroots organizer and ability to get Democrats out to vote.

It worked.

It was the best election the Hamilton County Democrats have had in – well, probably forever.

While every single Democratic candidate for statewide constitutional offices – governor, secretary of state, attorney general, auditor and treasurer – lost statewide, each and every one of the statewide Democrats won in Hamilton County – including the two Ohio Supreme Court candidates who were elected statewide.

And, despite having no party designations on the ballot, the Democrats picked up four appeals court and common pleas judgeships, and got another appeals court judge re-elected.

The Democrats will have three of the six seats on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals – and we can find no one who remembers a time when that was the case.

We will guarantee you there is no one alive who remembers a time when the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners was entirely made up of Democrats.

But that will be the case now, with Stephanie Summerow Dumas, a former Forest Park mayor, running a low-cost, below-the-radar campaign and knocking off two-term incumbent Republican Chris Monzel.

This threw the GOP establishment for a loop. They were simply dazed by that one.

In hindsight, Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, believes he has it figured out.

"Women elected her,'' Triantafilou said. "The fact is, we are losing ground with suburban women. And we have to find a way to get them back."

To be fair, the statewide Democratic ticket was wiped out on election day for the third mid-term election in a row and clearly has problems it needs to address.

Perhaps they need to look south to Hamilton County to find a model for success.

Election day was not a bad day for the co-chairs, although the fact is that, by the time the polls opened on Nov. 6, one of the co-chairs – Pillich – had left town and was working in Washington, D.C. as the brand new executive director of the National Association of Women Judges.

Back in June, when the central committee was electing the party's new leadership, Pillich and McFarlin made their pitch for the co-chair positions.

"Hamilton County is on the verge of an irreversible path,'' Pillich told the central committee. "It may be long and it may be bumpy, but there is going to be only one result – this county is going blue."

But, for the time being at least, it is going blue without her.

McFarlin told WVXU that, at first, she did not know Pillich was looking for another job. She learned of it later in the campaign season, and that she and Pillich talked a lot about it.

"I am so very happy for Connie,'' McFarlin said. "She is like a sister to me."

Former congressman Steve Driehaus, who was urged by some to run for party chair in the spring, told WVXU that Pillich "wasn't around long enough to put her stamp on the party. We had very high expectations for her going in."

Driehaus suggested that party leaders have to take a look at the party by-laws "to see if we are now required to elect a co-chair."

That issue has already been decided at the state party level. The answer is no.

Bill DeMora, the secretary of the Ohio Democratic Party, wrote a letter to McFarlin last week.

"Since Hamilton County had a co-chair arrangement, there is no need to hold an election to fill Connie's position,'' DeMora wrote. "You will become chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and serve as such until the end of the current term."

The current term ends in 2020.

McFarlin did tell WVXU that the party could use some help in the fundraising department with Pillich gone.

"We have to find an appropriate person to raise money,'' McFarlin said. "That is absolutely necessary if we are going to continue to have success."

"Anybody who thinks you can get yourself elected and then stop working had better think again,'' McFarlin said. "We want elected officials who get the job done. And candidates who can plan and work to be re-elected."

Driehaus said he hopes the party "professionalizes" its operations. And, he said, the party has to "make its endorsement mean something."

"We shouldn't just give it away,'' Driehaus said. "We need to have a Democratic agenda that can apply to every level of government – whether it is transportation issues, issues of poverty, job creation. We have to be able to tell voters what it means to be a Democrat."

Triantafilou said it's obvious that the Republican base which once ruled nearly every part of county government has shrunk considerably over the years.

"Our voters are more disciplined than theirs, but there just aren't as many of us as there used to be,'' Triantafilou said.

The GOP, he said, has to recruit and run more "non-traditional candidates" – people who will appeal to women voters, Democrats and independents alike.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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