County Commission in the Crosshairs

Well-known names battle for party nominations for open Hamilton County Commission seat

Apr 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Most political junkies are busy focusing on the outcome of state and federal races in Ohio’s May 4 primary.

For Democrats, it’s a chance to see who will prevail to become the party’s candidate in this fall’s race for the open U.S. Senate seat. For Republicans, it’s a chance to gauge how well GOP incumbents fare against Tea Party insurgents for various state legislature races.

But the race with probably the most local impact hasn’t been getting quite the same level of public interest or media attention: Who will face off as their party’s chosen candidate for the vacant seat on the Hamilton County Commission.

Vying for the Democratic nomination are former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell (pictured above), Cincinnati City Councilman Cecil Thomas and Whitewater Township Trustee Hubert Brown. On the Republican side, two Cincinnati City Council stalwarts — Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel — are jockeying for the nomination.

The winner on each side will appear on the November general election ballot, hoping to succeed Democrat David Pepper on the commission. Pepper isn’t seeking reelection, opting instead to run for Ohio auditor.

Make no mistake: The open seat is important. Whoever wins the spot will help shape the cash-strapped Hamilton County government for at least the next four years and likely longer. Because Pepper’s victory in 2006 shifted the three-member commission to Democratic control for the first time since John F. Kennedy was president, Republicans hope to regain their mastery over the county’s purse strings and policy making.

Perhaps the most pressing issue facing the next commission is how to deal with looming deficits in Hamilton County’s stadium account. Although a half-cent sales tax increase — lobbied for by a Republican-controlled commission — was approved by voters in 1996 and was supposed to pay all costs for building new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals, that didn’t happen.

Instead, estimated sales tax revenues have lagged almost every year since the tax was passed. As a result, the county’s stadium account is facing a $13.8 million deficit this year — which will jump to $25 million in a few years — to repay construction debt. So far, Pepper, Democrat Todd Portune and Republican Greg Hartmann haven’t been able to agree on a long-term solution, meaning the dilemma will be passed onto the next commission that includes Pepper’s replacement.

Solutions include repealing all or part of a property tax rebate pledged to homeowners during the 1996 sales tax campaign, imposing some type of tax or fee in the future or cutting services. But since Democrats took control of the commission four years ago, spending has been cut by 22 percent — back to the same level as 1998.

Candidates for Hamilton County Commissioner (L-R): Democrats Jim Tarbell, Cecil Thomas and Hubert Brown and Republicans Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel. 

The first Democrat to announce his candidacy was Thomas, who is serving his third term on City Council. A North Avondale resident, he’s a retired Cincinnati police officer and the only African American in the race.

The question of whether Thomas was serious about running, however, was up in the air for a while: his initial announcement occurred Jan. 25, but he backed out four days later after Tarbell said he was running. Thomas reconsidered and jumped back in on Feb. 5.

When anyone views Thomas’ county campaign Web site, however, the platform listed contains all city issues from his council race, and not even the latest one. It’s listed under “my areas of focus for 2007-09 are...” When stumping publicly, Thomas has said he wants Cincinnati and Hamilton County to examine sharing basic services, like road repair, to reduce costs. He also supports reducing the property tax rebate to solve the stadium shortfall.

Thomas is the only Democrat to nab an endorsement by the anti-abortion Right to Life organization. On the group’s questionnaire, he explained his opposition to abortion and stem-cell research by quoting the Bible: “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee; and before thou came forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

Tarbell, an Over-the-Rhine resident, left City Council in 2008 as term limits neared. He’s the former owner of Arnold’s Bar & Grill and Grammer’s Restaurant and a longtime advocate for urban redevelopment. If elected, he wants the county to focus on job creation through a renewed economic development effort as well as share some services with the city and rebuild the transportation infrastructure. Also, Tarbell wants to reduce the property tax rebate or restrict it to parcels valued at $150,000 or less.

The dark horse candidate in the race is Brown. Known as “Brownie” to his friends, he’s a Colerain Township native and retired electrician who’s serving his fourth term as a Whitewater Township trustee. Brown is pro-choice and a union supporter and has been planning a county bid longer than his two better-known rivals.

Brown said the county faces tough choices to close the stadium deficit like abolishing the property tax rebate or imposing an entertainment tax. “I am not going to make a false pledge ‘not to raise taxes,’ ” he has said. Brown also opposes building a new jail; instead, he wants mentally ill and addicted offenders diverted to other programs.

Democratic Party leaders are pushing hard for Thomas, sources said, hoping to boost African-American voter turnout and help U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Price Hill) get reelected. Driehaus won in 2008, in large measure, due to increased turnout for Barack Obama, and most polls show him trailing Republican challenger Steve Chabot this year.

Tellingly, although the local Democratic Party’s executive committee declined to endorse in the primary, Thomas has gotten backing from Driehaus, party chairman Tim Burke and Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory.

And while the GOP’s county race is being bitterly fought between Ghiz and Monzel through campaign mailings and phone banks, the reality is there isn’t much policy difference between the two. Ghiz is an attorney who lives in North Avondale, while Monzel is an aerospace engineer who lives in Spring Grove Village.

Both oppose reducing the property tax rebate or increasing the sales tax, both have said the primary focus should be job creation and both want to lower taxes on businesses.

Just as on the national level, the GOP primary has seen each candidate trying to prove who’s more conservative.

Ghiz touts her endorsements from Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. along with a wide array of business owners and Realtors. Monzel cites his endorsements from groups like Right to Life, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, the Buckeye Firearms Association and the Tea Party.

As always, though, the only endorsement that really matters is that of voters.