Portune, spurned by Ohio Democratic Party as governor candidate, has ideas how it can rebuild
Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune had a really bad experience with the Ohio Democratic Party early this year – especially with state party chairman Chris Redfern.
Last December, Portune – the only Democrat on the county commission – started crisscrossing the state in an attempt to build support to run for Ohio governor.
The problem was that Portune started too late – Ed FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive – had been campaigning since early in 2013; and had already wrapped up the party establishment and the endorsement of the state party.
So Portune was met with miniscule crowds as he went around the state, couldn’t raise money; and he blamed Redfern and other party leaders for shutting him out.
Redfern was unsympathetic.
“Maybe it’s just a little more difficult to run for statewide office than Todd Portune thought it would be,’’ Redfern said in January. “In this case, don’t blame others.”
In the end, Portune bowed out, realizing he couldn’t build a campaign to challenge FitzGerald in the May primary.
Then, the November election happened.
FitzGerald turned out to be a horrible candidate, taking only 33 percent of the vote against incumbent Republican John Kasich; and dragging the rest of the Democratic statewide ticket down with him.
It was the second gubernatorial election in a row where Redfern led the party to a complete wipe-out in the statewide races. And he announced the day after the election that he would be resigning the chairmanship in December.
And now the party is scrambling to find a new leader to come in and try to put together the pieces of a shattered party.
“I’m a long-term Democratic elected official who offered himself as a statewide candidate and was shunned by the party leadership,’’ Portune told WVXU. “From where I sit; and from what I’ve done; it’s clear to me that the Ohio Democratic Party needs an entirely new approach.”
But Portune might have crowed, “I told you so” after the election. But he didn’t.
What he did do, though, was send a three-page letter early last week to the statewide media and to the members of the Ohio Democratic Party’s executive committee, which will choose Redfern’s successor – maybe as soon as next month.
It was Portune’s take on what the party needs to get back on its feet and start winning elections again – even though Portune is not a member of the executive committee that will choose a new leader for the party.
Portune made a point in his letter that he is not going to be the one to lead the party in the future.
“Before I write another word,’’ Portune said in his letter, “let me be perfectly clear about one thing. I am not campaigning to be state party chair.”
He essentially made three points:
- The party should elect a new chair and officers “who come from parts of the state where it is hard to get elected. This naturally involves leadership from south of Interstate 70 (though not exclusively so)."
- Put together a fundraising plan that “first relies upon individual Ohioans” more than from large “single entity donors” or big-dollar political action committees.
- And, lastly, he said he wants to be part of a “rebuilding effort that results in a state party structure that is involved in all race – local to statewide.” In other words, he doesn’t want to see county parties not running candidates for certain offices, even in Republican counties.
The most interesting point might be about the political geography of the state.
“We’ve had several statewide candidates, but the voices in party leadership tend to be from northern Ohio; and I include Columbus in that to a certain extent,’’ Portune told WVXU.
Democrats in the southern part of the state, Portune said in his letter, “are challenged daily in ways that many of our colleagues from the north are not.”
And, he told WVXU, Democrats who win in this part of the state must appeal to independents and some Republicans in order to win – just as he has in his county commission races.
Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said he agrees with much of what Portune says in his letter, but not the part about southern and southwest Ohio being ignored.
Two Hamilton County Democrats – David Pepper and Connie Pillich - were on the statewide ballot this year, losing the races for attorney general and state treasurer respectively, Burke said. A third Cincinnatian was on the statewide ballot briefly – State Sen. Eric Kearney, who was FitzGerald’s running mate until Kearney was forced to drop out because of tax problems with his business.
“I’m not sure what Todd is talking about there,’’ Burke said. “We’ve got 10 people from Hamilton County on the state executive committee; I spent six years as chairman of the Ohio Democratic County Chairs Association. President Obama won Hamilton County twice. I think we get our due respect from the state party.”
In fact, one of the candidates for the state chairmanship is Pepper, who is out trying to build support around the state.
Others who have expressed interest in the state chairmanship are State Rep. Bob Hagan of Youngstown, Sharen Neuhardt of Dayton, who replaced Kearney as FitzGerald’s running mate; and Janet Carson, the Geauga County chairwoman is now head of the state chairs association. Others are likely to jump in the race.
Pepper, too, said Portune had some good ideas, but was scratching his head over Portune’s argument that southwest Ohio is ignored by the state party.
“I traveled all over the state in this campaign, in almost every county,’’ Pepper said. “The irony is that if you talk to Democrats in northwest Ohio, they don’t think they get enough attention. You hear the same thing in southeast Ohio.”
You might think that with Portune’s concern about southwest Ohio being ignored by the party, he might be backing Pepper’s candidacy for state party chair. They served together on the county commission when the Democrats had a majority.
But he has not done that.
“I haven’t talked to him about it,’’ Portune said. “I’d be open to talk to David.”
Portune said he believes the party should look at “a wide group of persons who are not the usual suspects. We need new faces, new blood. We need a fresh approach.”
Portune is not the only one reaching out to the party leaders. Executive committee members are getting bombarded with e-mail messages from Democrats around the state, most notably from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the ranking elected Democrat in Ohio, who may end up having a lot to say about who the next chair of the Ohio Democratic Party will be.
It’s too soon to say if Portune’s message will be listened to by Ohio Democrats. But many of them may have a hard time swallowing the idea that that southwest Ohio Democrats have been shunned by the party.