Pepper: Time For Ohio Democrats To Stop Considering And Start Running

Feb 26, 2017

The Ohio Republican Party, which has done quite well in statewide elections over the past decade or so, has a nice, neat little bunch of politicians just itching to run for governor next year.

Four of them. Attorney General Mike DeWine. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Wadsworth, in Medina County and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who filed paperwork with Husted's office on Thursday so she can start campaigning and, most importantly, raising money.

Four candidates for the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary. If, that is, is none of their campaigns fizzle out before then.

Four candidates to race around the state for the next 14 months or so, beating the living daylights out of each other in hopes of replacing the lame duck governor, John Kasich.

Ohio Democrats only wish they had four candidates willing to whale on each other. They have more than enough wanna-be's. But, as of yet, they have no declared candidates.

Hamilton County Republicans will be lucky to be among the first of the Ohio GOP faithful to see and hear all four of their gubernatorial candidates at the same place at the same time.

It happens next Saturday morning, at the 18th annual Pancake Breakfast sponsored by the Northeast Hamilton County Republican Club at the Sharonville Convention Center.

If you have $30 to spare, you can go hear them and judge for yourself and soak in the breathless excitement of the launch of yet another statewide campaign season.

Well, maybe not that breathless. The pancakes are good though.

We'll tell you what the Fab Four of the Ohio GOP had to say in next Sunday's column, but, for now, we'd rather turn our attention to the state of the race in general.

We know that both DeWine and Husted have about $2.5 million in the bank. We are told by people who know in the GOP that DeWine leads the internal polling – not surprising, in that he's been in office for decades, from Greene County prosecutor to U.S. senator.

And we know that the Democrats are looking at the history of mid-term elections in Ohio when a Republican is in the White House and see that they have a pretty good track record.

Anything in the way of a victory in 2018 in any statewide office would be progress for the Democrats.

They hold none of the statewide constitutional offices. The two Democrats who hold statewide elected officials are Justice William O'Neill of the Ohio Supreme Court (who has said he might run for governor himself if he doesn't like how the Democratic field is shaping up) and Ohio's senior U.S. senator, Sherrod Brown, who is up for re-election in 2018.

Ohio Democratic Party David Pepper readily admits that there is uncertainty at this point about who the Democrats will run for governor (and he would like to avoid a contested primary, although that may not be possible).

But that doesn't stop him from bashing the GOP field about the head and shoulders (rhetorically, of course), saying that Ohioans are not happy about the direction in which this state is headed and aren't likely to turn to a Republican statewide office holder whom he says has been part of the problem.

"The status quo gang is showing up on the other side,'' Pepper said of the four GOP candidates. "They are running around acting like they are doing such an amazing, bang-up job running this state. People aren't going to buy it."

Ohio's job growth has been below the national average in 48 of the last 49 months, Pepper said.

Most of the state's urban areas are not in good shape economically, Pepper said.

"Cincinnati and Columbus are doing pretty well, but you get beyond those two cities and the rest of the state is struggling,'' Pepper said. "Kasich himself is out there saying we are on the verge of a recession in Ohio."

DeWine is the front-runner, Pepper said, and he will have to explain to Ohioans "why their state leads the nation in (opioid) overdose deaths."

It's true, according to a study last fall by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that one of every nine heroin deaths happened in Ohio in 2014, the year in which the survey was conducted.

DeWine can answer by saying that Ohio is the only state that has negotiated a price freeze on naloxone nasal spray so that it is more affordable for law enforcement agencies.

Pepper says the "Ohio Miracle" that Kasich was touting last year when he was running for the GOP presidential nomination has turned out to be nothing more than smoke-and-mirrors. It's not real.

But there is one rule in politics that no political party can get around:

You can't beat something with nothing.

Many other Democrats believe that their strongest potential candidate might be former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.

But Cordray is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

For the past five years, Cordray has been director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency created by the Dodd-Frank Act. Cordray is credited with recovering billions for consumers from unscrupulous lenders.

Republicans in Congress have never liked the agency or Cordray, but they have yet to get rid of him. Chances are the Trump administration would like to dump him too.

There is a court case pending that would allow the president to fire the head of the agency at will, but it is under appeal.

Ohio Democrats believe that Cordray, who takes his job very seriously, will dig in his heels and try to hold on until his term is up in mid-2018.

Mid-2018 would be too late to mount a gubernatorial campaign. 

If he ends up losing in court and is fired by Trump, he could (and likely would, according to many Democrats) come back and run for governor of Ohio.

"Rich will fight for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,'' Pepper said. "He's very dedicated to that."

But, Pepper said, if he is free to come back to Ohio, he would make a formidable candidate.

So, too, might U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, a Democrat who comes from a district where Trump was strong last fall, but who seems to be torn between wanting to run for governor and running for re-election to a relatively safe seat.

Then there is former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton of Summit County. She served in the House from 2007 until she was thrown into a redrawn district and lost to the Republican Renacci in 2012.

Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, the Ohio Senate Minority Leader, is definitely interested in running; former state Representative Connie Pillich of Montgomery is being encouraged to run by her supporters.

Another Democrat said to be considering a run is former Youngstown mayor Jay Williams, who served in the Labor Department during the Obama administration.

In other words, there is a whole lot of "considering" going on and not much "running."

Pepper thinks that will change in the next few months, if not weeks.

"The message in 2018 is going to be in our favor,'' Pepper said. "This is not a status quo election. We hold town meetings around the state; and if you asked people at one of those meetings how the Kasich 'miracle' is going for you, they'd laugh you out of the room."

Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Xavier University, said he thinks it is going to be a hard slog at a comeback for a Democratic party, which lost over 1,000 state and federal elected offices during the Obama years.

"The GOP is going to focus on issues that will unify their base, like immigration,'' Mariani said. "And, at this point, the Republicans have a deeper base in Ohio. The 'sanctuary city' issue might be good for a Democratic primary, but it is going to be toxic for a statewide candidate in a general election."

Pepper is convinced 2018 can be the year the Democrats in Ohio turn it around.

But it needs to start now.

"The time to start organizing campaigns is now,'' Pepper said. "There is no time for exploratory committees and thinking about it. It is time to get on with it."

Maybe the Ohio Democratic Party needs to invite all the potentials to a big party breakfast in Cleveland, Columbus or Cincinnati.

With lots of pancakes.