Commentary: A Pillich-Reece Primary Contest Doesn't Have To Be A Horror Show

Nov 19, 2019

There was a time when the leaders of the Democratic Party in Hamilton County had to crawl on their hands and knees and beg people to run for county offices.

People who didn't mind wasting several months of their lives chasing their tails and ending up on Election Day being beaten by some incumbent Republican like a rented mule.

Those days are gone, gone, gone.

The Democrats are in charge now.

That's great for them. All three county commission seats are in Democrats' hands. More and more county offices are flipping to the Democrats. Even formerly rock-ribbed Republican suburbs turning solid blue.

That's the good news.

The bad news for Democrats is that being the top political party attracts candidates like a dog attracts fleas, and the party ends up with a bunch of contested primary elections that have the potential of splitting the party down the middle.

Enter Connie Pillich.

The former state representative from Montgomery – a former Air Force officer and lawyer – jumped into the race for the Hamilton County commission seat of Todd Portune, the longtime commissioner, who says he will leave office at the end of the year to focus on his battle with cancer.

Pillich – who represented the suburban 28th Ohio House District from 2009 to 2014 – has a history of being a good "cross-over candidate" – a candidate with the ability to draw voters from the other party.

Her formal declaration of candidacy Tuesday in front of the Hamilton County Administration Building launched another primary battle for the Democrats.

Alicia Reece, also a former state representative and a former Cincinnati City Council member, has been in the race for some time now, and has the endorsement of Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley. Reece is also the former head of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus.

It could set up a very ugly, very divisive situation in the Hamilton County Democratic Party central committee, over whether to endorse one of the two – the African American woman or the white woman – for Portune's seat.

It is a battle that was avoided in the spring of 2018 when longtime county party chairman Tim Burke retired. The party could easily have sunk into a racially tinged fight when it came to replacing Burke. Wiser heads prevailed and the party ended up choosing co-chairs – Pillich and Gwen McFarlin, an African American woman.

That arrangement lasted for about five months before Pillich left for a job in Washington and McFarlin has headed the party on her own ever since.  

County Commission President Denise Driehaus – who is also up for re-election next year – was at Pillich's side for her announcement Tuesday.

Pillich told WVXU that Portune wanted to be at the announcement Tuesday but was having a procedure done as part of his cancer treatment.

Portune and Driehaus want Pillich. Cranley wants Reece.

Cranley and Portune and Driehaus do not have much use for each other.

This does not portend a peaceful primary campaign.  

Pillich told WVXU that her decision to run came fairly recently, as she was leaving a job in Washington as executive director of the National Association of Women Judges, a non-partisan organization that supports women judges and encourages other women to run for judicial office.

"If someone had asked me two months ago if I was running for county commissioner, I would have said no way,'' Pillich said. "But people began coming to me and asking me to run.

"I had people who wanted me to run for at least five different offices, from prosecutor to Congress to county commissioner to dogcatcher to Pope,'' Pillich said. "In the end, I decided it was the right thing to do."

We do not pretend to know how a Reece-Pillich primary would turn out.

We do know a few things though:

  • Pillich, in her old 28th Ohio House District, has more experience making her pitch to suburban Republican voters, with some considerable success. After her first term, the Republicans in the legislature re-drew the district and tossed her into a much more Republican district, assuming she would lose and that would be the end of her. Well, she won that contest, too.
  • Reece's old 33rd Ohio House District is in the center of the county, and mostly made up of Cincinnati neighborhoods. It's 49% black, 2% Hispanic and the rest of it is made up of white voters.
  • Pillich's short-lived run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018 didn't get very far, but it did leave her with about $540,000 in her campaign fund – money she can use to run for county commission. That's a pretty good head start on fundraising.
  • Reece is well-known and well-liked in the city – particularly the East Side, where the African American vote is concentrated and where Democrats grow on trees.
  • Both candidates have reputations as being tough cookies, not a bit hesitant to mix it up in some political street-fighting.

Burke, the former Democratic Party chairman, isn't choosing sides in this one; he says he has good relationships over a long period of time with both candidates. And either one, he said, would be a better choice than businessman Andy Black of Indian Hill, a relatively unknown commodity who is (at least for now) the candidate for the Hamilton County Republican Party.

He would just as soon not see the party get involved in a major battle over this.

"We'd all be better off letting the primary voters decide this,'' Burke said.

WVXU reached out to McFarlin for comment and is waiting to hear back. 

If I've learned one thing in my years of covering politics, it is that Democrats enjoy fighting among each other almost as much as they enjoy winning elections.

But it seems to me there is a simple way to avoid all of this.

Why not wait until after the filing deadline – Dec. 18 – and choose a reliable, qualified placeholder to take the county commission job after Portune leaves office at the end of the year? 

Now, this isn't something they have to do – because even if the commission were just Driehaus and Stephanie Summerow Dumas – they would have a quorum, but it might be a way to smooth out any ruffled feathers within the party. 

This placeholder would agree, for the sake of the party, to resign after the primary and allow the winner of the Pillich-Reece race be appointed, so she could run as an incumbent.

Make sense?

Sure does.

But only if they can resist the urge for a knock-down, drag-out fight inside the party that will leave the primary winner a beat-up mess.

Your call, Democrats.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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