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Analysis: Cincinnati Democratic Committee Gets In Trouble, And Faces More From Within

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Tim Mossholder

The Hamilton County Democratic Party has been "reprimanded" by the state party for the way its Cincinnati Democratic Committee conducted its virtual meeting to endorse Cincinnati council candidates.

That's what an official of the Ohio Democratic Party tells me.

Don't even ask what a "reprimand" means in this case, or if it carries any consequences, because the Ohio Democratic Party can't (or won't) tell me. I think in this case it is "can't."

Something tells me it is not as serious as the "double secret probation" that Dean Wormer threatened to levy on the Delta Tau Chi fraternity in the movie Animal House.

And it is probably not as significant as the dissatisfaction many Democrats are feeling about how the deal went down.

So, what exactly did the Cincinnati Democratic Committee do wrong?

Permit me to dive deep into the weeds of party politics to explain, as best I can.

The Cincinnati Democratic Committee (CDC) is made up of the elected precinct executives from inside the city of Cincinnati. In late May, the CDC's nominating committee held a long and contentious Zoom meeting to decide on a slate of nine candidates to recommend to the full CDC.

Even if they were concerned over coronavirus, holding such a meeting over Zoom was a really bad idea. It afforded no opportunity for members of the public – even Democrats who are not precinct executives – to jump on board the call to observe the sausage-making.

Here's the rub: The Democratic Party, to its eternal credit, carries language in its constitution and by-laws requiring that all meetings of party governing boards and committees – from the national level to the state level to the local level – are to be "open meetings," in the sense that anyone from the media or the public can attend and observe the goings-on.

The Republican Party, at all levels, has no such requirements. Their meetings are closed-door affairs. You might as well try to break into Ft. Knox.

Over my 40 some years covering politics, I have been to untold dozens of Democratic executive and central committee meetings as a reporter. Nary a one on the GOP side.

Gwen McFarlin, chairwoman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, told me that she believes the mistake was "a fluke that happened because the party was in transition at the time."

At the time, McFarlin said, the party's executive director, Eddie Davenport, was transitioning to a new job at LEAD Ohio, a group that recruits and trains progressive candidates, while the day-to-day operations of the party were being turned over to an interim executive director, Ellen Rakowski.

I talked about the situation for quite a while with Matthew Keyes, the communications director of the Ohio Democratic Party, who called the flap over the Zoom call "confusion more than anything else. They just didn't know they had to livestream.''

Then Keyes sent this written email statement.

"Openness and transparency are two core tenets of the Ohio Democratic Party, and knowing that the Hamilton County Democratic party shares these values, we worked closely with local leaders to ensure they maintain their long history of an open endorsement process now and in the future," Keyes wrote. "The Hamilton County Democratic Party has assured us of its commitment to ODP's bylaws and to an open and fair process, and we're now looking forward to the work of going out into local communities and talking with Hamilton County voters about the issues and priorities that are important to them." 

McFarlin said there are no ill feelings between the state and county parties.

"There was never any intent to shut people out,'' McFarlin said. "The Ohio Democratic Party understands that."

The co-chairs of the CDC, Anne Sesler and Christie Bryant Kuhns, "are people I have absolute faith in," she said. "I know that they both believe in accountability and transparency."

But that does not mean everyone in the party is happy with the outcome of the endorsement process. Many of them are supporters of Michelle Dillingham, an organizer for the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT), who has run twice for City Council and come close to winning. Dillingham says she will run without the Democratic endorsement.

Dillingham believes she was rejected for three reasons: (1) She works for CFT; (2) CFT endorsed Issue 3, which could have given City Council the mandate to invest $50 million a year in an Affordable Housing Trust Fund; and (3) Mayor John Cranley, most of the party establishment and all of the biggest unions in town opposed the ballot issue.

It failed with 72% of the vote. Sort of makes anti-Issue 3 Democrats look like sore winners.

Julie Sellers, the president of CFT, said the deck was stacked against candidates like Dillingham because of "the influence of what I call 'corporate Democrats' and lobbyists on the nominating committee."

"No one who was connected with CFT was considered for an endorsement and we had no presentation on the committee,'' Sellers said. "There are a lot of people angry over this process. Particularly among young Democrats."

One of those young Democrats is 31-year-old Clayton Adams, an intervention specialist with Cincinnati Public Schools.

"I'm a precinct executive, a vice chair of the CDC and the Democratic chairman of Ward 25, and I still couldn't get on that committee,'' Adams said.

So, what to do about it?

Adams and others say the answer is to informally recruit dozens of what he describes as "liberal, progressive candidates" for precinct executive positions and get them elected to the county party's governing body over the so-called "corporate" types.

"The only way you can change the leadership of a political party,'' Adams said, "is by changing it from within. It takes time. But it can be done."


Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.