Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of profiles of some of the contested races in the March 15 Ohio primary.
Democratic Party leaders in Cincinnati really weren’t expecting a primary contest in the 32nd Ohio House District in the March 15 primary election.
After all, the freshman incumbent, State Rep. Christie Bryant Kuhns of Northside won the heavily-Democratic district with ease in 2014, despite it being her first time on the ballot.
And there was no reason to believe that Kuhns could not be re-elected this year with similar numbers in a sprawling district that runs from Mt. Adams in the east to Mt. Healthy in the northwest.
Then, in early December, Kuhns changed the picture dramatically.
She announced that she would not run for a second term – even though it is likely she could have served all four of the two-year terms allowed under Ohio’s term limits law.
Kuhns said she would finish out this term, but had accepted a job at University of Cincinnati Health, leading strategic community relations in several Cincinnati neighborhoods.
This announcement came only 13 days before the Dec. 16 candidate filing deadline for the March 15 primary. That set off a mad scramble of Democratic candidates circulating petitions for the 32nd Ohio House seat.
In the end, three Democrats qualified for the ballot, setting up what could be a very competitive primary. They are Shawn Butler, who was a top aide to former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory; long-time Cincinnati school board member Catherine Ingram, and a political newcomer, Leo D’Cruz, a sociologist, business owner with his wife Michelle, and a community organizer. Kevin Johnson, a West End business owner and former Cincinnati city council aide, is running as a write-in candidate.
Two years ago, the Hamilton County Democratic Party endorsed Kuhns over Bentley Davis of Northside. This year, though, the party decided not to endorse in the primary contest.
When Democrats in the 32d District go to the polls March 15, their top priority will likely be the choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but, if they go down the ballot a bit, they will find three names – Butler, D’Cruz and Ingram – from which to choose.
Republicans in the district will find but one name on the ballot for the 32nd District – that of Matthew H. Wahlert of North College Hill.
This district has evolved over the decades, but it includes much of the area represented for decades by people named Mallory – the late William Mallory Sr., who became majority leader of the Ohio House; his son, Mark Mallory; and another son, Dale Mallory.
It includes all or parts of a diverse set of neighborhoods – Mt. Adams, Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton, Camp Washington, Northside, Mt. Airy, the West End, Mt. Auburn, College Hill, North College Hill and Mt. Healthy among them.
It is what people in the world of politics call a “majority minority district” – in other words, a district where the majority of residents are non-white. In the case of the 32nd Ohio House District, about 52 percent of the residents are African-American.
It has been a heavily Democratic district. In the 2014 general election, Democrat Kuhns won 71 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Republican A. Brian McIntosh.
Neighborhood: Mount Auburn
Background: Graduate of Walnut Hills High School; earned a degree in political science at the University of Cincinnati.
Experience: Director of Community Affairs for former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. Presently working for a property management company that helps low-income people and those with special needs find affordable housing.
Campaign website: http://electbutler.com/
Why he’s running:
Butler understands full well that if he is elected, he will be a freshman member of the Democratic minority caucus – about the lowest rung of the legislative totem pole.
But he still believes he can be an effective representative for the people of the 32nd Ohio House District.
“I want to be a representative with a presence in the community,’’ Butler said. “You have to be there; you have to show up at the neighborhood councils. You have to be there to listen to people and their concerns.”
That, he said, is essentially what he did for eight years as Mark Mallory’s community affairs representative.
“Letting people know there is a place where they can turn if they have a problem with state government, or government at any level,’’ Butler said. “Constituent service – that’s the core of what I want to do.”
He said he knows that as a freshman Democrat in a legislature that is likely to be dominated by Republicans passing legislation will be difficult, but not impossible.
“Passing legislation is something I think I am skilled enough to do,’’ Butler said. “I have experience working with people who come from a different point of view.”
Even if he can’t produce laws with his name on them, he said, he can make a difference.
“If I can’t pass legislation, I can listen to the community and take their concerns back to Columbus,’’ Butler said. “I can influence the process that way.”
Butler – who lives in Mt. Auburn across the street from the house he grew up in – said strengthening the public education system would be one of his top priorities in Columbus.
“There is no question about it,’’ Butler said. “The higher the education level you achieve, the better life you will have. I was fortunate. I had that opportunity. We have to work hard to make sure all children have access to the best education, no matter where they live or what their families’ income level.”
Reducing crime is also a high priority, Butler said, “and, to me, that is directly linked to education. It is all related. Getting young people engaged in education now is going to help keep them out of trouble later.”
Butler, who was recently elected to the executive committee of the Cincinnati NAACP, wants to focus on the needs of senior citizens as well.
“There are too many ‘food deserts’ in our community,’’ Butler said. “Folks have to take buses and travel out of their neighborhoods just to get groceries.
“There is a neighbor of mine who is a 74-year-old lady and I see her coming back from the grocery, struggling uphill on steps to her home with bags of groceries; and I always stop to help her,’’ Butler said. “We need to do more as a community and government to make life easier for the older folks, who have done so much for us.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree in International Politics from Penn State University, master’s degree in sociology from George Mason University.
Experience: Co-owner with his wife of a design and communications firm. Formerly taught classes at Cincinnati State. Was vice president of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
Campaign website: http://www.leo4ohio.com/
Why he’s running:
As at Latino – his father was a Colombian immigrant – he said he feels a close bond to other Latinos, African-Americans and others who have felt the sting of discrimination.
“As a Latino, I know what it is like,’’ D’Cruz said. “When I was in school, I had to fight to get into advanced placement classes.”
He said that as vice president of LULAC, he worked with former congressman Steve Driehaus and Sen. Sherrod Brown to pass the DREAM Act which would have granted conditional residency to some illegal immigrants and, upon further qualifications, permanent residency. It has failed several times in Congress.
D’Cruz and his wife Michelle moved to Cincinnati from Washington, D.C. six-and-half years ago; and this is where they have established a business and are raising their three-year-old daughter.
D’Cruz said he was as surprised as everyone else by Kuhns’ decision not to run again.
“I took a look at the situation and decided that there were no obvious candidates for the job and decided I would offer myself as a candidate,” D’Cruz said.
“I feel like I am someone who has the know-how to get things done,’’ D’Cruz said.
D’Cruz said he understands that getting things done legislatively if, as expected, the Ohio House remains firmly in the control of the Republicans will be difficult.
“There’s very little room for movement,’’ D’Cruz said. “But I feel like I can represent the interests of my constituents in the discussion. I feel like I can contribute.
He is willing, he said, to work with Republicans on issues where the two parties can find common ground.
“We don’t get anything done if we are on an island by ourselves,’’ D’Cruz said.
Improving public education and making health care more affordable for Ohioans would be among his top priorities, he said. He wants to see more public schools become community learning centers like Roberts Academy in Price Hill.
He understands that the district he will be representing is very economically diverse – from some of the wealthiest of Cincinnatians to some of the poorest.
The issues in the district, he said, range from educational equality to access to health care and to what he calls “equitable neighborhood revitalization.”
“I know there are communities in this district that have become, to one extent or another, gentrified,’’ D’Cruz said. “I know; I live in one of them.
“I don’t want to demonize developers, but I want to see neighborhoods that can be home to people of all income levels,’’ D’Cruz said. “I want to hold on to the cultural and historical knowledge of the people who have been in those neighborhoods for generations.”
Neighborhood: Mt. Auburn
Education: Bachelor of science and MBA from the University of Cincinnati.
Experience: Five four-year terms on the Cincinnati Board of Education. Realtor at Comey & Shepherd. Lecturer at Thomas More College. Unsuccessful candidate in the 9th Ohio Senate District primary.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/cathy.ingram.10?fref=ts
Why she’s running:
Ingram said her 20 years of service on the Cincinnati Board of Education brought her into almost constant contact with the state of Ohio and the Ohio General Assembly, working on issues of interest to the Cincinnati Public Schools.
“I know how the system works in Columbus,’’ Ingram said.
She said she had considered running for the open 32nd Ohio House District seat two years ago, but instead opted for a run in the Democratic primary for the open 9th Ohio Senate District seat made vacant when State Sen. Eric Kearney was term-limited out. She ended up third in a field of six candidates. Former Cincinnati council member Cecil Thomas won that primary and went on to defeat Republican Charlie Winburn in the fall.
“Now there is an unexpected opportunity again the 32nd District; and I think I am well-qualified for the job,’’ Ingram said. “I’m moving from one stage of my life to another. Retirement? I don’t know what that means. I believe I have much more to offer.”
After the leaving the school board, Ingram said, she got a real estate license and became a Realtor. It is a job, she said, “where I can help regular people make educated decisions about where they should live and what they can afford.”
Ingram said she wants to go to Columbus and be “a voice for those who have no voice.”
“I understand what people go through when their financial situation is not what it should be,’’ Ingram said. “I want to be at the Statehouse to be the advocate for those in this district who are struggling to get by.”
Ingram knows that if she is elected, she will be a freshman in the Democratic minority of the Ohio House. That does not bother her a bit, she said.
“Having been there in Columbus and having seen how it works, I am prepared for it,’’ Ingram said. “I am not just a freshman; I am a freshman with a base of experience.”
Ingram also said that, if she goes to the Statehouse, she will be a “strong voice” against any attempts by the Republican legislature or the Republican Secretary of State to limit voting rights.
“The state should be in the business of making it easier to vote, not harder,’’ Ingram said.
Ingram said she will also be a voice for the “unemployed and the under-employed.”
“I know there is a wide disparity in income levels in this district,’’ Ingram said. “But even if you live, say, in Mt. Adams, and you work for a big corporation that downsizes and you can’t find a job that pays at the level you had before, you are losing ground.
“And this happens to a lot of people, at all income levels,’’ Ingram said.
Ingram said she would be the kind of representative who stays in touch with people in the district’s neighborhoods and would listen to their needs and their ideas.
“I don’t have any magic bullet answers to all the problems we face,’’ Ingram said. “If I did, I’d be one of those people on the New York Times best-sellers list. But I will listen; and I will work hard at the job.”