What A Long, Strange Year 2020 Has Been In Politics
You really don't need me to tell you what a stinking mess 2020 was.
We are all ready to kick it to the curb and start afresh, with high hopes – and more than a little trepidation – that when the clock strikes midnight Thursday night, better days are coming.
A year ago, none of us anticipated a global pandemic that would spread disease and death to every corner of the world – including our own – and change the way we live our lives, perhaps forever.
The brief of this column is politics; and, in a presidential election year, every aspect of the political scene was touched by the scourge of COVID-19 – from the delay of the Ohio primary election to the COVID-deniers pushing back against simple things like wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from others; to the domination of the presidential campaign by the pandemic and the Trump administration's response – or lack thereof – to a crisis that was tearing the nation apart.
It was almost too much for the human mind to process.
Despite global turmoil, the political scene in our little corner of the world was extremely active. Below is a month-by-month look at the highlights and lowlights:
Pre-pandemic, although it was looming over the horizon.
It was a bad month for Cincinnati in terms of losing two of its best-known public servants.
On January 25, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune lost a long and devastating battle with cancer, after many years struggling to overcome multiple health problems.
No health problems, though, could ever put out the fire in his belly for public service and his passion to use his political clout to improve the lives of the least fortunate among us.
We marveled at his fortitude as he kept up the fight, despite his body turning against him.
He was replaced as a county commissioner by Victoria Parks, his long-time aide at Cincinnati City Hall and the county commission. Parks' appointment made history – the board of commissioners was made up entirely of women, two of them African American. Parks did not run for the office in the fall; and she will give way to former Cincinnati council member and state representative Alicia Reece, who won the November election for Portune's seat.
Nathaniel R. Jones, the retired federal appeals court judge, died the very next day after Portune.
Jones was a passionate fighter for civil rights, who had been general counsel for the NAACP before his appointment to the bench by President Jimmy Carter. Many believe – myself among them – that if, somehow, Democrat Mike Dukakis had won the presidency over George H.W. Bush in 1988, Jones would have been sitting on the Supreme Court instead of Clarence Thomas.
It was also the month in which, at a tumultuous meeting of the Hamilton County Democratic Party's executive committee, the party refused to give incumbent Sheriff Jim Neil an endorsement – principally because he had been front and center at a Donald Trump rally in West Chester. Charmaine McGuffey, who had run the jail for Neil before they had a falling out, was endorsed by the party and went on to win the sheriff's office in the November election, making local history.
A year which ultimately saw three Cincinnati City Council members indicted on corruption charges began in February with the arrest of Democrat Tamaya Dennard on charges that she attempted to sell her council vote to a developer. She ended up pleading guilty to a wire fraud charge and, in November, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Also in February, Republican Council Member Amy Murray resigned to take a job in the Trump administration. Republican Betsy Sundermann was appointed to take her place.
The first death from COVID-19 in Ohio came on March 19. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered a lockdown of the state on March 23, one that would remain in effect until well into April. It effectively shut down much of the state's economy.
It also forced a delay of the March primary election, which was turned into an all-absentee election, ending on April 28.
Both DeWine and Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky spent much of the month resisting pressure from President Trump and his administration to re-open their states' economies more quickly. But, in the end, the governors prevailed because Trump had no power to overrule governors when it came to public policy in their states.
In the delayed primary, Reece defeated former state representative Connie Pillich for the county commission nomination. And McGuffey obliterated Neil in the Democratic primary for sheriff with 70% of the vote.
By the time all the votes were counted from the April 28 delayed primary election, Issue 7 – a 0.8% sales tax hike for expansion of the county's bus system, passed by the narrowest of margins – 980 votes out of 134,416 cast.
In Columbus, DeWine's daily briefings on the pandemic were being protested loudly on the lawn of the state capitol. Protests to DeWine's orders on the pandemic were popping up all over the state, including Cincinnati. But polling showed a solid majority of Ohioans – over 70% – approved of the actions by the governor and his then-health department director, Dr. Amy Acton.
The protests – sometimes violent, mostly peaceful – that spread throughout the country after George Floyd was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25 reached Ohio cities as well. President Trump threatened to send in federal troops if state and local officials couldn't handle it. DeWine, without mentioning Trump, said Ohio could handle the situation without the help of federal troops. And it turns out he was right.
Then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder was arrested by the FBI, along with four associates in what federal prosecutors said was a $60 million bribery scheme aimed at bailing out First Energy, a foundering company that operated two nuclear power plants in northern Ohio. At the time, David DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, said it was "likely the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio." Many expected the ongoing case to hurt the Ohio GOP in the November election, but, in the end, the Republicans actually grew their majority in the Ohio House.
Phil Heimlich, a former Cincinnati council member and Hamilton County commissioner, was one of the founders of Operation Grant, an organization of Ohio Republicans who opposed President Trump's re-election bid. It was named after Ohioan Ulysses S. Grant and was an offshoot of The Lincoln Project, a national organization formed by Republicans, many with ties to the administration of former President George W. Bush, that spent millions nationwide on anti-Trump TV ads aimed at influencing GOP voters to vote for Joe Biden.
The polling of Ohio voters this month indicated that the Biden-Trump race was a toss-up in Ohio, despite Trump having won Ohio by eight percentage points four years before. And that caused the Biden campaign and their allies to begin pouring more money into the state – at least temporarily. The polls may have been correct at that point, but, in the end, Ohio went for Trump again, by nearly the same margin.
With the onset of early voting in Ohio, it quickly became clear to Ohio election officials that absentee balloting in the 2020 election would far outstrip the previous records set in 2008. In 2008, it was the Obama surge that accounted for the high early voting numbers. This year, it was mostly attributed to the pandemic and the reluctance of many Ohioans to go to the polls in person. Another factor: a massive early voting effort by the Democrats in concert with the Biden campaign.
Yes, Trump won Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. And lost the White House. The first time since 1960 that Ohio did not go with the winner of the presidential election.
And, in Hamilton County, Democrats nearly ran the table in elections for county executive offices and judgeships. Democrats won every executive office except prosecutor; incumbent Republican Joe Deters kept that job. Democrats won nine of 13 judgeships up for election. Seven GOP incumbent judges were voted out of office.
But the big news in November was the arrest of two more members of council on corruption charges – Republican Jeff Pastor and Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld, who, at the time, was considered the early favorite to run for and win the Cincinnati mayor's job in 2021. The federal charges stem from the same development project. The difference between the two is that Pastor is accused of taking bribes and putting them in his pocket, while Sittenfeld is accused of taking money from the developer for a political action committee he operates.
Both Pastor and Sittenfeld have proclaimed their innocence. Pastor was suspended from council in an action initiated by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Sittenfeld voluntarily accepted a suspension. Both were replaced by Hamilton County Probate Court Judge Ralph Winkler. Winkler chose lawyer Steve Goodin to replace Pastor and Liz Keating to take Sittenfeld's place. Both are Republicans.
Trump, in a tweet, butted into Ohio politics when he suggested that the 2022 Ohio governor's race could get interesting. It was seen as a dig at DeWine because the Ohio governor had gone on CNN and said that Biden was president-elect, which infuriated Trump. Two high profile Ohio Republicans, former congressman Jim Renacci and Rep. Warren Davidson of Troy, whose district includes Butler County, are seen as potential primary challengers for DeWine. Both have unleashed tweet storms critical of DeWine's handling of the pandemic and the Ohio economy.
Meanwhile, the list of potential candidates for Cincinnati mayor keeps growing. Council Members Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach are on the list, as is Council Member David Mann, who was first to announce his candidacy in the spring. Former mayor Mark Mallory is hinting at a return. Only one candidate has actually filed petitions to run – Cincinnati firefighter Raffel Prophett. Community activist Kelli Prather and former council member and state Senator Cecil Thomas say they are running. We'll see how many actually file petitions by the Feb. 18 deadline. The primary election for mayor will be on May 4, with the top two vote-getters facing each other in the fall.
Howard Wilkinson is WVXU's senior political analyst.