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Commentary: The Changing Face Of The Hamilton County GOP

marcus thompson
Courtesy of Marcus Thompson
Marcus Thompson is an Anderson Township native and 35-year-old Republican. If he defeats incumbent R. Dee Stone this fall, he would become the first African American ever elected to an Anderson Township office.

On the morning of Saturday, June 22 – exactly 500 days before the 2020 election – the Hamilton County Republican Party hopes to fill the Sharonville Convention Center with the GOP faithful for a gigantic pep rally that will feature Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, President Trump's campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and a cast of thousands.

They'll be trying to pump up the troops for an election 500 days away, but the fact is that the Hamilton County GOP will have a more immediate test, only 146 days away: the Nov. 5 general election, where hundreds of local offices, most of them on the bottom rungs of the political ladder, will be decided.

And, for that test, the Hamilton County GOP is willing to break out of its decades-old mold of being the party of White Guys In Suits and run more minority candidates – candidates who just might be able to appeal to voters willing to listen to a candidate with an R behind his or her name.

A candidate like, say, Marcus Thompson, an Anderson Township native and 35-year-old Republican, who, if he defeats incumbent R. Dee Stone this fall, would become the first African American elected to an Anderson Township office ever.

Twenty years ago – even 10 years ago – if you had suggested that a black man could be elected trustee in that lily-white suburban fortress, people would have assumed you had just recently arrived on Cincinnati's east side from a distant planet.

Even today, it sounds crazy in a place where the U.S. Census update of last year found that a whopping 1.1 percent of the nearly 44,000 township residents were African American.

Thompson, who currently runs a program for the Cincinnati USA Chamber called HYPE – Harnessing Young Professional Energy – told WVXU he had been thinking about jumping into politics for some time. Race was a consideration, he said.

"It did give me a tad bit of trepidation,'' Thompson admitted.

But he said he believes white Republicans in the township have grown enough to "listen to the message and not focus on the race of the messenger. There was a time when I could not have been elected. But today – I think it is entirely possible."

It is shaping up to be quite a year for Thompson, who runs a Saturday morning basketball program for inner city kids at the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center. In addition to running for elective office for the first time, he will be changing jobs in a few weeks to become the community development manager for the Skanska construction group here in Cincinnati.

And he and his wife will have their first child later this summer.

The fact is that a black Republican running in ultra-conservative Anderson Township in 2019 could end up being much more popular in Hamilton County than Donald Trump in 2020.

The idea of the June 22 rally, according to Hamilton County GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou, is not necessarily to try to flip Hamilton County, which chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. As far as the presidency is concerned, Hamilton County is very much a blue county and can be written off by Trump's campaign, although Ohio as a whole will certainly be in play.

But the GOP will have an opportunity to solidify or rebuild its control over townships, municipalities and villages from one end of the county to the other.

Or, on the other hand, they could mount a Herculean effort and end up in worse shape than they are now.

Recruiting candidates like Thompson to run for Anderson trustee; Kristie Dukes Davis, the first African American to be a vice chair of the Hamilton County GOP, to run for Springfield Township trustee; and other minority candidates is "the right thing to do,'' Triantafilou said. "We are very proud it."

Davis will be running for the seat being given up by Hamilton County Democratic Party chairwoman Gwen McFarlin, who was the first African American to be elected a Springfield trustee. She is also the first African American woman to chair the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

McFarlin said the Democratic Party has always fielded diverse slates of candidates.

"We are the party of diversity,'' McFarlin said. "That is why we are winning elections."

McFarlin said any Republican candidate - white or black, male or female - should be appaled by running on a ticket with Donald Trump at the top.

"It is hard for me to understand why anyone would want to run with a president who is so racist and so hateful,'' McFarlin said.

In the end, though, McFarlin said, "they'll run their races and we'll run ours. We can't worry about what they are doing."

Triantafilou's argument is that the GOP must change with the times.

"The county has changed, just in the 10 years I have been chairman,'' Triantafilou said. "We have to change the face of our party with it or the future will not look very good."

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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