Winburn, Thomas go toe-to-toe for open Ohio Senate seat

Oct 17, 2014

Charlie Winburn, Cecil Thomas
Credit Sarah Ramsey

9th Ohio Senate District:

The  9th is district is the most heavily Democratic Ohio Senate district in southwest Ohio. It has about 335,000 people living in it, including those in central city neighborhoods – including downtown, Avondale, Clifton, Bond Hill, Roselawn, Northside, College Hill, the West End and suburbs such as Norwood and Wyoming. A majority of its residents are African-American; and it is heavily Democratic. In 2012, President Obama won 74 percent of the vote. Since the 1960s, it has been represented by an African -American Democrat, except for a three year period in the 1990s when a African-American Republican, Janet Howard, represented it. The incumbent, Eric Kearney, can’t run for re-election under Ohio’s term limit law. Democrat Cecil Thomas and Republican Charlie Winburn are running for Kearney’s seat.

The Candidates

Cecil Thomas (Democrat)

The 61-year-old North Avondale resident became a familiar figure to people in Cincinnati neighborhoods for his 27 years as a Cincinnati police officer, his five years as executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, and nearly eight years as a Cincinnati council member, resigning in 2013 and handing over his seat to his wife, Pamula, who lost in the fall election.

He is particularly proud of the work he did as head of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission in 2001, after civil unrest broke out in the city after the shooting death of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old in Over-the-Rhine.

“Cecil emerged as a remarkable leader using his experience as a police officer and community leader to quell the violence,’’ his official campaign bio says.

Now Thomas, who was born in Alabama and came with his family to Cincinnati’s West End at the age of 8, is taking on a new challenge – the state senate.

“Life experience is the best teacher,’’ Thomas said in an Oct. 8 debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the Community Action Agency and Enquirer Media. “I think a lot about what my best purpose in life is. Who would have thought that a poor boy from Birmingham, Alabama would be in this position?”

Now, though, he is in the political fight of his life, up against an opponent in Winburn who will outspend him by a large margin

“I have never spent a lot of money on campaigns,’’ Thomas told WVXU. “Going door-to-door, getting out on the streets and talking to people, going to the churches – that’s been my way of campaigning and that’s what I’m doing now.”

Most of Thomas’ campaign yard signs prominently display the fact that he is a Democrat – probably a wise move in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. And some signs even point that out that Winburn is a Republican.

Today, there are 10 Democrats and 23 Republicans in the Ohio Senate. Winburn, if he wins, could become the 24th, and the only African-American among the GOP senators.

On the campaign trail, Winburn has been tweeking Thomas by saying that if Thomas is elected, he will be just another minority Democrat.

“The statehouse is run by Republicans, whether you like it or not,’’ Winburn said in the Oct. 8 debate. “Nothing gets done without the approval of the Republicans. Mr. Thomas is a Democrat and won’t get anything done.”

Thomas rejects that argument completely.

“The fact is that unless there is an ability to have bipartisan involvement, you would have a one party system,’’ Thomas told WVXU. “Mr. Winburn seems to think that (Senate Democrats) have to accept whatever is handed to us. We have to work across the aisle. We have to try to work with Republicans to influence legislation.”

No matter which party is in control, Thomas said legislators of both parties “have to work together on things that impact the lives of the people of this state.”

Thomas told WVXU he would work to make sure that companies lured to Ohio by tax incentives have strict rules about hiring.

“We have to have assurance that they will come here and hire our people, not just relocate here without some understanding that they will hire Ohio people,’’ Thomas said.

But, to do that, Thomas said, the state must invest more in job training.

“We lost a lot of manufacturing jobs in the recession; and those jobs are not coming back,’’ Thomas said. “We need job training. There are people who were assembly line workers who could be trained to be health care workers, or in some other field.”

And, he said, he would try to work with Republicans to restore at least some of the cuts made by the Republican legislature in 2011 to the Local Government Fund, which Thomas said is forcing local communities to go to their citizens and ask for more tax dollars, just to provide basic services.

Thomas said he in the Oct. 8 debate he wants to go Columbus to be a voice “for those without a voice.”

“The policies coming out of the Senate are terrible,’’ Thomas said. “They are harmful to the middle class and the working poor.

“The Republicans in the Senate won’t support a raise in the minimum wage, the Voting Rights Act; they cut seniors as it comes to the Homestead Act,’’ Thomas said. “They simply don’t stand up for the rights of people. I will stand up for people’s rights.”

Charlie Winburn (Republican)

If you think of the 63-year-old Cincinnati council member as a Republican, you are right.

But you might not know it from some of the campaign pronouncements from Winburn, now a candidate for the Ohio Senate in a heavily Democratic district.

“I am an independent thinker; I am a bipartisan leader,’’ Winburn told the crowd at an Oct. 8 debate between himself and Democrat Thomas.

But he has been a member in good standing in the GOP since early 1991, when Republican George Voinovich became governor and Winburn ended up spending eight years on council as its most conservative member, determined to slash budgets, reduce taxes and rail against abortion.

Many people, though, don’t recall, before that Winburn – a pastor who founded his own church in College Hill, now known as Renew Community Church – was a Democrat. In the 1980s, he worked in the office of Democratic congressman Thomas Luken and in the administration of Richard Celeste, Ohio’s Democratic governor.

After running in the 2005 Cincinnati mayoral primary in 2005 and losing, he came back in 2009 and was elected again to city council.

While Democrat Mark Mallory was mayor, he was a vocal critic, but with little clout. Then, last year, Democrat John Cranley was elected mayor and surprised – not pleasantly surprised – a lot of Democrats when he gave Winburn the chairmanship of the most powerful committee on council, Budget and Finance.

And Winburn has been an ally of Cranley’s as chairman of that committee.

But, when the opportunity came to run for the Ohio Senate, Winburn was willing to chuck that City Hall clout away to try to become the one and only African-American among the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.

And, over and over again during the campaign, Winburn has made the point that he will not simply go to Columbus to toe the Republican line.

“I am running to improve the quality of life for all citizens,’’ Winburn said at the debate. “That doesn’t mean independents or Republicans or Democrats. All people. This comes down to who can best represent you.”

He said, too, that, if elected, he wants to join the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus – a group made up now  entirely of House Democrats and headed by State Rep. Alicia Reece of Bond Hill.

“I want to help them get some of their ideas through the legislature,’’ Winburn said. “Charlie Winburn gets things done.”

Some would say that Winburn, in loudly proclaiming that he is more than willing to stand up to the Republican leadership in Columbus when he disagrees, is being a political chameleon, changing his stripes to fit the political landscape. Others say it is just a matter of practical politics when running with an “R” behind your name in a district where 74 percent of the voters cast ballots for President Obama two years ago.

Abortion is one of those issues where Winburn’s position has shifted.

He has said many times that he has opposed abortion so fiercely over the years because of his own life story – his mother died of a botched abortion when he was 10 years old and he spent his childhood and youth going from one foster home to another.

“I know what a horrible thing it is,’’ Winburn said.

Cincinnati Right to Life PAC had endorsed both Winburn and Thomas, but pulled the endorsements this summer, saying both candidates had softened their anti-abortion positions.

In Winburn’s case, it was a statement to the Enquirer editorial board when Winburn said “a woman’s body is her body.”

In an interview with WVXU, Winburn said that he doesn’t regret that statement.

“I don’t need their endorsement to be right to life,’’ Winburn said. “I believe a woman is entitled to her body and I would look at each piece of legislation on  a case by case basis.”

But, he said, “make no mistake about it, I am 100 percent pro-life, with no exceptions.”

And, while he says he will part ways with the statehouse GOP when he disagrees, there is an advantage to the people of the 9th District in having a senator who is a member of the majority.

If Thomas is elected, Winburn said, “he’ll be shut out of the room and he will absolutely not do anything for you. Do you want a speech maker or somebody in the thick of things?”

On the issues:

Same-sex marriage: Thomas says that while he may not personally agree with same-sex marriage, “we’ve got to treat all of our citizens with equality and fairly. I may not agree, but it doesn’t give me the right to take away people’s rights. Winburn said “I do not support gay marriage, period.”

State funding for Cincinnati streetcar: Winburn voted against building Phase 1 of the streetcar, but said recently that he would be willing to “take a look” at funding for extending the streetcar to Uptown if there were a consensus plan “agreed on by all of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods.”  Thomas: “I think it would be very problematic to allocate state money on the streetcar if the state is taking money away from our communities.”

Medical use of marijuana: Both candidates support legalizing the medical use of marijuana through prescriptions.

Charter schools: Thomas said “there is nothing wrong with having a charter school that is high quality, but the charter schools are not being held accountable by the state. Charter schools are failing; and school systems like Cincinnati Public Schools have to absorb the students.” Winburn said he wants the state to have “three pots of money” – one for public schools, one for “high quality” charter schools and one for school vouchers to give parents the choice. “I don’t think anyone is trying to destroy the public schools,’’ Winburn said.

Abortion: Both candidates say they are personally opposed to abortion. Both had the endorsement of the Cincinnati Right to Life PAC, but the endorsements were pulled after both candidates softened their positions during the campaign. Thomas said during the debate he will “vote with the will of my constituency. I will not vote based on my personal beliefs.” Winburn said he is “100 percent pro-life,” but also said recently that “a woman’s body is her body.” On a proposed “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, Winburn told WVXU that he “has no position on it, because I am not sure it is constitutionally sound.” Thomas said he would vote with the will of the majority of his constituents on any abortion-related bill.

Cuts to the Local Government Fund: Thomas said the cuts made by the legislature in 2011 to the Local Government Fund have “devastated” many local governments; and forced them to go to their citizens to raise taxes. Winburn said he would try to convince his fellow Republicans in Columbus to restore the cuts. “I will look my fellow Republicans in the face and tell them they have to send that money back.”

About the candidates:

Charlie Winburn

Age: 63

Residence: College Hill

Occupation: Cincinnati city council member, pastor of Renew Community Church

Experience: Served on council in the 1990s, returned in 2009. Former member of the Ohio Civil Rights commission. Unsuccessful candidate for Cincinnati mayor in 2005.

Family: Wife Coleen and three children.

Campaign website: www.winburnforohiosenate.com

Cecil Thomas

Age: 61

Residence: North Avondale

Occupation: Retired

Experience: 27 years as a Cincinnati police officer, former executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, member of Cincinnati City Council (2005-2013).

Family: Wife Pamula, three children, four grandchildren.

Campaign website: www.cecilthomas.com