Commentary: Why Are Hamilton County Democrats Complicating A Sure Thing?

Jan 8, 2020

There's clearly something in the DNA of Democrats in Hamilton County that makes them unable, or unwilling, to believe that they are sitting in the catbird seat.

They don't seem to understand that they are sitting on top of the world. Plenty of sunshine coming their way.

Look at this situation with the Hamilton County commission seat given up on New Year's Eve by Democrat Todd Portune, who is battling cancer.

That should be an easy win for the Democrats, with no muss and no fuss.

But the Democrats always seem to find a way to complicate a sure thing.

The Democrats have no less than three candidates on the March 17 primary ballot; and two of them are among the best-known politicians in the county – former state representatives Connie Pillich and Alicia Reece, both of whom have high name recognition, can raise plenty of money, have high-profile endorsements, and have a track record of winning elections.

The third, Kelli Prather, is not as well known or well funded, but she has enthusiasm for politics and will work hard on her underdog, longshot campaign.

Even Prather is probably better known to voters than the GOP candidate for the Portune seat, Indian Hill businessman Andy Black, whose only previous brush with elective office was as a Mariemont council member.

The Democrats are running in a county that is becoming increasingly blue – in fact, you can make a strong argument that it already passed from purple to blue and shows no sign of reversing course and moving back to red.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will be running for county commission in a year when Donald Trump is also on the ballot; and he will be a ton of dead weight potentially dragging down every Republican on the Hamilton County ballot. After all, Trump won only 42% of the vote in the county in 2016; and 25% in the city of Cincinnati.

Anybody out there think Trump is on the rebound in this corner of Ohio?

Of course not.

A wonderful world for Democrats, isn't it?

But these are Democrats we are talking about, who seem to enjoy fighting with each other as much or more than they like winning elections. And that means there is trouble in paradise.

The drama began on Nov. 21 when Portune, who had already announced he would leave office at the end of the year, held a press conference in Woodlawn to say he was endorsing Pillich in the March primary and the November election to take over his county commission seat for the next four years.

This made Pillich very happy.

Then, one month later, on Dec. 20, Portune let party leaders know that he wanted the Hamilton County Democratic Party's central committee to appoint his friend and chief of staff, Victoria Parks, to fill out the final year of his current term.

This did not make Pillich very happy.

Nor did it delight Reece.

Both thought the best idea would be for Parks to be appointed to the commission and agree to resign after the March 17 primary, so that the winner of the primary could be appointed and run against Black in the fall as an incumbent.

Better to run as an incumbent if you can, because of all the advantages incumbency gives you as a candidate in raising money and drawing attention to yourself.

But, as county party chairwoman Gwen McFarlin is quick to point out, it will be up to the several hundred elected precinct executives who make up the central committee to decide if Parks will be appointed and for how long.

"Everybody in the party loves Todd, and everyone respects his advice, but, in the end, it will be up to the central committee,'' McFarlin said.

And that decision will be made Saturday morning when the central committee gathers at the Laborers Union Hall in Evanston.

Monday, Pillich sent a letter to all the members of the central committee recommending they appoint Parks as the "placeholder" until a new commissioner is elected.

That was sort of an epiphany for Pillich, who initially thought Portune should have recommended that she be appointed, since Portune had already endorsed her in the 2020 election.

"While it might make sense for me to seek this appointment, I highly respect Todd and his recommendation," Pillich wrote. "I encourage you to support his wishes as well. This would honor Todd and create a level playing field for our primary."

Reece told WVXU she has no problem with Parks being appointed to the commission as a placeholder – as long as she agrees to leave once the primary is over.

The winner of the primary should take over as commissioner, Reece said. And she expects to be the winner.

"I am not looking to tear apart the party and I'll accept whatever decision the central committee makes,'' Reece said. "I have told them I don't have a problem with a placeholder unless the placeholder stays in office beyond March."

If that happens, Reece said, "it will just end up confusing voters. They will think, 'Oh, it's over; Victoria Parks is the new commissioner.' "

It probably does make a lot of sense to give the winner of the primary nearly eight months in office to establish herself as an incumbent before she faces the voters in November for a four-year term.

But making sense does not always seem to be a high priority in the Hamilton County Democratic Party, so they will probably appoint Parks for the rest of the year, when a newly elected commissioner can take over.

They'd just better hope that newly elected commissioner isn't a Republican.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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