Analysis: Choosing The Next Chair Of The Ohio Democratic Party Is Complicated
Rarely is there anything that happens in the Ohio Democratic Party that takes place as smooth as silk.
Take the choice of a new state party chair, which is scheduled to take place when the party's executive committee meets in Columbus on Jan. 14.
The party needs a new leader with the resignation of Cincinnati's David Pepper. As this is written, there are five candidates to replace him.
I'm told that the choice of a new party chair is getting mixed up in the 2022 gubernatorial race, as several potential candidates – including mayors John Cranley of Cincinnati and Nan Whaley of Dayton – jockey for position to possibly take on GOP incumbent Mike DeWine in 2022. No Democrat has formally announced a candidacy; several are sniffing the air to see if the time is right.
Wednesday morning, Whaley, in a video tweet, announced she will not run for re-election as Dayton's mayor, fueling speculation that she will run for governor in 2022 - or possibly for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican incumbent Rob Portman.
Today, I'm announcing that I will not be running for re-election. I believe we have turned a corner in Dayton. This is the best job I have ever had, but I believe our city can only continue to grow if we give space and opportunity to new leaders and new ideas. pic.twitter.com/WjilqA1wty— Nan Whaley (@nanwhaley) January 6, 2021
What it all also means that one of the Ohio Democratic Party's most high profile African American leaders, former Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin, could be cut out of the party leadership.
Here's the deal:
Democratic party sources tell me that Liz Walters, a Summit County Council member and former executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party, is the leading candidate to replace Pepper.
The others are Antoinette Wilson, who managed Jennifer Brunner's successful campaign for Ohio Supreme Court last fall; Vanessa Enoch, a Butler County Democrat who has taken on GOP congressman Warren Davidson in the last two elections and been beaten badly both times; Will Klatt, a Columbus party activist; and Gary Josephson, a former union organizer and unsuccessful candidate for the Ohio House.
But Walters is clearly the front-runner.
And Walters has close ties to Whaley, who is now probably more motivated than ever to take on DeWine next year.
Having a party machinery that is run by someone with close ties to one of the candidates probably is not going to go over very well with other potential candidates, such as Cranley, who also has a close friendship with Whaley which could turn into a rivalry over the gubernatorial nomination.
On Monday, DeWine may have given Whaley all the motivation she needs to take him on for governor next year.
Whaley has carved out a reputation as a tough, competent and successful mayor. She has been given high marks for her handling of the mass shooting in Dayton's Oregon District in August 2019 – shootings which left nine dead and 17 wounded at the hands of lone gunman.
The night after the shootings, DeWine appeared with Whaley in an emotional rally near the Oregon District. The two came out of the rally as allies, vowing to push a package of meaningful gun reforms through a Republican-led Ohio General Assembly where the pro-gun lobby has enormous influence.
As Gov. DeWine spoke alongside Mayor Nan Whaley, right, during a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, the crowd began chanting at DeWine to "do something!"
DeWine caved on that promise Monday, signing the "Stand Your Ground" law into effect.
Whaley was furious.
"I can't express my level of disappointment,'' Whaley wrote in a tweet Monday afternoon.
"Gov. DeWine came to our city and stood on stage for a vigil for our murdered friends and neighbors and then told us he stood with our community in the fight against gun violence,'' Whaley said. "Gov. DeWine has made it clear he opposes this dangerous policy, but he once again has folded to the extreme elements of his own party."
"Our state needs principled leaders who will stand up for what's right, not what is politically easy,'' she said.
Sound like the beginning of a campaign stump speech to you?
And, now, with her announcement Wednesday morning that she will not be running for re-election as Dayton mayor, it seems even more likely that she would want to take on DeWine in 2022.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio's highest ranking Democratic elected official, is a fan of both Walters and Whaley. Can't hurt to have that kind of backing – whether in a race for state party chair or a primary contest for governor.
There would be another, more immediate impact on the party should Walters be elected the state party chair.
McLin, the former Dayton mayor and the first African American woman elected to the Ohio Senate, has been the state party's vice chair and is serving as the interim state party chair until a new one is elected.
Former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, a member of the state executive committee, hasn't said who he is backing for state party chair, but he did tell me that if Walters – or any other woman who is elected – McLin will lose her post as vice chair.
The party's by-laws, Mallory said, require that the vice chair be of a different gender than the state party chair. So Walters would have to have a male vice chair.
"It would be a shame to lose her, because Rhine has influence that extends way beyond Ohio, into the national party,'' said Mallory, who is also a member of the Democratic National Committee.
McLin, as acting chair, sent out an email fundraising appeal on behalf of the party over the weekend. It's hard to imagine her not wanting a role to play in the Ohio Democratic Party.
The next party chair, if it is Walters or another woman, might be well advised to find one for her.