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Commentary: Who Is Best Able To Take Out Joe Deters?

2020 hamilton county prosecutor's race
Tana Weingartner, WVXU/John Minchillo, AP/Facebook
From left: Fanon Rucker (D), incumbent Joe Deters (R) and Gabe Davis (D).

Don't you hate it when somebody butts in line at the grocery check-out line, or when lots of people are queued up to get into a concert or a movie?

I do. And I don't hesitate to tell the line-crashers about it.

Now, I don't think that Fanon Rucker, who up until recently was a Hamilton County Municipal Court judge, meant to be rude Monday when he dove head-first into the Democratic race for Hamilton County prosecutor.

Gabe Davis, a much lesser known but well-qualified candidate, had been standing by himself at the head of the line to take on Republican incumbent Joe Deters, when Rucker – after what seemed like months of dropping hints and stirring up speculation – crashed into the race and immediately became, in the eyes of most Democrats, the front-runner.

A front-runner, just because he has run for election before, which the 34-year-old Davis has not done; and because he is better known in Democratic circles. Especially among African American Democrats. 

If Rucker thought that once he announced, Davis – a former federal prosecutor and son of a Cincinnati police officer – would fold up his tent and disappear into the night, he was quite mistaken.

As for Rucker, Davis told WVXU that "anyone can run. I'm confident about our campaign and I believe we will win this primary."

He's not going anywhere.

I suppose things could change between now and Dec. 18 – the deadline for candidates to file petitions for the March 17 primary in Ohio – but I'm not counting on it.

First of all, two of the heavyweight Democratic political consulting firms are handling these candidates. Jared Kamrass, who heads Rivertown Strategies, has the Rucker campaign. The Good Government Group (GGG), headed by former congressman Steve Driehaus, is behind Davis' campaign, with GGG partner Kevin Tighe taking the lead on Davis' effort.

The Hamilton County Democratic Party, which has been feeling its oats lately, dominating the landscape in recent elections, could really live without this contested primary for prosecutor.

Especially given the fact that there are likely to be several contested primaries for county offices on the Democratic side.

There will be one for Hamilton County sheriff, with incumbent Jim Neil being challenged by a former employee who has sued the sheriff's office, Charmaine McGuffey.

It is likely that with Democratic county commissioner Todd Portune not running for health reasons, there will be a Democratic primary for his seat. Former Cincinnati council member and state representative Alicia Reece appears primed and ready to go, but there will likely be others – possibly former State Sen. Eric Kearney, Portune's close friend and head of the African American Chamber of Commerce.

"Yes, it makes life a little more difficult,'' said Eddie Davenport, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "But it's a good problem to have. We have no shortage of candidates."

Until Barack Obama came along and worked his magic to turn reliably red Hamilton County into a blue island on the banks of the Ohio River, local Democratic party leaders went through a frustrating ritual every election year to cajole, convince and even beg Democrats to run for local offices.

The result was way too many races with only one choice for voters – a Republican candidate.

Those days are gone for good.

The biggest ruckus inside the Democratic party is likely to come from the Rucker-Davis race.

It may come down to whether or not the party's executive committee ends up endorsing one of the two candidates in the primary. The endorsed candidate's name would go on the slate cards that Democratic volunteers pass out at the polling places, and those cards can have a big impact, especially in a close race.

The battle lines are being drawn.

Davis, who has been actively campaigning since July, has some well-known Democratic state representatives backing him – Sedrick Denson, Catherine Ingram, Brigid Kelly and Jessica Miranda.

"There will be more to come in the weeks ahead,'' Davis told WVXU.

Monday afternoon, former Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke sent out a letter to party precinct executives and executive committee members telling them they should back Rucker over Davis.

"While I respect Gabe Davis and admire his career so far, Judge Rucker is certainly the stronger candidate to defeat Joe Deters and take the office of county prosecutor,'' Burke wrote.

"The bottom line is Judge Rucker's service to our community is unmatched,'' Burke said. "The excitement he will create on the campaign trail will benefit the entire Democratic Party ticket."

In his letter, Burke brought up another card Rucker has in his hand to play – the fact that he has run against Deters before.

Back in 2004, Mike Allen resigned as county prosecutor after a sex scandal in his office. Deters, who had been state treasurer, came back to Cincinnati to run for prosecutor, a job he had held before.

But it was too late to get candidates from either party on the ballot, so Deters ran as a write-in candidate for the Republicans; and the then-little-known Rucker ran as a write-in for the Democrats.

Rucker lost, but he did get 95,042 write-in votes to 126,061 for Deters.

It wasn't long after that that then-governor Ted Strickland appointed Rucker to the municipal court – after all, he had been a good soldier, running against Deters.

It is an entirely different world in Hamilton County politics today compared to 2004.

The luster of the name Deters may be wearing a bit thin with Hamilton County voters. Deters is not used to running in a blue county.

The Hamilton County Republican Party is going to pull out all the stops to save Deters, who controls the most powerful office the GOP still has in the county. It's a source of jobs; and is the AAA farm team for vacancies in judgeships and magistrate offices.

In the summer, I asked Alex Triantafilou, the Hamilton County GOP chairman, what the top three priorities would be for the local party in 2020.

His answer?Joe, Joe and Joe.

He's already raised over $600,000 from a massive GOP fundraiser this summer; and the state and county party organizations will do whatever it takes to keep him in office.

Whether the opposition is Fanon Rucker or Gabe Davis, it will be a good test of just how blue this county has become.

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.