Some still scratching their heads over party's endorsement of Strickland

Apr 19, 2015

There’s an old saw that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Some people are applying that to the Ohio Democratic Party executive committee’s decision a week ago to endorse former governor Ted Strickland over Cincinnati city council member P.G. Sittenfeld in the 2016 Democratic primary for Republican incumbent Rob Portman’s U.S. Senate seat.

A party which went through a disastrous statewide election last year, with its leaders vowing that they needed fresh new faces to run for statewide offices, has endorsed a 73-year-old former governor and congressman over a 30-year-old two-term city council member.

Well, the Ohio Democratic Party is most definitely not insane. And they have not done the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

But they have done it once in the recent past; and the result was a train wreck.

Back in Oct. 2013, 13 months before the election, the party endorsed then-Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald as the party’s candidate for governor, thus shutting out all potential competition. And it doomed Hamilton County commissioner Todd Portune’s late effort to build a campaign to challenge FitzGerald in a primary.

The result: One of the worst run campaigns in the history of Ohio politics and Republican incumbent  John Kasich winning by 31 percentage points, setting him up for a possible run for president – a prospect that seems more likely all the time.

Now, understand – Strickland is not Ed FitzGrald. Strickland has won a statewide race, stomping Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell of Cincinnati in 2006; and then losing in his bid for a second term to Kasich by a scant two percentage points four years later.

Strickland could hit some potholes along the road if he becomes the Democratic Senate nominee, but he won’t drive his campaign off the road into a ditch the way FitzGerald did. And, unlike FitzGerald, we’re pretty sure Strickland has never gone 10 years without a permanent driver’s license.

Strickland, of course, was very pleased with the executive committee’s endorsement.

He put out a statement through his campaign committee saying the endorsement “builds upon our momentum as we work together to create opportunities for all hard-working Ohioans.”

And, Friday, in an interview with the Youngstown Vindicator, Strickland  basically said Sittenfeld has no business in the race.

“P.G. is a bright, talented fella, but there are 15 or 20 such talented people in the Democratic Party,’’ Strickland told the Vindicator. “Many of them have more experience and a more impressive resume than he has.”

And Strickland named names – former state representative Connie Pillich of Montgomery, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley among them.

Those who staged the coup that was pulled off last week in the executive committee were buoyed by the fact that the week before the meeting, a Quinnipiac University poll of Ohio voted showed Strickland with a nine percentage point lead over Portman. Sittenfeld trailed the incumbent by 23 percentage points.

Strickland is too smart a politician to put much weight in polls taken 19 months before the election; and told the media so.

After all, 21 months before the 2010 U.S. Senate election, the Quinnipiac Poll had Democrat Lee Fisher leading Portman by 15 percentage points. He ended up losing the 2010 general election to Portman by 17 percentage points.

The endorsement by the Ohio Democratic Party was just another for Strickland to add to the stack of endorsements his candidacy has received – including endorsements from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), by three members of  Ohio’s U.S. House delegation, and from former president Bill Clinton.

None of this has stopped Sittenfeld from campaigning around the state like a man with his hair on fire. According to his campaign spokesman, Dale Butland, through Friday, Sittenfeld had campaigned in Delaware, Richland, Butler, Warren, Perry, Franklin and Brown counties. Seven days, eight counties. And he managed not to miss a city council meeting – either a committee meeting or a meeting of the full council - while doing it.

The reaction to the Strickland endorsement was swift and negative in some quarters, to say the least.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill – one of only two statewide elected Democrats, along with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown – fired off a scathing message on his Facebook page raking the party over the coals for its endorsement of Strickland.

“When you see Ted, give him a hug and kiss him goodbye,’’ O’Neill wrote. “He is a walking dead man. It is now very clear to me that we have learned NOTHING with the devastating losses last year. NOTHING.”  

“The inmates are running the asylum,’’ O’Neill said.

The new state party chairman, Cincinnati’s David Pepper, has had nothing to say about the endorsement, but his spokeswoman, Meredith Tucker, put out an e-mail statement for the party.

“The party is excited to stand with a candidate who has fought for Ohio’s working families for decades, leads Senator Portman by nine points, has been endorsed by Senator Sherrod Brown, President Bill Clinton, the DSCC, and three out of four members of Ohio’s Democratic Congressional Caucus, among many other officials,’’ Tucker said.

Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke is not one of those “many other officials.” In fact, he has not personally endorsed either Strickland or Sittenfeld. But he doesn’t like what happened at the state party’s executive committee in Columbus.

“I opposed this endorsement,’’ Burke said. “To me, the competition of a primary just sharpens the winner for the fall campaign. There was no need to do an endorsement this early. I just don’t see the point.”

Burke questioned why the Strickland camp thought this was necessary – especially with all the endorsements he has already racked up and the fact that the Quinnipiac poll said 89 percent of those Ohio voters polled don’t know enough about Sittenfeld to have an opinion about him.

Sittenfeld is going about his business; he shows no indication of getting out of this race, despite the cards that are stacked against him.

Next Sunday night, the Butler County Democratic Party will hold its “Spring Gala” dinner at the Oscar Event Center in Fairfield. Strickland will be the keynote speaker.

We asked county party chair Jocelyn Bucaro if Sittenfeld had been invited. She said he had not, but said that if he showed up, he would be introduced to the crowd. But, Bucaro said, he would not be allowed to speak.

“Our county party has not endorsed, but in light of what the state party did in endorsing Gov. Strickland, we invited him to be our speaker,’’ Bucaro said.

There may more doors closed to Sittenfeld before this is over. But he seems determined to tuck in his head and keep trying to ram through them.