For All the Wrong Reasons

When a Jan. 25 e-mail exchange between Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune and Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke became public through a leak, it lifted the veil on the thinking of some political bigwigs. The pair began the exchan

Feb 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Many people nowadays are cynical about politics, and elected officials and party leaders certainly give them enough cause to feel that way.

One of the reasons is when someone develops a sense of entitlement and believes that he or she is “due” a position or appointment because of that person’s favored status or past efforts. A lot of people are turned off by such attitudes, perceiving them as arrogant and resenting the whole “done deal” nature of the situation.

That view can probably partially describe the presidential candidacies of Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 and Republican John McCain in 2008, and their subsequent defeats. It likely also describes, at least in a small way, why many Democrats turned away from sure thing Hillary Clinton in favor of long-shot Barack Obama.

An example of this phenomenon recently occurred here, on a much less grand scale.

When a Jan. 25 e-mail exchange between Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune and Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke became public through a leak, it lifted the veil on the thinking of some political bigwigs.

The pair began the exchange to discuss who should be appointed to fill a vacancy on the Board of Elections. The board is comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans. Burke fills one of the Democratic slots and retired labor union leader Dan Radford, who recently resigned, filled the other.

In essence, the e-mails revolve around what criteria should be used when selecting a board member. It appears Burke and Portune were more candid and succinct than they’ve ever been in an actual public appearance.

Portune wanted former Cincinnati mayor and party powerbroker Dwight Tillery to fill the vacancy, noting there’s never been an African American on the board. Burke wanted Caleb Faux, the party’s executive director, as the selection to help supplement Faux’s income because the party can’t afford to pay him more.

Board members are paid $19,812 annually, an amount set by state law.

Portune began the exchange by e-mailing Burke. When Burke responded, he copied numerous members of the party’s Executive Committee, angering Portune, who did the same with his reply.

In his initial e-mail, Portune wrote, “If using this appointment is necessary to boost Caleb’s salary then we must take the steps in order to have two appointments at the same time. I know what I am asking here and the sacrifice I am asking you to make. But it is necessary ... we have to do the right thing here. Or else we will continue to push away African Americans from the party.”

Burke rejected the suggestion that he should resign. He replied, “I think even Dwight will acknowledge that I worked very hard to secure for him an appointment to the State Personnel Board of Review. He is being paid over $50,000 a year to serve on that Board. Dwight deserves that position, he earned it and he earns the pay.

“As to Todd’s suggestion that I give up my seat on the Board I respectfully decline,” Burke added. “I spend well over 1,000 hours a year on Party business. While not a rich person, I donate thousands of dollars of (sic) year of my own dollars to democratic candidates and committees.”

Burke ended his e-mail with, “If there was another way to get Caleb a decent wage, I would not be fighting so hard for him to have the seat on the Board. But I know enough about our local history of fundraising to know we can’t afford to pass up the opportunity to put Caleb on the Board.”

The response angered the commissioner. Portune wrote, “I am disappointed that you would fail to speak with me before blast e-mailing my personal e-mail to you about the (Board) appointment. Had you done so you would have learned there is much more to the matter than I included in my brief e-mail to you this morning.

“It is also disappointing that you would minimize the issues to being all about money. For me the appointment is not about that at all. You still have not addressed our Party’s shortcomings in failing to appoint an African American to this influential post and, if your proposal goes forward, will not for the forseeable (sic) future.”

Ultimately, the party’s Executive Committee recommended Faux for the spot. He also serves in the volunteer position as chairman of the Cincinnati Planning Commission, where Burke often presents cases as a land-use attorney.

Frankly, neither Burke nor Portune come off looking good in this encounter.

The need to boost someone’s income shouldn’t be the primary consideration when appointing someone to the Board of Elections. (Sorry, Mr. Burke.)

And if there’s a need to appoint a black person to the Board, surely there are better-qualified people than Tillery. (Sorry, Mr. Portune.)

After leaving Cincinnati City Council, Tillery became president and CEO of The Center for Closing the Health Gap, a nonprofit group that promotes healthy living and is partially funded by taxpayer money. In that job, Tillery makes more than $157,000 annually in salary and benefits. Combined with the state job that Burke got for him, he makes more than $200,000 annually, so he definitely doesn’t need the extra cash.

Also, Tillery keeps active in politics by mentoring people like current Councilwoman Laketa Cole and former Councilwoman Minette Cooper.

The Center’s mission is to end disparities between the health of the region’s white and black residents, particularly the shockingly high infant mortality rate for African-American babies. Whether any progress has been made during the years it’s been operational is open to debate.

Regardless, there are many well-qualified African Americans to fill the Board of Elections spot besides Tillery. They include Silverton Mayor John A. Smith, who unsuccessfully challenged Faux before the party’s Executive Committee.

Burke has since created a new committee to devise a standardized procedure for filling board vacancies in the future. Burke’s critics, however, are skeptical. They noted how adept he is at manipulating party business to suit his needs, such as adding precinct executives to tilt the vote on party endorsements.

It’s precisely these types of inter-party dealings and behind-the-scenes jockeying that have led to decreasing public participation in the political process. We don’t need more people enriching themselves through public service. The only way to effectively reverse this is greater transparency.

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