Driehaus-Deters May Be Hamilton County's Hottest Race
Political types on both sides agree – the race for Hamilton County commissioner between Republican Dennis Joseph Deters and Democrat Denise Driehaus is the most fiercely contested and most costly race this year for any county office.
And, if the polling that is said to be out there is correct, it may also be the closest contest, the one that keeps everyone up late on election night waiting for an outcome – quite possibly into the wee hours of the morning after.
It pits two very familiar political surnames against each other – Driehaus, the sister of former congressman Steve Driehaus and part of a family that has been involved in Democratic politics here for decades; and Deters, the youngest of eight Deters kids, with the oldest being Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters.
What does a county commissioner do?
The three-members of a board of county commissioners have no authority to pass laws. But they do make the decisions about how county tax dollars are spent and are, in effect, administrators of county government. The job pays $96,000 a year.
He is the youngest of eight Deters children; his oldest brother, Joseph T. Deters, is Hamilton County prosecutor. He was appointed to a vacancy on the board of commissioners in December 2015 after spending six years as a Colerain Township trustee. He and his wife Jessica are raising their three children in Colerain. After his appointment as county commissioner, Deters was named chair of the Hamilton County Heroin Task Force. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He began his career as a court constable and now practices at a private law firm in Cincinnati.
Deters had a rather strange introduction to county politics last December.
Republican commissioner Greg Hartmann surprised many by suddenly announcing that he was leaving office to go off to his private law practice, although he left the door open to returning to elective politics.
A number of GOP political figures from around the county expressed interest in being appointed to the remainder of Hartmann's term, which expires on Jan. 3, 2017.
When Deters filed his petitions to run for the unexpired term, he said he wanted to appear on the ballot as "Dennis Joseph Deters,'' using the name of his more famous brother, who is also running for re-election this year.
Democrats on the county board of elections were beyond upset; they argued that, as a candidate, as a lawyer, and as a private citizen, there was no document that listed the name Dennis Joseph Deters.
The two Democrats on the board voted against allowing him to use that name on the ballot, while the two Republicans on the board voted in favor. Board member Alex Triantafilou, the county GOP chairman, came up with Deters' birth certificate, which listed two middle names "Patrick" and "Joseph."
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, broke the tie.
And so, the GOP candidate will be listed on the ballot as "Dennis Joseph Deters" – although his campaign website refers to him only as Dennis Deters.
To Deters, it was much ado about nothing.
"When you are one of eight kids, you get a thick skin,'' Deters told WVXU.
Although he grew up around politics – his grandfather, the late Dan Tehan, was Hamilton County sheriff and a Democrat – Deters said he "never really felt like I wanted to be in public service until I became a lawyer."
"I felt a call to step up to the plate and contribute, which is why I ran for township trustee,'' Deters said. "I live my life one day at a time. I don't have long-term aspirations, even though others may have them for me."
Not surprisingly, the dominant issue in the race has been the state of the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD). The agreement between the county and the city of Cincinnati over operation of MSD expires in 2018; and the two governments are at each other's throats over who is responsible for alleged mismanagement and skyrocketing rates being charged for sewage and water services.
"What we really need is an accountable operator,'' Deters said. "The people calling the shots at MSD now are not accountable to anybody."
The dispute over control of MSD is going to have to be worked out in mediation in federal court, Deters said.
"We just can't sit down and have a cup of coffee and work this out,'' Deters said. "It can't happen."
The system as it is now is stifling growth in the county, he said.
"Are you going to bring a major company into this country without a sewage system that is affordable and works?," Deters said.
An issue that has taken much of his time and attention so far is his work as chair of the Hamilton County Heroin Task Force.
The heroin epidemic, Deters said, "is a resource drain on every local government in the region. First responders are ending up spending the bulk of their time dealing with people who have overdosed on heroin."
"This is a health problem,'' Deters said. "Why are we talking to politicians about how to solve this? Let's talk to the health professionals. The successful formula is medically assisted treatment."
Driehaus was raised in Green Township with seven siblings – one of whom was one-term congressman Steve Driehaus, who now works for the Peace Corps in Africa. A graduate of Miami University, the mother of two children, owned the Phillips Swim Club and the Front Porch Coffeehouse in West Price Hill. In 2008, she was elected to the West Side district that her brother Steve had represented in the Ohio House of Representatives. She's been in the Ohio House ever since, but Ohio's term limits law prevents her from running again this year.
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Driehaus could accurately claim the mantle of "survivor" in the rough-and-tumble of local politics.
After the 2010 U.S. Census, the Republicans in the legislative in 2011 targeted her for defeat and completely re-drew her district, adding heavily Republican suburban communities that would have made it nearly impossible for her to win re-election in 2012.
But they did create a new district that on the east side of town that was much more friendly to Democrats.
So Driehaus moved from West Price Hill to Clifton Heights and then on to Clifton, where, in 2012, she ran for the newly-drawn Ohio House seat and won. In 2014, she was re-elected with no problem.
But now she is in a tough, countywide fight with an opponent whose surname is probably even better known than her own.
"It is a very competitive race,'' Driehaus told WVXU. "It will likely be very close."
She said she has been spending nearly every day walking door to door in parts of the county that she has not represented in the Ohio legislature.
"I feel like I have to introduce myself to a whole lot of people who have never voted for me before,'' Driehaus said.
She's clearly going to have the resources to get her message out.
Last week, she filed a campaign finance report showing she had raised nearly $350,000 in the last filing period, bringing the total she has raised for this campaign to $655,350.
When it comes to the most contentious issue of the campaign, the operations of the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), she has been a critic of the Republican majority on the county commission.
The commissioners had an MSD rate affordability task force that came back with nine recommendations in May. Some have been adopted by the commissioners, such as changing customer billing from quarterly to monthly.
"They did nothing with these recommendations until Todd (Portune) pushed them,'' Driehaus said. "What has been happening with all of these recommendations since May?
"We should be moving as quickly as possible on recommendations that could save rate payers money,'' Driehaus said. "The base cost of service is fairly high and then you pay on top of that for your usage. What we should be doing is lowering the base cost and have the rest of the revenue come from usage."
On the problem of the heroin epidemic, Driehaus said she has already been working on it in the legislature. She said she worked with Republicans to get $2 million from the state of Ohio for the Center for Addiction Treatment (CAT House) in Cincinnati, which enabled them to double their number of beds for people in drug rehab.
Driehaus has called on Ohio Gov. John Kasich to declare the heroin epidemic a state emergency and make emergency state funding available to local communities to deal with the problem.
"If I am elected to the county commission, I think I am going to be a big help on this heroin epidemic,'' Driehaus said. "I know where the state money is; I have relationships with people in the leadership on the other side of the aisle. I know how to get things done in Columbus. I can use that here, as a county commissioner."
Another issue she said she would work on is economic development within the county.
"I want to see us create more economic opportunities in Hamilton County; and I want everyone to be part of the progress,'' Driehaus said. "The city and the state have been doing a good job when it comes to economic inclusion for all, but the county – not so much."
Her main aim as a county commissioner, she said, would be to see the commissioners tackle the tough issues "and quit just kicking the can down the road."