Cover Story: GOP Kicks Ass

How the Republican Party turned Hamilton County's conservative lean into a machine and what, if anything, Democrats can do about it

 


Todd Portune has a decent chance this fall to break the Republican Party's stranglehold on the Hamilton County Commission, but he's unlikely to alter the overall balance of political power locally. Republicans own Hamilton County, and one commission seat isn't going to change that. Over the past 30 years, Republicans have won 94 percent of elections for 11 countywide offices: prosecuting attorney, sheriff, auditor, clerk of courts, treasurer, recorder, engineer, coroner and three commissioners.

No Democrat has been elected commissioner since 1964. No Democrat has been elected treasurer, recorder or engineer since 1936. A Republican has been prosecutor since 1932.

Republicans hold 25 of the 28 judgeships elected countywide. The party has won 84 percent of the races for those positions since 1970.

As you'd expect, officials from each party view the GOP's dominance somewhat differently.

"Depressing," says Timothy Burke, co-chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

"Hamilton County is conservative," says Chip Gerhardt, executive director of the Hamilton County Republican Party. "Republicans simply represent the values of local voters better than any other party."

An analysis of elections over the past 30 years, however, shows it's not quite that simple.

Some political observers say Hamilton County has favored Republicans since the days of the Civil War, when Cincinnati was a pro-Union, Underground Railroad outpost. Some say the heavy German Catholic immigrant population here imbedded conservative social and fiscal political views. Others point out that the area's dominant media outlet, The Cincinnati Enquirer, reinforces the GOP clout with almost uniformly pro-Republican endorsements.

Regardless, the Republican Party clearly has benefited from the county's history and demographics. And they've built a political machine to cement their leadership status, moving candidates through various offices and judgeships like pieces on a chess board and sending any number of Tafts — including Ohio's current governor — and others to higher office.

The result has been utter domination of countywide politics by the Republicans, which has caused a catch-22 situation for local Democrats — they can't convince enough good candidates to run for county office because they almost always lose, but they can't break Republican domination if they don't contest every race. Of the 17 countywide races this fall, half find the Republican incumbent with no opposition — including the critical position of prosecutor.

The prosecutor's office, Burke says, has become the Republicans' "farm-team system" for its judicial appointments and candidates, producing a sizable number of Appellate, Common Pleas and Municipal judges. In fact, every county prosecutor except one since 1932 has also served as a county judge. (See "Justice Is Blind" on page 32.)

What does it all mean? Again, there's disagreement between the two parties.

"Office-holders must answer to the people, and they do particularly at election time," Gerhardt says. "Good government is good politics, and good performance increases your odds of being elected, even when you have to make tough decisions. We don't take any election for granted — we have far too much respect for the people of Hamilton County to do that."

"Republicans get away with tons of things here," says Auditor Dusty Rhodes, the only Democrat currently holding county office. "They spend money like crazy, with the major beneficiaries being the local business community. They wouldn't get away with it if the political playing field were more level."

Tight hold on county commission
The field could scarcely get more unlevel. A total of 81 elections were held from 1970 to 1998 for the 11 Hamilton County offices. Republicans won 76.

Just three Democrats have been elected to county office in the past 30 years: Paul Fricker (sheriff in 1972), Rhodes (auditor in 1990, '94 and '98) and Eve Bolton (recorder in 1992). Fricker and Bolton were defeated for re-election after one term.

The three-member board of commissioners, which sets policy for all of county government, is a microcosm of the local GOP's knack for winning elections.

Thirteen people have served as county commissioner since 1970, all Republicans. Ten of the 13 were appointed to their position first, enabling them to run as "incumbents" in the next election — including the three current commissioners. All 10 were victorious in that next election.

The only Republicans during this period who won their way onto the county commission were Gov. Robert Taft II (1980), Norman Murdock (1978) and John Held, who defeated two-term Democratic Commissioner Vincent Beckman in 1968.

Beckman was the last Democrat on the county commission, having been elected in 1960 and re-elected in 1964. Democrats actually held two of the three commission seats briefly when Edwin Tepe won a term from 1958 to 1962.

But times — and Democrats' fortunes — certainly have changed since the '60s. As commissioners retired (Robert Reckman, Allen Paul), moved to other county offices (Held to recorder, Robert A. Wood to Common Pleas judge) or won other elections (Taft as Secretary of State, Steve Chabot as U.S. Representative), the Republicans filled their positions. And the appointees kept winning.

A particularly busy period started a decade ago, when all three commission seats turned over within two years. Murdock left the commission in early 1989 after winning a race for the Common Pleas Court and was replaced by Common Pleas/Domestic Relations Judge Sandra Beckwith. Two-term Commissioner Joseph M. DeCourcy, after suffering severe injuries in a car accident, gave up his seat in May 1990 to Chabot, then a Cincinnati City Councilman.

In the 1990 elections, Beckwith ran and won. Chabot ran for the unexpired portion of DeCourcy's term and won. Taft, at that point a three-term commissioner, ran for state office, won and was soon replaced by John Dowlin.

In late 1991, Beckwith was appointed by President Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and City Councilman Guy Guckenberger was moved to her commission seat. All three commissioners faced election in 1992 — Chabot and Dowlin for full terms, Guckenberger for the unexpired portion of Beckwith's term. All three won.

Chabot was elected to Congress in 1994 and was replaced by Bob Bedinghaus, who won election in 1996. Dowlin was re-elected in 1996.

Guckenberger left his commission seat in early 1997 for a Municipal Court judgeship and was replaced by Tom Neyer Jr., who won election in 1998.

Got all that? If not, refer to the chart on page 28 for details.

And that's just the county commission. Don't make me explain Simon Leis Jr.'s story — how he was appointed prosecutor in 1971 when Melvin Rueger left for the Common Pleas/Probate judgeship, then won three elections for prosecutor, then won election as a Common Pleas judge himself, only to be appointed sheriff a few years later when Lincoln Stokes retired and win election three more times in that office (four if you count this fall, when Leis is running unopposed).

And then there's Joseph Deters, who was appointed clerk of courts in 1988 to replace six-termer Robert Jennings and won election that year, then was appointed prosecutor in 1992 to replace Arthur Ney, who was appointed Common Pleas judge, and won election that year and again in 1996. Deters was elected Ohio Treasurer in 1998 and was replaced by Michael Allen, who at that point was chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. Allen is running in his first race for prosecutor this fall and is unopposed.

Deters, to complete the circle somewhat, currently serves as county party chairman.

Let's get a few things straight at this point. State law prescribes that, when vacancies occur in county offices, the party holding that office is required to name a replacement. And if replacements are named more than 40 days before the next county election — even-numbered years — the appointee has to run for the remainder of the unexpired term.

So the Republicans simply are playing by the rules.

And, unlike other county offices, every commission race of the past 30 years has been contested — many featuring strong Democratic candidates (Rhodes lost two races in the '70s, Tepe returned for a race in 1972 and city councilmen Peter Strauss and John Mirlisena each lost twice). Still, the GOP has gone 24-0 in commission contests since 1970.

Gerhardt chalks up his party's success in commission races, and in countywide elections in general, to giving the voters what they want — good leadership.

"A party can't dominate people," he says. "It's the other way around. If people are happy with the results they get from office-holders, they keep us. If not, we're out."

"Hope springs eternal," says Burke about his party's 32-year absence from the county commission.

Because commission seats are the "top of the ticket" for county elections and because Bedinghaus is dogged by the stadium controversy, Burke clearly is excited about Portune's chances this fall.

"That commission race is very important to the health of the Democratic Party in Hamilton County," he says, "A win there shows it can be done."

Conditions could be right for the Democrats to regain a commission seat and possibly more. Incumbent Treasurer Robert Goering is being challenged by Bob Drake, whose campaign has tried to connect Goering to the horrendous cost overruns at Paul Brown Stadium. Bolton, who's won at the county level, is running for clerk of courts against incumbent James Cissell. Colerain Township Trustee Joseph Wolterman, who ran against Bedinghaus in 1996, is taking on Dowlin.

Two of the three Democrats elected to county office in the past 30 years won as the direct result of fiscal or management problems tied to incumbent Republicans. Will lightning strike again this year as the result of fiscal and management problems tied to county stadium deals?

The colossus of Rhodes, plus Democrats through history
Bolton (major backlogs in the recorder's office) and Rhodes (appraisal scandal in the auditor's office) were elected as the result of "sweep-out-the-bums" campaigns — proving that county voters will break with the Republican Party when they think a problem needs a drastic fix.

The other Democratic winner, Fricker, actually capped a two decade-plus run in the sheriff's office by Democrat Dan Tehan, first elected in 1948. (Fun fact: Tehan was Deters' grandfather.)

With three of his party's five wins since 1970, Rhodes is the Democrats' poster boy for devising winning strategies in Hamilton County. But when he explains his golden touch, he sounds not too dissimilar from the GOP's Gerhardt.

"I've tried to give good service to the people of the county," Rhodes says. "I didn't turn this office into a partisan position. I surrounded myself with good managers and focused on what this office was supposed to do — be conservative with the people's money. They've obviously approved of what we've done."

Many political observers say that's the secret to Rhodes' electoral success — he's a social and fiscal conservative who happens to have a "D" beside his name on the ballot. Maybe that's what it takes these days to elect a Democrat in Hamilton County.

Even at that, Rhodes' successful county run probably wouldn't have happened if not for "Friends of Joe."

Joseph L. DeCourcy Jr. — uncle of Commissioner Joseph M. DeCourcy — won five elections for auditor beginning in 1970. Before that, he served two terms himself on the county commission.

In the late '80s, irregularities in property tax appraisals from the auditor's office were uncovered. The resulting scandal became known as "FOJ" or "Friends of Joe," with DeCourcy providing lower property valuations — and saving lots of property taxes — for select county homeowners, mostly friends and political cronies.

DeCourcy eventually left office when criminal indictments were handed down, although no one was convicted. He was replaced by Michael Maloney, a respected former Hamilton County administrator who came out of semi-retirement to provide stability to the auditor's office.

In 1990, Maloney ran for election against Rhodes, a Delhi Township official who'd lost county commission races in 1972 and 1978. Rhodes says his campaign tied Maloney to the FOJ scandal, branding him as DeCourcy's hand-picked successor.

Despite being outspent 3-1 by the Republicans — and having to put $40,000 of his own money into his campaign — Rhodes beat Maloney by 4,000 votes. It's the only time in the past 30 years that a Republican appointee to county office failed to win his first election as an "incumbent."

Rhodes was determined not to be a one-term Democratic county official, so he went about cleaning up the auditor's office, he says, "aggressively."

"My philosophy is that, when you win, your next election begins the day after you take office," he says. "We went after changing the entire culture here, making a lot of changes, weeding out bad people, bringing in good people. I couldn't make any mistakes. Republicans in county government have a margin of error. Democrats don't."

Voters responded positively to Rhodes' "weeding" job, increasing his margins of victory to 42,000 votes in 1994 and 103,000 votes in 1998.

Rhodes' victories, no matter how decisive, aren't much more than a chink in the Republican Party armor. The party has enjoyed pretty much total dominance since the late 1930s, the last time Republicans were out of power in any significant way.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into the presidency in 1932, political change was already underway in Hamilton County. Like the Charter Committee movement in Cincinnati, which rewrote the city's laws in the 1920s to clean out the remnants of Boss Cox, county government was besieged by reformers.

The incumbent Republicans and their weak Democratic challengers were swamped by a newly formed third party, the Citizens Committee, in 1930 elections. Citizens candidates won every seat contested that year — commissioner, prosecutor, auditor, clerk of courts, treasurer, recorder and coroner. They retained most of those seats in 1932 elections (in those days county offices had two-year terms) but lost back the prosecutor's office — which has been in Republican hands ever since.

The Citizens Committee disappeared a few years later when its major aim — rewriting Hamilton County's charter to give it "home rule" — was accomplished under the leadership of Charles P. Taft and Murray Seasongood. Along with FDR's re-election in 1936, Democrats finally ascended to a little power of their own, winning two commission seats, treasurer, recorder and engineer that year.

Four years later, FDR — who'd won the county in his first two presidential races — lost Hamilton County, and every county office went to the Republicans. And that, basically, was all she wrote for the Democrats in county elections.

The history lesson? County Democrats occasionally can win with coattails from a popular presidential candidate (FDR, Kennedy, Johnson) and/or as an alternative to a problem-plagued Republican incumbent.

"Since we haven't won a lot, we haven't developed a farm system like the Republicans," Rhodes says. "It's very daunting to go up against the well-financed local campaigns run by the Republicans. Maybe scandals are what we need to get the public's attention."

"Presidential races can help or hurt the local races depending on the top of the ticket," Burke says. "That means one thing: Go Gore!"

How it's done on the bench
The dynamics for electing judges in Hamilton County are slightly different from county offices, though Republicans have dominated this area as well.

For one thing, all county judges hold six-year, staggered terms, meaning fewer campaigns for incumbents. There are 42 elected judgeships in the county — six in the Ohio Court of Appeals (First Appellate District); 22 in the Court of Common Pleas, which handles criminal cases involving felonies, civil cases with claims of any amount and the county's juvenile, domestic relations, probate and drug courts; and 14 in the Municipal Court, which handles criminal cases involving misdemeanors and civil cases with claims of $10,000 and under.

Appeals and Common Pleas judges are elected countywide. So were Municipal judges until 1991, when a controversial plan was instituted to create seven districts across the county with two judges serving each district. County residents vote only for the Municipal judges representing their district.

Candidates in courthouse elections don't list their party affiliation on the ballot, and they're not allowed to discuss specific case rulings during their campaigns. The result, supposedly, is an effort to shield judges from the harsh battleground of politics — though everyone knows which judge is a Republican and which is a Democrat.

Judicial candidates are backed by their respective parties, they receive campaign donations and they're endorsed by organizations and the media. In most ways they play by the same political rules as county office-holders — in fact, several people have moved between county offices and judgeships in recent years (Leis, Allen, Beckwith, Guckenberger, Ney, Wood, Rueger, Murdock and Wayne Wilke, current Common Pleas/Probate judge and former county treasurer).

One big difference with judgeships, however, is how vacancies are filled. Unlike county offices, the party holding the seat doesn't automatically replace a departing judge — the governor does. And the governor, being a partisan politician, tends to fill judicial openings with members of his own party.

During the 1980s, when Democrat Richard Celeste was governor, Hamilton County saw several Democrats appointed to the bench and winning elections: Robert Gorman, Court of Appeals; Ann Marie Tracey, appointed to Gorman's vacated Common Pleas seat; Richard Niehaus, filling a newly created Common Pleas seat; and Deborah Gaines, filling a vacant Common Pleas/Domestic Relations seat.

Gorman, Tracey and Niehaus won subsequent elections and are the only Democrats currently on the Appeals or Common Pleas bench. Gaines was defeated for re-election in 1998.

Since George Voinovich became governor in 1990 (followed by Taft), every opening on the Appeals or Common Pleas bench has been filled by a Republican. And only one incumbent Republican was defeated — Appeals Judge Eugene Utz, beaten by Marianna Bettman in 1992. Bettman lost her re-election bid six years later.

Republicans' recent surge in the courthouse has been compounded, if not reinforced, by the Democrats' failure to run a full slate of challengers. Of the 19 Republican incumbents in the Appeals and Common Pleas courts who faced election in 1996 and '98, 15 of them ran unopposed. The other four won, too.

This fall, six incumbent Republican judges are running unopposed. Gorman and Niehaus are real rarities — Democrats running unopposed.

When it comes to running judicial candidates, Democrat boss Burke says the system is stacked against him.

"It's a tough situation," he says, bemoaning his party's inability to run anyone this fall against the incumbent Republican judges. "But most lawyers don't want to tick off the incumbent judges, who they have to plead cases in front of, and don't want the imposition of running a campaign on top of their regular jobs."

So Democratic lawyers, in recent years at least, sit out the judicial races. That, combined with the GOP's grip on the governor's office, likely will keep the Republicans' appoint-and-elect approach humming for years to come.

The lone bright spot for Democrats is that some new judicial talent is now being developed as a result of the Municipal Court district system. Five of the county's 14 Municipal judges are Democrats, including three African Americans.

One of the five, Tim Black, is running this fall for the Ohio Supreme Court. Burke says he'd like to think that Black and the other Municipal Court Democrats — William Mallory Jr., Nadine Allen, Cheryl Grant and James Kenney — will be strong candidates in future years for countywide judgeships.

It's your thing, do whatcha wanna do
Burke would also like to think that the Democrats will get a fair shake from The Enquirer this fall when it comes to county election endorsements, but he's not counting on it.

Since 1970, the morning daily has endorsed 65 Republican candidates for county office and nine Democrats. In judicial races, it's endorsed 79 Republicans, 26 Democrats and one Independent (a Republican running against another Republican with Democratic backing). That's a total of 80 percent pro-Republican endorsements.

Even more daunting is The Enquirer's pro-incumbent stance — the paper endorsed county incumbents over challengers 146-17 in the past 30 years. That's 90 percent in favor of incumbents.

What do Enquirer endorsements mean in county politics? Now there's a subject both parties agree on.

"It's one of the most important endorsements for a candidate to get," Burke says. "You'll see candidates add the endorsement info to their TV spots right away."

"It's important for any candidate," Gerhardt says. "We take no endorsements lightly or for granted. And incumbents should be endorsed if they're doing a good job."

Although the endorsements carry weight with candidates, Burke thinks The Enquirer's heavily pro-Republican and pro-incumbent leanings might not resonate that much with voters.

"The endorsements are compromised by the paper's loyalty to the Republican Party," Burke says. "People expect them to endorse Republicans, and when they do it's not that big of a deal."

Burke fully expects The Enquirer to endorse Bedinghaus in his re-election bid, saying Democrats "have been behind the 8-ball on that endorsement from the very beginning."

"It'll be interesting to see how they (Enquirer editorial board) explain away so many problems in the county right now, from the stadiums to the lax probation officers," he says.

Gerhardt counters that there's nothing to explain away, particularly when it comes to the Bedinghaus-Portune race.

"The stadium has become the issue, but that race is about much more," he says. "Whether you agree with his stance on stadium negotiations, Bob stood up and did what the people wanted him to, which is provide leadership. ... Let's take a step back, take a deep breath and judge both candidates on their entire records."

For that matter, let's take the same approach to the issue of Republican Party power in Hamilton County politics. Taking a breath and judging the big picture, one wonders how much difference it makes that a single party has dominated countywide elections over the past 30 years.

Fairness isn't really an issue. After all, politics is a tough business — no one's going to fault the Republicans for trying to win every office every year, and no one's going to feel sorry for Democrats who can't run stronger candidates.

Out-of-control campaign finance isn't a huge issue, even though the GOP far outspends Democrats in local elections. Money is available for candidates of both parties, as Roxanne Qualls' congressional bid in 1998 proved, but the Democrats' inability to raise large sums in Hamilton County is tied to deeper issues.

Three main concerns over the imbalance of power come to mind: competition, diversity and choice.

Good competition tends to build stronger winners, whether it's in politics, sports, business or any field of endeavor. Despite Gerhardt's sincerity in saying Republicans don't take county races for granted, it's not difficult to imagine Republican office-holders working even harder to serve the public if they knew stiffer competition awaited them on Election Day.

Diversity in county politics would be a positive step in keeping up with increased diversity in the world around us. There are 10 women currently serving in Hamilton County's 42 judgeships. There are five African Americans. Those numbers aren't anywhere near reflective of the county's population in general.

There's just one woman currently in a county office (Recorder Rebecca Groppe). Only one woman has ever served as county commissioner (Sandra Beckwith). No African American has held a county office in at least the past 30 years.

Gerhardt says the GOP is committed to diversity, pointing out that seven of the county's 10 current female judges are Republicans.

"I firmly believe that the 'big tent' version of politics is the way to go," he says. "The Republican ticket, from George W. Bush on down, is dedicated to making the party more diverse."

He smiles when it's suggested the party's big tent of diversity might include Democrats, since two incumbent Democratic judges are running unopposed this fall. "See? We're open-minded."

Which leads to the final concern over the current system: choice. Gerhardt boils down the entire discussion of Republican election success to one very valid point — citizens have the true power of control with their votes. Like the job an incumbent's doing? Vote him in. Think he's doing a terrible job? Vote him out.

But it's not that easy in Hamilton County. For all the reasons already discussed, too many office-holders here face token or no opposition. Of the 17 positions up for countywide election this fall, 11 feature unopposed incumbents.

If you're dissatisfied with the performance of one or more of these incumbents, you can't vote them out this fall. You have no recourse. You're powerless.

That's not representative government — and that might be the rock in the shoe of the Republicans' dominance in Hamilton County.

Gerhardt is asked whether his party's history of success in county elections, ultimately, is a good thing or a bad thing. He turns his hands up and shrugs.

"It's a thing." ©



MEGAN GAFFNEY, a CityBeat summer intern, contributed valuable researchassistance to this project.

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