Commentary: Alex Triantafilou Is Trying To Save The Hamilton County GOP
Let's give credit where credit is due.
Since I came to Cincinnati in 1982, I have heard from a long line of Hamilton County Republican Party leaders about how the party has to open up the tent, start running candidates who look like the county (including blacks and women) and quit feeding the voters a steady diet of white guys in suits, all wearing standard-issue red ties.
And, the fact is, none of them have really done the first blessed thing about it. For decade after decade, it was the party of the white males, with women in the back room making the coffee and black Republicans being trotted out now and then to make the white boys look broadminded.
Well, give credit to the current chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, Alex Triantafilou.
He is actually trying to do something to change the face of the Hamilton County GOP.
Triantafilou's no dummy. Hamilton County has been slowly turning blue for the past two decades and while many suburban Republicans were in denial, Triantafilou has had the foresight to do everything he can to make the party a real factor again in local politics by actively recruiting minority and women candidates to run in recent years.
It was especially noticeable in Tuesday's general election.
"I am determined to make this party continue to be relevant,'' Triantafilou told me recently.
And, yes, on Tuesday, there were more than the usual number of African American and female candidates on the ballot in Hamilton County.
It was a mixed bag of success and failure.
The Republicans' biggest win Tuesday was in Springfield Township, where Kristie Dukes Davis, the county party's African American co-chair, won a township trustee seat by about eight percentage points over Democrat Jamie Rae.
And it wasn't just any old township trustee seat – it is the one that belonged to Gwen McFarlin, the first African American elected official in the township. McFarlin, who is now the Hamilton County Democratic Party chair, had to give up the seat when she joined the Hamilton County Board of Elections.
But the funny thing was that nowhere in Davis' campaign did she come out and say she was a Republican.
Little wonder, given the fact that the Republican Party – here in Ohio and nationally – is leaking suburban women voter like a sieve, thanks to Donald Trump.
"The problem for Republicans is that they have to pretend to be Democrats because so many voters are alienated by Trump,'' said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper of Cincinnati. "The Trump brand is toxic. They have to run away from it to have any chance."
The toxicity of Trump and his unpopularity among suburban women, Pepper said, explains in part why in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, a town of moderate Republicanism in the past, the top five finishers in a race for seven at-large seats on city council went to Democrats Tuesday night.
The same happened in suburbs all over Ohio that night – in Reynoldsburg, a traditionally Republican suburb of Columbus, every single municipal office, from mayor on down, went to Democrats – including three African American women.
Still, Triantafilou tries to broaden the base of the party. He doesn’t say it, but he is smart enough to know that there is no way on Earth that Trump will win Hamilton County next year, after Hillary Clinton ran away with the county in 2016.
Nothing has changed to make Trump more appealing to what is now a blue county.
Triantafilou told WVXU that what he wants to do is develop a diverse stable of candidates who have cross-over appeal – candidates who can win some Democratic voters along with holding the GOP base together.
"The Democrats in Hamilton County have been really good at developing cross-over candidates,'' Triantafilou said. "We haven't been. We have to do better."
Sheriff Jim Neil, Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco, county commissioners Todd Portune and Denise Driehaus, and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley – all were cited by Triantafilou as good Democrat candidates who get GOP voters to cross over for them.
Triantafilou thought he might have a winner in Gary Favors, an African American school teacher and U.S. Army veteran who was on the ballot Tuesday for an unexpired term on the Cincinnati Board of Education.
The party thought Favors might have the kind of cross-over appeal of former Cincinnati council member Charlie Winburn, who helped Favors' campaign.
Didn't work. Favors finished a distant second in a three-candidate race.
Same goes for Heather M. Couch, a first-time candidate who was running for Cincinnati school board in the six-candidate field race. The top three were elected; Couch ran fourth.
Triantafilou knows that transforming the appeal of the Republican brand in Hamilton County will be a long and difficult process.
He doesn't say it, but it may be too late.
Rapidly changing demographics and a president who just makes the problem worse may have already consigned those plans to the ash heap. We shall see.