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Gwen McFarlin Tries To Unite A Diverse Political Party

gwen mcfarlin
Courtesy of Springfield Township

In case there was any doubt, Gwen McFarlin has taken charge of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

In the three short months since McFarlin's former co-chair, Connie Pillich, left for Washington, D.C. to become executive director of the National Association of Women Judges, McFarlin has already left her mark on the political party which now clearly represents the majority of voters in Hamilton County.

And she is on a mission of sorts – a mission to convince everyone in the party that they can't take the votes of minorities – particularly African-Americans – for granted.

It is why, on Feb. 16, she held a training session on "Identifying and Mitigating Bias" at the Laborers Union Hall in Evanston.

"I had people telling me they had the same kind of training at their jobs,'' McFarlin said. "I told them, yes, but you have never had this kind of training in terms of your political party.

"This is a big, diverse political party, made up of a lot of different constituencies,'' McFarlin said. "We all must learn how to work together on what unites us."

bias training
Credit Hamilton County Democratic Party / Twitter
The "Identifying and Mitigating Bias" training for Hamilton County Democrats, a McFarlin initiative.

Because she is an African-American and a woman, McFarlin has had a career of "firsts" in politics.

Since 1995, she has been a Springfield Township Trustee – the first African-American elected to office in that suburban township.

Next week, she will become a member of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, replacing former Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke, who recently left the elections board after a record 26 years.

She will be the first African-American woman on the elections board, and could well end up as the chair, which is the position Burke held.

McFarlin is the first African-American woman to chair the Hamilton County Democratic Party. Two African-American males – the late State Rep. William Mallory Sr. and his son, former Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory – both served as co-chairs of the party.

But, unlike the Mallorys during their tenure, McFarlin has dropped the "co" and is in charge.

In January, at a meeting of the party's executive committee, Caleb Faux, who had been executive director of the party for 12 years, said he was stepping down – although he will serve out the rest of his term on the board of elections.

"That was Caleb's decision; no one forced him out," McFarlin told WVXU. "He has done a good job for the party over the years."

McFarlin told the executive committee that a permanent successor to Faux would come within 90 days.

She appointed Eddie Davenport, who ran the party's very successful coordinated campaign for judicial offices last fall, as the interim director.

"Eddie is very experienced,'' McFarlin said. "There is no such thing as a 9-5 working day to Eddie."

Davenport has an interesting background: he earned a degree in physiology, studying cell and molecular biology, at the University of Cincinnati before jumping into politics.

"I was headed in the direction of medical school,'' Davenport told WVXU. "Then my life took a turn to politics."

He had been a volunteer in President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. In 2016, though, he decided to focus on local politics.

"And then I met Aftab Pureval,'' Davenport said.

He became field director for Pureval's successful campaign for clerk of courts, and in 2017, he ran Derek Bauman's unsuccessful campaign for Cincinnati City Council.

Davenport had high praise for Faux and Burke.

"We all owe a great debt to Caleb and Tim,'' Davenport said. "They were amazing. They had tough jobs; and, in politics, you always have people second-guessing you."

Now, he says, he is likely to ask to be considered for the permanent position as executive director, who runs the day-to-day operations of the party.

McFarlin said she has received applications and resumes from several people for the executive director's job.

So far, McFarlin said, she is most proud of the response her bias training seminar received.

Over 100 people attended, "and 99 percent of the people I've talked to said they believed it was really worth it,'' she said.

"I wanted to help educate our party to understand and respect diversity,'' McFarlin said. "It was a way to put the subject out on Front Street."

There are many African-Americans in the party, McFarlin said, who believe the party just assumes black voters are on their side.

"They believe the party only wants them when they need us for an election,'' McFarlin said. "We have to be better than that."

The big test of whether or not the county party is unified comes next year, in the presidential election.

The Democratic candidates for president – Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – have won the past three elections in Hamilton County.

McFarlin knows they will have to put on a united effort to make it four in a row in 2020.

politically speaking 2
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

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