Pepper, Pillich, Sittenfeld: Can they help save the Ohio Democratic Party?

Nov 16, 2014

Yes, the Nov. 4 election was a complete train wreck for the Ohio Democratic Party.

The gubernatorial candidate, Ed FitzGerald, was so abysmally weak that he took only 33 percent of the vote again incumbent Republican John Kasich – the worst drubbing of a Democratic candidate for governor since an unknown state senator named Rob Burch had 25 percent of the vote against popular GOP incumbent George Voinovich in 1994.

It was the second gubernatorial election in a row – 2010 being the other one – where the Democrats were completely shut out of statewide offices. And it forced Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern, who has held the job since 2005, to announce his resignation the day after the election. To add insult to injury, Redfern lost his bid for re-election to the Ohio House; and his wife failed in her attempt to be elected to the state board of education.

Right now, it is a political party in disarray.

There are, however, three well-known Cincinnati Democrats who might have a hand in re-building the party – two who lost statewide races on Nov. 4, David Pepper and Connie Pillich; and a third who is dropping broad hints that he might be a statewide candidate as soon as the 2016 U.S. Senate race, Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld.

Here’s what they have to say:

Pepper: The former Cincinnati council member and Hamilton County commissioner makes no bones about it – he would like to be the next Ohio Democratic Party chairman.

“Yes, I am interested,’’ Pepper told WVXU last week, while taking a post-election vacation with his wife and six-month-old son.

“Outside of the chairman of the party and (U.S. Sen.) Sherrod Brown, there’s probably no one in the party who has been in more of Ohio’s counties than I have.”

Pepper has been traveling the state for years – the result of two runs for statewide office, both of them losses. In 2010, he ran for state auditor, losing to Republican Dave Yost. This year, he took on incumbent Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine, and ended up with 38 percent of the vote on a day when Ohio Democrats stayed away from the polls in droves.

There are likely to be a number of contenders for the state chairmanship, which will be decided by the Ohio Democratic Party’s executive committee on a date yet to be set.

The only other Democrat who has publicly expressed interest in the chairmanship is Janet Carson, the party chairwoman in Geauga County in northeast Ohio and the president of the Ohio Democratic Chairs Association.

Pepper said he wants to form some sort of partnership with State Sen. Nina Turner, who was the unsuccessful candidate for Ohio secretary of state in this election. Turner is extraordinarily popular among African-American voters in the state.

He’s not suggesting a “co-chair” situation with Turner, because, as he says, the state party’s by-laws don’t allow for that.

“Nina and I hit it off on the campaign trail,’’ Pepper said. “I want a role for her to play in re-building the party. And she is a dynamic speaker, a passionate voice for voters’ rights; and she has a real following in the state and beyond.”

In an interview last week with Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler said she is “not necessarily going to lock myself into any position, but I am taking a role in making sure that our party is moving forward.”

If Turner does not run for state party chair herself, she would be a valuable ally for Pepper and could help him win support among African-Americans. And that will be an important factor in the choosing of a new party chair.

Sittenfeld: The 30-year-old Cincinnati council member, now in his second term, is an ambitious young fellow.

In politics, that is generally a virtue, not a character defect. It’s like every other business – people naturally want to move up the ladder.

Sittenfeld is no exception.

Two years from now, a U.S. Senate seat from Ohio is up for election. Republican Rob Portman is the incumbent, but Portman is also mulling over the possibility of a run for the GOP presidential nomination that year.

Although Ohio law would allow him to run for both the presidency and re-election, Portman has said he won't do so - he'll run for one or the other. He won’t do what Vice President Joe Biden did in 2008 – run for the Democratic presidential nomination, then as Barack Obama’s running mate, while at the same time being on the ballot for re-election to the Senate from Delaware.

Whether Portman runs for re-election to the Senate or not, Sittenfeld told WVXU that he is thinking about the possibility of a run for the U.S. Senate in 2016; or possibly a run for statewide office in 2018.

“Our party had a bruising election night,’’ Sittenfeld said. “There is a need and a desire for new leaders.  I’m going to look at it and see if I can be useful for a statewide campaign.”

Is he serious?

Oh, yes, he’s serious.

For the U.S. Senate in 2016?

“I don’t know for sure yet; I wouldn’t rule it out,’’ Sittenfeld said.

Sittenfeld said he doesn’t do any of his own website work himself; he has a “tech guy” to do that.

Well, so far this year, the tech guy has registered the following internet domain names for the council member: sittenfeldforsenate.com, pgforsenate.com, sittenfeldforgovernor.com, sittenfeldforohio.com, pgforohio.com and, expanding his horizons a bit, sittenfeldforamerica.com.

“It only costs 10 bucks a year to nail down a domain name,’’ Sittenfeld said. “I thought it was a good idea to have them, just in case.”

Sittenfeld’s first political campaign was in 2011, when he was elected to council, finishing a surprising second behind Roxanne Qualls. Last year – the first council where council members were elected to four-year terms – he ended up running first in the council field race, about 10,000 votes ahead of second—place finisher Charlie Winburn.

“I finished first in the council campaign; I’ve shown that I can draw votes,’’ Sittenfeld said.

And, in his relatively brief career in politics, he has been a prodigious fundraiser – which has to be music to the ears of Democratic leaders around the state.

But winning a council seat – even in the state’s third largest city – does not a statewide candidate make.

You have to spend a lot of time traveling this state, from the urban counties to the suburban communities to the rural areas, getting your name known to the people who are the movers and shakers in the party in their areas.

Sittenfeld has been working on that in 2014. He spent a lot of time stumping and acting as a surrogate for Pepper and for the Ohio Democratic Party in every corner of the state. Democratic party people around the state are starting to know his name.

“I’ve got good connections around the state,’’ Sittenfeld said. “I build relations with people when I’m not running for anything.”

There are other potential Democratic candidates for the Senate in 2016 and governor in 2018 out there, including U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of  Youngstown and former state treasurer and attorney general Richard Cordray, who is working in the Obama administration. Former governor Ted Strickland is said by many to be mulling over a run for the Senate.

But what Sittenfeld – and, no doubt, other young Democrats around the state – is hoping is that the party will realize that its future resides in fresh young candidates.

Pillich: When we talked to her last week, the state representative from Montgomery was taking a break from making hundreds of phone calls to people who supported her unsuccessful campaign for Ohio treasurer.

The last thing on her mind at that point was her own political future.

“I really don’t know myself what I will do next,’’ said Pillich. “I’m serving out the rest of term in the House; we've got a busy lame duck session. And I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family, which you don’t get a lot of time to do when you are running for statewide office.

“I’ll be unemployed as of January,’’ said Pillich, who was elected to three two-year terms in her northern Hamilton County House district. “But I hope to have a role in re-building the party. I learned a lot in this campaign; and I want to use that knowledge.”

Pillich lost to Republican incumbent Josh Mandel, but, among the Democratic candidates for the statewide constitutional offices, she did the best, taking 43 percent of the vote.

Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said she impressed people with her campaign for treasurer, despite the loss.

“There was a Republican tide that not only swept through Ohio, but across the country,’’ Burke said. “In a gubernatorial election year, you would hope that the candidate at the top of the ticket has coattails. But this one (FitzGerald) was like sinking an anchor, holding everybody else down.”

Maybe – just maybe – if there had been a more competitive race for governor, Pillich would have won, Burke said.

For her part, Pillich was disappointed in the dismal turnout statewide – 39 percent, the lowest percentage in a gubernatorial year since Ohio began keeping turnout records.

“When only 39 percent of the people in this state say they will participate in democracy, it’s a sad commentary,’’ Pillich said. “It’s a sad commentary for both parties.”

“We need to get people engaged politically again, like it used to be in our parents’ generation,’’ Pillich said. “I’d like to play role in making that happen.”

Burke said that many Ohio Democrats expect Pillich to run again for statewide office in 2018; and that he has talked to her about that. Others in her home county – Burke included – would like to see her run for a local office in 2016 – perhaps Congress, perhaps county commissioner.

Pillich said she will continue to be involved in politics, but isn’t saying that she will definitely run for office again.

“I don’t know for sure,’’ Pillich said. “I wouldn’t rule it out.”

We’re betting dollars to donuts that voters will see the name “Connie Pillich” on a ballot again.