Hamilton County Democratic Party leaders did something Saturday morning that is extremely rare in local politics – they yanked the party endorsement of an incumbent elected official – in this case, Sheriff Jim Neil.
Instead, they gave the endorsement to one of Neil's former top officers, Charmaine McGuffey.
A little over 100 members of the party's executive committee showed up at the Laborers Union Hall in Evanston on a very cold and rainy Saturday morning to endorse its slate of candidates for the March 17 primary election.
The Democrats saved the most contentious decision for last – the endorsement of a candidate for sheriff.
Britt Born, a co-chair of the committee that screened candidates for county offices and made recommendations to the executive committee, said the party always first considers its incumbent candidates for endorsement.
But in the case of Neil, the nominating committee was concerned about Neil showing up front and center with President Trump at a rally in Butler County; his close friendship with the conservative, Trump-backing sheriff of Butler County, Richard K. Jones; and the issues about Neil's views on racial disparities in the jail and issues with LGBTQ people, of whom McGuffey is one.
The final voice vote of the executive committee to give the endorsement to McGuffey was not close. It came after a number of speakers got up and made impassioned two-minute speeches for and against Neil.
The two candidates spoke as well.
Two Cincinnati council members – P.G. Sittenfeld and Chris Seelbach – spoke in favor of McGuffey, as did Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval.
"She really does live the values of the Democratic Party,'' Pureval said. "She is a leader for the LGBTQ community. This is historic. We have the opportunity here to elect the first woman to this office in Hamilton County history."
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said Neil has earned an endorsement from the party, saying that, "at the minimum," the party should go with a "no endorsement" in the sheriff's race.
The Republicans are running Cincinnati police lieutenant Bruce Hoffbauer for sheriff.
The slate included a number of incumbents – like Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval and Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco – along with a number of non-incumbents who have no primary election opposition.
But they do have a number of contested primaries on the March 17 ballot; and the executive committee endorsed candidates in a number of them.
One glaring exception was the Democratic primary for the seat of County Commissioner Todd Portune, who is seriously ill with cancer and left office at the end of 2019.
Last week, the party's central committee voted to make Victoria Parks, Portune's chief of staff, his replacement to serve out the remainder of Portune's term in 2020.
But there are three Democrats on the ballot in the March primary – former state representative and Cincinnati vice mayor Alicia Reece, former state representative Connie Pillich and Kelli Prather, who has run with no success in a city council race and a U.S. Senate primary.
Born, a co-chair, told the executive committee that the nominating committee came down to a choice between Pillich and Reece; and decided to recommend no endorsement for commissioner.
That set off a long debate, and a demand by Reece that she be allowed to speak.
The committee opened up discussion again and Reece spoke, saying she is "the most qualified candidate" and that if she loses the primary there will be no African American women on the ballot for the Democrats.
But she said she was willing to live with a "no endorsement."
"I will take my case to the people,'' Reece said.
Pillich reminded the executive committee that, last November, after he announced he would not be running for re-election, Portune said he wanted to see her elected.
"I do bring the endorsement of Todd Portune, Commissioner Denise Driehaus and Commission Victoria Parks,'' Pillich said.
In other races, the Democrats endorsed a former municipal court judge Fanon Rucker for Hamilton County prosecutor against first-time candidate Gabe Davis.
The nominating committee, Born said, feels Davis "has a bright future as a candidate," but decided that the more experienced Rucker has a better chance of defeating GOP incumbent Joe Deters.