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Commentary: Can This Man Beat Joe Deters In 2020?

joe deters
John Minchillo
Deters at a news conference in 2017.

Is Hamilton County blue? Or is it purple? No point in asking whether or not it is still red; that train left the station some time ago.

But it's time to settle this blue-purple hash once and for all – and the 2020 general election is the time to do it.

It may be that billionaire investor George Soros – the devil incarnate to Republicans, but an angel dropping manna from Heaven to Democrats – will end up being mixed up in ending this local debate. (More on that in a bit.)

It won't have beans to do with Donald Trump – he can win Ohio and win a second term in the White House, but he is not going to win Hamilton County, Ohio. Not after taking only 42 percent of the vote against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In fact, Hamilton County hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004, when George W. Bush bested John Kerry.

No, this has to do with a long-time Republican office-holder in Hamilton County, prosecutor Joseph T. Deters, and whether or not he can hold on to his job, probably the most politically-powerful office in the county. Just look up and down the list of Hamilton County judges sometime and count how many were appointed to the bench while serving as an assistant county prosecutor.

It's the AAA farm club for aspiring young Republican judicial wanna-be's.

Now, consider this scenario:

gabe davis
Credit Courtesy of Gabe Davis
Gabe Davis.

There is, in Hamilton County, a now-34-year-old former federal prosecutor named Gabriel Davis, a Democrat and son of a former Cincinnati police officer, who has never run for elected office before but who is seriously considering taking on Deters for county prosecutor.

If he manages to pull it off, Davis would be committing two acts of tremendous symbolism in local politics:

  • He would be the first African American elected as county prosecutor, and a lawyer who spent more than three years in prosecuting federal hate crimes and police use-of-force cases. Might those be good skills to have for a potential Hamilton County prosecutor? Oh, yes, indeed.
  • The other act would be that by his very election, he would be confirming that this is indeed a blue county. Blue, through and through.

How could that be denied? The Republicans, in recent years, have lost control of the board of county commissioners, the sheriff's office, the clerk of courts and a big bunch of judgeships.
The local GOP has called for all hands on deck. Last week, on the top floor of the Great American Tower, power brokers like S. Craig Lindner and Carl Lindner III hosted a fundraising event for Deters that drew nearly every heavy-in-the-wallet big shot.

It raised about $500,000 for the Deters re-election campaign.

Why do this now?

To send a message. A loud-and-clear message for any Democrat who might get it in their heads that they can compete with Deters and the Hamilton County GOP money machine.

Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County GOP, says that for the party here there are three priorities in 2020: "Joe, Joe and Joe."

"Yes, we have lost some offices in recent elections, but we are not going to allow this one to be lost,'' Triantafilou said. "It's too important."

Having already put $500,000 in Deters' campaign fund, under ordinary circumstances, might well scare away potential opponents.

But there is another factor that has the potential to scare the GOP.

His name is George Soros.

george soros
Credit Francois Mori / AP
George Soros in 2018.

Tim Burke, former chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said he is aware that Soros and his organization are on an effort to fund local candidates for offices such as county prosecutor – Democratic candidates who favor reform of the criminal justice system.

"This could be one of those counties and Gabe Davis would certainly fit the profile of one of those candidates,'' Burke said.

Davis told WVXU he has not made a final decision about running; that, he said, would come "very soon."

He did say he was aware of the Soros organization's interest in prosecutor candidates, and would welcome the help.

"If we have allies from outside the county, I would see that as a good thing,'' Davis said.

If the Soros organization got involved in the Hamilton County prosecutor's race – as it has in Virginia – we can hear the howling now from the local GOP – big billionaire butting into our local affairs.

It's hard, though, to imagine a campaign to demonize Soros gaining much traction in a largely blue county.

But it doesn’t mean they wouldn't try.

Deters is a smart fellow; he knows times have changed in Hamilton County since 2008, when the local Democratic Party couldn't even find a candidate willing to run against him.

The name Deters is no longer as magical as it once was.

The last two times the name was on the ballot was for his younger brother, Dennis, who had been appointed county commissioner in 2016 following a vacancy and then lost the election, despite insisting that his ballot name be Dennis Joseph Deters. Last year, Dennis lost a race for Ohio First District Court of Appeals.

And then there's Trump. Having Trump at the top of the GOP ticket is not the ideal situation for any Republican in Hamilton County – even one as established as Deters.

So Deters sent a message with his $500,000 fundraiser that, in part, was a message to rivals saying that he doesn't need Trump and that they should back off.

Davis says he understands what Deters was doing, but, "there's nothing about what he's done that terrifies me."

"Money isn't everything,'' Davis said. "And I don't scare easily."

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.