Sittenfeld trying to jump to the big leagues with Senate bid

Jan 25, 2015

To almost no one’s surprise, Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld announced this week that he is running for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, with the hopes of knocking off incumbent Republican Rob Portman in November 2016.

Sittenfeld is an ambitious young man; and, especially in politics, there is nothing wrong with that. He had been dropping hints that he was considering jumping into the Senate race for weeks; and people on both sides of the aisle were taking him seriously.

Yes, he is young – 30 years old, while his would-be opponent, Portman, is 59. Sittenfeld was first elected to council in 2011, at the age of 27; and re-elected two years later in a race where he spent about $340,000 and finished in first place in the council field race. And it wasn’t even close – he was more than 10,000 votes ahead of the second-place finisher, Republican Charlie Winburn.

And, if he ends up being elected to the U.S. Senate, he will be 32 years old when he takes office in Jan. 2017. That’s the same age as Ohio Democrat George Ellis Pugh was when he took office at that age in 1855, back when U.S. senators were chosen by the state legislature. Pugh, at the time, was the youngest member of the Senate.

Going from Cincinnati City Council to the U.S. Senate is a very big jump.

You might compare it to a young pitcher with great potential going straight from the rookie league Billings Mustangs to the Cincinnati Reds, with no stops in between. Well, maybe from the low-A Dayton Dragons straight to the Reds.

Ohio Republican Party leaders wasted no time poking Sittenfeld over his youth and ambition.

“Every day, Rob Portman wakes up and thinks about how he can help Ohio,’’ Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf said in a press release. “PG thinks about how PG can advance his own career. PG is like the second coming of Ed FitzGerald, but with even less experience and more arrogance.”

Now, that appears to be the ultimate insult the Ohio GOP can unleash – comparing someone to FitzGerald, the Cleveland Democrat whose gubernatorial  candidacy went down in flames last year.

Does it matter that Sittenfeld is nearly half the age of the incumbent senator he wants to unseat? After all, an older generation of Democratic statewide candidates has not exactly set the world on fire in the past few statewide elections.

“The Republicans are attacking him for being young; and that’s a mistake,’’ said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, a former Cincinnati councilman and Hamilton County commissioner.

“It’s healthy for the party to have fresh, young candidates,’’ Pepper said. “We need candidates who can energize young voters, the way Barack Obama did. When young people are energized to vote, we win.”

Sittenfeld, for his part, is trying to turn the age question around – that Portman has been in Washington too long.

“I think that (Portman) is out of touch with Ohio values and Ohio priorities and Ohio ingenuity,’’ Sittenfeld said in an interview with WVXU’s Jay Hanselman last week. “And after spending more than a quarter of a century in Washington, I think so many look at career insiders in Congress and see a group that’s stacked the deck against the middle class.”

“I think the reason we are going capture people’s attention is because we are going to be talking about how we create an economy that works for everybody,’’ Sittenfeld said.

In his interview with WVXU, Sittenfeld said over and over again that the election “is not about me.” It is, he said, finding ways to help middle class families who are struggling.

But, once you put your name out there as a candidate, it is, to a large extent about you.

Alex Triantafilou, the Hamilton County GOP chairman who often jousts with Sittenfeld via Twitter, accusing him of flip-flopping from a streetcar opponent to a streetcar supporter (which Sittenfeld denies is the case) and Sittenfeld’s support for the Responsible Bidder ordinance, says it most certainly is about P.G. Sittenfeld.

“He just hasn’t done anything of substance to earn this,’’ Triantafilou said.

His youth and relative lack of experience are likely to become an issues in a Democratic U.S. Senate primary, assuming there is one.  And Pepper said he believes it is likely there will be a primary election for the Senate next spring.

Other Democrats said to be considering jumping into the Senate race are former governor Ted Strickland, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, and possibly Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who is not running for re-election.

One thing Sittenfeld has going for him is his ability to raise money.

“What I do know is that we are going to be able to raise the resources to mount a successful campaign,’’ Sittenfeld told WVXU.

And Sittenfeld has traveled the state meeting with Democratic leaders and activists in counties large and small.

When the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s website, www.cleveland.com, ran a story on Sittenfeld’s announcement it used a photo from last spring of Sittenfeld on the steps of Cleveland City Hall, holding a press conference decrying Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s cuts in funding to local governments. Sittenfeld traveled around the state holding press conferences on the subject.

Laying the groundwork for a statewide campaign? You be the judge.

Portman has kept quiet pretty quiet so far on Sittenfeld’s candidacy, letting the Ohio Republican Party and the National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC) do the P.G.-bashing.

Earlier this month, Portman’s campaign issued a press release saying he had $5.8 million in campaign cash in the bank at the end of the year – a warning to Democrats and potential GOP primary opponents alike.

And the morning that Sittenfeld’s candidacy became public, the Portman campaign announced its senior campaign team. Portman’s campaign manager will be Corry Bliss, who is highly regarded in GOP circles. Last year, he took over the Senate campaign of incumbent Pat Roberts in Kansas who was trailing by 10 percent in the polls. Roberts ended up winning by 11 percentage points.

Sittenfeld has already had some high caliber help – the media roll-out of his candidacy was arranged by Ben Finkenbinder, the senior communications manager of 270 Strategies, a Chicago consulting firm. Finkenbinder has close ties to President Obama.

The Republicans will – and are – taking Sittenfeld seriously, despite all the pooh-poohing of his age and limited experience.

Still, it will be an uphill climb for Sittenfeld. It almost always is for a candidate running for statewide office for the first time.

And the GOP is sending the councilman a message – this isn’t the rookie league any more.