Commentary: Can Andy Black Break The Democratic Hold On Hamilton County Commission?

Sep 5, 2019

When I started covering politics in these parts 37 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a day when the Republicans were on the outside of Hamilton County government looking in.

That day has come.

Three out of three of the county commission are Democrats. The county sheriff, the coroner, the clerk of courts, the county auditor – all Democrats. Oodles of Democratic judges on the state appeals court, common pleas and municipal courts these days. Back in the old days, Democratic judges were as rare as hen's teeth.

And Hamilton County went for the Democratic presidential candidates in the last three elections – Barack Obama twice and Hillary Clinton once.

Republican incumbents have lost the last two elections for county commissioner – Dennis Deters in 2016 and Chris Monzel in 2018.

In hindsight, this Hamilton-County-turns-blue phenomenon was not hard to predict. I will risk tearing my rotator cuff muscles by patting myself on the back for predicting it in a column about 25 years ago.

By the early 1990s, it was apparent that many of the Republican Party's base voters had moved out of the county – to Butler and Warren Counties, to Florida and Arizona.

As the years rolled on, more GOP voters rolled out of Hamilton County, while the blueness of the city of Cincinnati began spreading out into the suburbs.

Next year, the Republicans will have a chance to regain a foothold on the all-Democratic county commission, with two Democratic incumbents, Denise Driehaus and Todd Portune, up for re-election.

Todd Portune and Denise Driehaus in 2017.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

The Hamilton County GOP has yet to nail down a candidate for Driehaus' seat, according to county party chair Alex Triantafilou.

But they have an interesting newcomer to run for Portune's seat in Andy Black, a 39-year-old Indian Hill businessman, a former Mariemont council member, the former star quarterback at Mariemont High School and a walk-on for the Miami Redhawks during the days when Ben Roethlisberger was quarterback there.

He's already got $125,000 in the bank for his run against Portune.

"This is a county that is turning blue,'' Black told WVXU. "It's not going to be easy. But my mission is to convince the independent voters that one-party government is not a good thing.

"The question is whether or not our intent as a county is to become like a lot of big cities, with one-party control,'' Black said.

In Portune, Black is running against a long-time incumbent who continues to battle serious health problems. There is a chance that, by the filing deadline for candidates in December, Portune might decide to not run for re-election.

That has sparked rumors that, if Portune is out of the race, the Republican Party might replace Black with a better-known candidate – one who would have a better chance of winning a seat on the county commission.

Black will have none of it.

"Whether it is Todd or somebody else, I am going to be in this race,'' Black said. "I know there are all kinds of rumors out there. But those rumors have no basis in fact."

Black said he has never discussed with Triantafilou or other party leaders the possibility of withdrawing from the race should Portune decide not to run.

"Not going to happen,'' Black said.

Triantafilou, in an interview with WVXU, side-stepped questions about what the party would do if Portune decides not to run. He said he knows Portune would be a formidable candidate, even with his multitude of health issues.

"We don't wish Todd ill at all; we hope he can recover,'' Triantafilou said. "We want him to be fully well when we beat him."

Black, Triantafilou said, "is going to be very well organized. He's a serious candidate. He's out there talking about the issues and thinking about the role of county government. We think he can be the grown-up in the room."

Triantafilou clammed up when we asked about who the party was expecting to run against Driehaus, except to say that no one has committed to the race.

The GOP chairman did let it slip that the primary person the party has been talking to is a woman.

That narrows it down to 51.7% of the county's population.

"I don't want this person's phone to start ringing with calls from the media when we don't have a commitment that this person will run,'' Triantafilou said.

They have until Dec. 18, the filing deadline for the March 17 primary (yes, a presidential primary on St. Patrick's Day). By then, the GOP will have at least one candidate willing to take on Driehaus.

It's probably not a good idea to wait until then, though.

Black said he kicked off his campaign and started raising money in this off-year, before the traffic of presidential and congressional candidates got too heavy. He's getting a head start on gathering name recognition, too.

And, he says, he's not running as a candidate tied to Donald Trump, who lost this county by 10 percentage points in 2016.

"I'm not going to get tangled up in these tweets and all of that,'' Black said. "I'm just not going to do it. There are plenty of county issues to run on."

Pretty smart strategy.

But, then again, you have to be smart to run up hill.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Politically Speaking" here.