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Commentary: Sheriff Neil's Trump Rally Visit Comes Back To Haunt

sheriff jim neil
Amanda Lee Myers

For any politician, getting the boot from your own political party is no easy feat to accomplish.

You have to go way out of your way to honk your fellow partisans off enough to convince them to yank your party endorsement and give it to your rival in a primary election.

Yet this is exactly what happened Saturday when the Hamilton County Democratic Party decided to endorse challenger Charmaine McGuffey, who once ran the county jail, over the incumbent Sheriff Jim Neil.

Back in 2012, Neil became the first Democrat elected sheriff in over 35 years when he whipped retiring sheriff Simon Leis' hand-picked successor, Sean Donovan. He was re-elected in 2016.

He's kept that office in Democratic hands for quite some time now, which pleases the party leadership.

On the other hand, he has done at least one egregiously stupid and completely inexplicable thing that, although it happened in 2016, still has the faithful of the Democratic Party riled.

He showed up at a Donald Trump rally in West Chester. In uniform.

Neil was front and center with his good friend, Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, a Republican through and through and a Trumpite of the first order, smiling and applauding as the Republican presidential candidate eviscerated Democrats, the media and everyone who had looked cross-eyed at him in a 90-minute rant.

The news media from Cincinnati, of course, reported that Neil was there, who said he had been invited by his pal, Sheriff Jones.

The next day, he held a mea maxima culpa outside the Hamilton County Justice Center, where he apologized, saying his appearance at the Trump rally was "selfish" on his part.

"I've been a police officer since 1981,'' Neil said that day. "I was elected as sheriff in 2012. I'm not comfortable in the skin of a politician. What you get with Jim Neil is what you get. I'm a public servant. Public safety is my priority."

If he thought that would put an end to it, he was seriously mistaken.

Add on to that the fact that, in 2017, he fired McGuffey after she refused a demotion from her job as head of the jail. He claimed that she had created a "hostile work environment."

She not only filed a federal lawsuit against Neil claiming she was fired because she is openly gay, but she filed as a candidate to run in the March primary against him.

And, on Saturday, the Democratic Party's nominating committee gave a report recommending McGuffey be endorsed rather than the incumbent Democrat - an extreme rarity in politics.

Committee co-chair Britt Born said that Neil's interview with the committee was "disappointing."

"He repeatedly praised Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, a sheriff who consistently opposes everything we as Democrats believe in,'' Born said.

So McGuffey became the endorsed candidate of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. If she wins the primary, she will face longtime Cincinnati police lieutenant Bruce Hoffbauer in the fall.

Neil told the Democrats Saturday that if they did not support him, they would lose the sheriff's office because "law enforcement will not support McGuffey."

McGuffey said she is certain the law enforcement officers of the jail and the courthouse will be on her side.

In the end, Neil lost the confidence of the Democratic Party because of his naïveté about how politics work.

Saturday morning, in the cavernous meeting room at the Laborers' Union Hall in Evanston, Neil entered the room wearing a fringed leather jacket and a bright red ball cap.

I swear that when I first saw his hat from far across the room, I thought it was one of the Trump MAGA hats and it occurred to me that the sheriff may have lost his mind if he was going to wear that hat to a meeting like this.

I talked to a number of executive committee members who had the same reaction I did.

jim neil
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU

Neil then walked up to the three reporters covering the meeting and we could see that it was not a MAGA hat but a Steelworkers Union hat.

You would have thought that maybe he could have found a blue Steelworkers cap to wear Saturday.

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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.