Dems Willing to Sacrifice Local Seat for Congress

Just weeks after winning his third term on Cincinnati City Council, Cecil Thomas surprised most political observers by announcing he would seek the Democratic nomination to run for the Hamilton County Commission seat being vacated by David Pepper. Party

First he was in, then he was out and now he’s in again.

Just weeks after winning his third term on Cincinnati City Council, Cecil Thomas surprised most political observers by announcing he would seek the Democratic nomination to run for the Hamilton County Commission seat being vacated by David Pepper.

Sure, we all expected Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, a Republican, to seek Pepper’s seat. And it wasn’t too shocking that her GOP colleague, Councilman Chris Monzel, later declared he also would run for the county spot.

And, because he is a well-known publicity hog, Republican Councilman Charlie Winburn told a newspaper reporter he was supposedly considering a run after seeing the headlines that Ghiz and Monzel were scoring, only to back down days later. (Winburn had been on council for only a few weeks at the time.)

For those keeping track at home, that accounts for the entire GOP slate on council. The odd situation begs the question: Does any Republican really want to serve on Cincinnati City Council? We never see the entire Democratic slate want to jump ship all at one time.

Regardless, shortly after Thomas’ initial announcement on Jan. 25, Jim Tarbell, a popular ex-vice mayor, announced he would also seek the Democratic nomination to run for Pepper’s seat. (Pepper, one of two Dems on the three-member commission, is leaving to run for Ohio auditor.)

That’s when Thomas declared on Jan. 29 — just four days after his first announcement — that he was backing out and wouldn’t run for the commission.

A week later, on Feb. 5, Thomas suddenly announced he had a change of heart and was jumping back into the race.

What gives? A third, lesser-known candidate — Whitewater Township Trustee Hubert Brown — also is seeking the Democratic nomination for Pepper’s seat. A county Democratic Party screening committee made the correct choice and didn’t recommend an endorsement for the May 4 primary election, deciding to let it all play out on its own.

But the squirrelly Tim Burke, county Democratic Party chairman, quickly declared publicly that he personally supported Thomas.

Thomas, an African American, is a North Avondale resident who was first elected to City Council in 2005. He's a retired police officer who left the department after 27 years. Additionally, he was president of the Sentinel Police Association, a group of black officers.

By comparison, Tarbell is an Over-the-Rhine resident who operated a popular Rock club on Ludlow Avenue in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Since then, he’s become a staunch supporter of urban redevelopment and led the unsuccessful campaign in the mid-’90s to have the new Reds ballpark built at Broadway Commons. Tarbell served on council from 1998 to 2007, leaving because of term limits.

Thomas is a nice guy and, by most accounts, was a good cop and a great leader for the Sentinels. Still, his name recognition and favorability rating is a fraction of Tarbell’s. Thomas is barely known outside city limits; Tarbell is a familiar face throughout the county.

Let’s get real: The only chance that Democrats have of scoring enough votes in suburbs like Delhi Township and Blue Ash and keeping their two-member majority on the County Commission is with Tarbell, who’s long enjoyed crossover support from Republicans and independents.

We suspect Burke knows this but doesn’t care, in pursuit of a different political goal.

It’s obvious Burke hopes Thomas will help mobilize African-American voters, who probably would provide a much-needed boost for U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Price Hill). Until Driehaus’ election in 2008, Republican Steve Chabot held the seat for more than a decade.

Chabot is running again, and his odds at success are looking good. A January poll conducted by Survey USA found Driehaus trailing Chabot by 17 points, 56-39 percent.

In his heart, I think Burke sees Thomas losing the county commission race but Driehaus barely hanging on to his Congressional seat.

Burke’s strategy, however, is dubious at best. There’s always larger African-American turnout in presidential election years and this was especially so in 2008, when Barack Obama was running.

In non-presidential elections, the presence of an African American on the ballot for a lower office doesn’t energize black turnout. It wasn’t the case when O’Dell Owens ran for county coroner, and it wasn’t the case last year when Mark Mallory was seeking reelection as Cincinnati mayor.

The end result could well be Democrats losing the Congressional seat along with its majority on the county commission.

If it weren’t for Burke agreeing to an odious deal proposed by County Commissioner Todd Portune during the last commission election, in 2008, this wouldn’t even be an issue.

Back then, Portune — through associates — helped negotiate a pact with county Republicans to ensure his reelection.

Under the deal, the GOP wouldn’t endorse a candidate to run against Portune in his commission race in return for Democrats not endorsing in a separate commission race, thus clearing the way for Republican challenger Greg Hartmann. Both Portune and Hartmann were elected, despite non-endorsed dissident candidates running.

There was record African-American voter turnout in 2008, as mentioned before. Therefore, it was likely any endorsed Democrat against Hartmann would have won — meaning the party would keep a majority on the county commission even if it lost Pepper’s seat this year. Alas, that was not meant to be.

So much for Burke as the grand election strategist.

* * * * *

Americans for Prosperity’s Ohio chapter held an “Already Taxed to the Max” rally at Capitol Square in Columbus. Among those attending the event were former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich; his wife, Rebecca; and former Congressman Rob Portman from Terrace Park, who’s running for the U.S. Senate.

With an up to $9 billion deficit looming in Ohio’s next budget cycle, AFP wants to pressure state government to become “more efficient and effective with the tax dollars we already send them,” the group said in a statement. To get its message across to the audience, AFP had a 15-foot-tall, inflatable automated teller machine prop on a sidewalk near the stage, reportedly representing that “Ohio’s taxpayer ATM is closed.”

Stuck with the thankless duty of blowing up the prop was Phil Heimlich, filling the role of political husband to Rebecca, who is AFP’s state director. When Portman took the stage to speak, he referred to Phil by “thanking” the “former county commissioner” for inflating the ATM prop. “He’s multi-talented,” Portman quipped.

Not exactly the best shout-out for someone who used to wield actual influence as a Cincinnati city councilman and president of the county commission.

PORKOPOLIS TIP LINES: 513-665-4700 (ext. 147) or [email protected]

Scroll to read more Cincinnati News articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.