Commentary: Todd Portune Is A Model Of Undaunted Courage

Sep 16, 2019

This story first appeared on Sept. 16, 2019, one week after Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune announced he would retire at the end of the year due to his health. Today marks his last meeting as a commissioner before he officially steps down on Dec. 31. after nearly 30 years in office. 

If you are a young person – Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative – and you look to build a career in politics and public service, you would do well to look to Todd Portune as your role model.

His nearly 30 years in public office, from Cincinnati City Council to five terms as a Hamilton County commissioner, would be enough of a legacy. If you could serve in office that long, with honor and distinction, you could count your life as a success.

But would you be able to do it under the circumstances that Todd Portune has faced for the past 20 years, as his body fell apart, suffering incredible pain just getting up in the morning?

That is courage. That is dedication. That is above and beyond the call of duty. That is the kind of determination to do the job that takes the breath away of those who have watched him struggle each day with his physical limitations to do the job people elected him to do.

The suffering began with tumors on his spine discovered in 1996. Treatment of a blood clot in 2002 caused those tumors to hemorrhage, causing partial paralysis. A year ago, he had his left leg amputated because of another tumor, which led to another round of chemotherapy treatments. A fall at home earlier this year further injured his spine and put him back in a wheelchair.

His cancer returned in April and experimental treatments this summer did nothing to stop it from spreading throughout his body.

Surrounded by colleagues and friends in September, with his two oldest children at his side, Todd Portune said he won't run for re-election to a sixth term in 2020, and that his health may mean that he won't serve the remainder of this term. He retires Dec. 31, and has named a temporary placeholder for the remainder of his seat. 

"Whatever my future has in store for me from this point forward is good and is a blessing,'' Portune said. "And I thank God for the privilege to have had the life that I had. And if that means I get to live for a long time, that's great. And if that means that the Lord has something else in mind for me, then I'm comfortable with that too."

Todd Portune is a Democrat; when he was elected a county commissioner in 2000 he broke the vise grip that the Republicans had held on the county commission for four decades. And he was re-elected over and over and over and over again.

Until now.

When a brave man has realized it is time to put his burden down.

I have covered politics for 45 years. I have come to know countless politicians of all political stripes.

But I have never known one with the courage and determination of Todd Portune.

I have marveled at the strength and will he has shown, continuing to do the work of an elected official and a leader, despite the pain, despite the struggle. Someone who has been dedicated to improving the lives of the least fortunate among us.

His fellow Democratic commissioner, Denise Driehaus, was at his side when Portune made his announcement. She later tweeted out her feelings about her friend and colleague.

"Todd Portune has stood tall in this community for decades, serving the public with unmatched dedication and enthusiasm,'' Driehaus said. "He has also been my friend from the time I worked for him as his legislative assistant at City Hall to today as his colleague on the county commission."

Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, who once served with Portune on the county commission, said his friend's legacy is "best measured by the thousands of people in the county who benefited from his never-ending quest to improve the lives of his constituents.

"From battling to decrease infant mortality, to broadening health care, to promoting issues such as environmental justice, equal opportunity and good jobs, Todd has never been distracted from the fundamental principle that politics and public service are about improving people's lives."

One reason I have always liked Todd is that he is able to laugh at himself; he doesn't take himself as seriously as many politicians do.

Portune has a reputation for being a marathon talker. When he warms to a subject, he can go on and on and on, until people are either nodding off or pulling their hair out. He knows he is, well, loquacious; and isn't afraid to make fun of himself for it.

Several years ago, I was giving a post-election talk at the Cincinnati Women's Political Caucus. Todd was in the audience. I can't remember the subject, but we got into a discussion of some obscure election procedure that seemed very important at the time.

A woman in the audience turned to Portune and asked him a question about the subject.

He had a brief reply: Yes.

I couldn't let it go.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to know we have witnessed Hamilton County political history here tonight,'' I said. "Todd Portune answered a question with a single word. This is a first."

Everyone laughed. No one laughed more than Todd, sitting in the back of the room.

Another trait of Todd Portune that you find too little of in politics these days – a willingness to sit down and have a civil discussion with people who disagree with him on the issues.

Portune and Driehaus found themselves in some hot water when they passed a two-tenths of a cent increase in the sales tax to deal with a looming budget deficit. (Then-County Commissioner Chris Monzel, a Republican, voted against it.)

Conservatives – backed by the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and the Hamilton County Republican Party – launched a petition drive to put a repeal of the sales tax increase on the November 2018 ballot. They succeeded in getting enough signatures, but the county commissioners ended up withdrawing the sales tax increase.

After Portune made his announcement last week, Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou reminded followers of his Facebook page that, last summer, not long after Portune had his left leg amputated, the Democratic county commissioner showed up unexpectedly at a meeting of the leaders of the petition drive at Price Hill Chili.

"Todd had the gumption to show up at our petition-signing party at Price Hill Chili," Triantafilou said. "He showed up, answered questions, respectfully and politely argued with us and faced the people.

"Todd came and faced his critics,'' Triantafilou said. "I have much respect for politicians who do that, even when I wildly disagree."

On Facebook, Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou, left, shared a photo of Portune in August 2018 talking to a group opposed to the sales tax he and fellow Democratic Commissioner Denise Driehaus had recently passed. The sales tax was later rescinded.
Credit Courtesy of Alex Triantafelou

And the GOP chairman asked "every citizen here, and every Republican" to pray for Portune's healing.

"Some things are bigger than politics,'' Triantafilou said.

Indeed, there are things far bigger than politics. That, too, is a lesson the young aspiring politician can learn from the example of Todd Portune.

Godspeed, Todd. Job well done.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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