Republican mayoral candidate the Rev. Charlie Winburn says it's unfair to judge him by things he wrote to a specific audience 17 years back. Now his defense has gained support from a somewhat surprising quarter, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a Democrat.
It starts back in 1989, when Winburn published a book called Ruling and Reigning in the '90s. In it, Winburn wrote that only born-again Christians should hold public office. These days Winburn says that, if he had it to do over, he'd put it differently (see "Winburn's Revival," page 11).
Criticism of Winburn's book has exposed fissures within the Hamilton County Democratic Party, as well as Democrats' general ambivalence about the shifting role of religion in politics.
In a July 13 e-mail to fellow Democrats, Tim Burke, chair of the party, called Winburn's writings "outrageous."
"It is distinctly un-American to tell anyone that they cannot hold public office because of their religious beliefs," Burke wrote. "Such a position is as offensive as the old rules that only property owners — or whites — or men — could vote."
Burke also called "extremist" what Winburn wrote about the role of the wife as her husband's "helpmeet" who should learn her place.
On July 17 Portune responded in a letter to Burke, arguing that the e-mail had done more to hurt than help the Democrats' chances in upcoming elections.
"In the few days since publication, your statement has done more to energize Mr. Winburn's base, transform him into a sympathetic candidate and create wedge issues against Democrats and our candidates," Portune wrote. "By concentrating the party's focus of its attack on Mr. Winburn on something he wrote 17 years ago, as opposed to differentiating policy and practice over his political and public career, you shortchange the debate and cast the Democratic Party as narrow, petty and personal."
Not only did Burke sidetrack intelligent debate, but also handed ammunition to those who like to frame Democrats as godless heathens, according to Portune.
"Your statement will undoubtedly be viewed as an attack on Christianity, despite the fact that I am certain that was not your intent," Portune wrote. "(The comments) propagate the stereotype that Democrats oppose faith and people of faith. We do not. But when you attack the writing of a minister to his flock of 17 years ago as the reason for your opposition, your intent, innocent as it may have been, will get completely lost in translation."
Portune also said that his support for Democratic candidates is motivated by their respective merits, not by the fear that Winburn's religious views will warp his approach to public policy.
He finished by entreating Burke to meet with African-American religious and civic leaders, whom he'd heard were mobilizing in response.
Burke says he's not planning to make any public reply to Portune, though Portune did say he'd received a "terse acknowledgement" of his letter from Burke.
"On the general topic, not responding directly to Commissioner Portune, I have enormous respect for any individual religious beliefs anyone wants to have," Burke says. "That's their business."
But he still holds that what Winburn wrote is an "unacceptable position for anyone, especially for someone who wants to be mayor of Cincinnati."
What Winburn wrote in 1989 is still fair game, Burke says.
"It's published in a book that is available at the Hamilton County Public Library, in multiple copies," he says.
He calls Winburn's contention that today he'd say it differently an "inadequate" response.
Portune says he's been talking to local NAACP president Edith Thrower, whom he'd heard was considering a public statement.
"What Edith Thrower told me was that they found the comment to be off-the-mark, inappropriate, things to that effect," Portune says.
Thrower could not be reached for comment, though Burke says he responded to a letter from her with an offer to meet.
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