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Wenstrup rises; Schmidt falls

Rep. Jean Schmidt had been living on the edge ever since she was first elected in a special 2nd Congressional District election in 2005.

This year, she fell off the edge.

On January 7, Brad Wenstrup, the podiatrist and Iraq war veteran from Columbia Tusculum who defeated her in last March’s GOP primary, will take over as the congressman from the sprawling district that runs from eastern Hamilton County all the way to Pike and Scioto counties.

For Schmidt, the past eight years was quite a ride.

The Clermont County Republican’s political career appeared to be over in 2004, when, as a state representative, she lost a GOP primary for an Ohio Senate seat, to Tom Niehaus by a mere 22 votes. Niehaus would go on to become president of the Ohio Senate.

Then, a political miracle occurred.

Rob Portman, then the 2nd District’s congressman, resigned in early 2005 to become President Bush’s trade representative.

That set up a special primary election in the spring of 2005.

Five candidates jumped in on the Democratic side; and a whopping 11 entered the Republican primary, including Schmidt.

Schmidt won the primary. It might have had something to do with the fact that, of the eleven, she was the only woman on the ballot; and she went on to defeat Democrat Paul Hackett in the special congressional election.

Then, it was off to the races.

Schmidt caused a national furor in Nov. 2005, when she rose to speak on the floor of the House of Representatives during a debate over withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Addressing Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who supported withdrawal and was a decorated Marine Corps veteran, Schmidt said that “cowards cut and run; Marines never do.”

There was an immediate furor on the House floor; her remarks were “taken down” by the clerk, a form of discipline for members who make inappropriate personal attacks.

Overnight, Schmidt was a national figure – one who was spoofed on Saturday Night Live.

Then, there were the Turkish-Americans.

In 2007, Armenian-Americans tried to get the House to pass a resolution formally recognizing the massacre of Armenians by Turks just after World War I as genocide. Schmidt, who had received substantial contributions from the Turkish-American community, voted against it.

In 2008, congressional candidate David Krikorian of Madeira, an Armenian-American, accused her of taking “blood money” for her vote against the resolution.

Schmidt ran to court and filed a $6.8 million defamation suit against Krikorian. The Turkish Coalition of America picked up her legal expenses.

Krikorian asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate the propriety of Schmidt accepting free legal representation.

The ethics committee did not formally punish Schmidt, but it did order Schmidt to repay the $500,000 it improperly paid to represent her in the court case. Schmidt set up a legal trust fund, but has raised little money for it.

Then, in March, she suddenly dropped the lawsuit against Krikorian.

Yes, she was beaten in this year’s primary by Wenstrup, but she might well have been gone from Congress four years ago had it not been for, yes, Krikorian.

Krikorian was an independent candidate on the Nov. 2008 ballot; Victoria Wulsin of Indian Hill was was the Democratic candidate.

Schmidt won re-election with 44.8 percent of the vote that year, while Wulsin came in second with 37.5 percent. But it was Krikorian’s 17.7 percent that many Democrats say prevented Wulsin from beating Schmidt. Had he not been on the ballot, Schmidt would likely have been gone four years ago.

Quietly, some GOP leaders around the district had hoped that a Republican candidate would come along who could beat Schmidt in a GOP primary. Several tried and failed – Bob McEwen in 2006, Tom Brinkman in 2008, Mike Kilburn in 2010.

But it was not until Wenstrup came along that Schmidt was sent packing.

Wenstrup’s only other campaign was in 2009, when he ran for Cincinnati mayor when no one else in the GOP would; and he impressed the party leadership, even though he lost to incumbent Mark Mallory.

No one gave Wenstrup much of a chance when he jumped in the race early this year, but he ended up winning the March primary by 5,089 votes out of 87,168 votes cast.

And, the next morning, the 2nd Congressional District of Ohio had a lame duck congresswoman.

Wenstrup went on to win the general election relatively easily in the heavily Republican district, running against a Democratic opponent in William R. Smith of Waverly in Pike County, who had beaten Krikorian in the Democratic primary. Smith was a no-show on the campaign trail; few voters saw the truck driver-turned-candidate in the flesh.

After the election, the 54-year-old Wenstrup began shuttling back and forth between Cincinnati and Washington for the required orientation sessions for new members of Congress; and to begin establishing his own office on Capitol Hill.

A few weeks ago, while in Washington, Wenstrup stopped by Schmidt’s congressional office, hoping to speak to the congresswoman. He told WVXU that he talked to Schmidt’s scheduler and was told later that Schmidt had “no interest” in meeting with him.

Wenstrup shrugged his shoulders at the rebuff and moved on.

And, in 15 days, Wenstrup will be sworn in and it really won’t matter if Schmidt would talk to him or not.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.