Praise Comes from Across the Political Spectrum for Todd Portune

In his decades of local public service, Portune pushed hard for an expansive agenda and sometimes ruffled feathers. But even those who found themselves at times opposed to him recognized both his tenacity and kindness

click to enlarge Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune - Hailey Bollinger
Hailey Bollinger
Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune

Todd Portune, a Democratic former Cincinnati City Council member and Hamilton County Commissioner whose expansive vision helped shape the region, died at his Green Township home Jan. 25 after a long battle with cancer. He was 61.

"Todd was surrounded by his entire family and passed with grace and peace," a statement from the Portune family says. "Todd was a tireless champion for all people, and has left the world a better place through his long legacy of care and love for Hamilton County. Todd is survived by his greatest love of all, his children Ethan, Ellyse and Emma. The family would like to thank everyone who has expressed their support, and well wishes."

Portune's successes during his time as commissioner came from a rare blend of profound tenacity, even stubbornness, foresight and the ability to disagree deeply without totally burning bridges. He was ahead of the curve regionally on many issues that are front-and-center today — LGBTQ rights, help for those experiencing poverty and housing insecurity, better transit and others.  

Over his nearly three-decade career, Portune often focused on the big picture for the region.

He had held his commission seat for almost exactly 20 years and was a city council member for seven years prior. He had also chaired or been president of a number of other governmental bodies, including the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District, the Hamilton County Homeland Security Commission, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments and more.

When Portune first won election to the commission in 2000, he was the first Democrat in 35 years to grab a seat on that body. Times have changed since then. The body is now all Democrats, including Commission President Denise Driehaus and Commissioners Stephanie Summerow Dumas and Victoria Parks, Portune's former chief of staff. 

During his time on the board, he has pushed to trim the county's budget during lean years while at times dueling with the Cincinnati Bengals over the county's stadium deal with the team. He also helped find funding for Cradle Cincinnati, an effort launched in 2012 to fight the county's high infant mortality rate.

When it came to the business of governing, Portune was nearly unstoppable. He once held a commission meeting in a hospital after surgery and, though he was quite ill, worked until just weeks before his death as commissioner before making sure his former chief-of-staff Parks would become his temporary replacement.

“There’s no job that I love more than the job I have now,” he said upon announcing his retirement last year. “It’s what I am, it’s what I’ve been about.”

Portune pushed hard for visions others saw as overly-ambitious, including a truly regional public transit system and shared services between the city and county.

Those big plans sometimes put him at odds with other elected officials and, occasionally, some specific groups of county citizens. A move in 2018 to raise sales taxes to balance the county's budget, for example, came under fire by anti-tax groups, who mounted a repeal campaign until commissioners backed off the tax increase. 

Portune showed he wasn't afraid to engage those with different ideas.

"He showed up at our signature gathering 'party' to face his political opposition," Hamilton County GOP Chair Alex Triantafilou tweeted this weekend. "He was bold and unafraid. And of good humor. RIP Todd."

Again and again, that seemed to be Portune's way — vigorous, tenacious pursuit of his vision that somehow did not make lasting enemies among those who disagreed with him. 

Portune himself stressed as much, often highlighting the importance of listening to other political viewpoints even as the county trended bluer. 

At times, Portune also found himself at odds with more progressive segments of the county's electorate.

As transit activists began pushing harder for a levy that would better fund the region's Metro bus service in 2017, Portune — then county commission president and a key vote for the levy — dug in his heels. He had a bigger vision: a system spanning three states, eight counties and more than 200 local governments. Levy supporters gritted their teeth: the sweeping plan sounded great, but would take too long to wrangle given the lagging state of the region's current transit system. Three years later, activists prevailed and voters will decide on a new transit countywide transit levy this year. Portune eventually threw his support behind that effort. 

Better Bus Coalition President Cam Hardy was one of the driving forces behind that levy, and, as such, found himself at odds with Portune's desire to delay a levy for something larger. But Hardy also voiced deep respect for Portune's contributions and legacy. 

"Todd Portune is someone who dedicated his life to people," Hardy tweeted Saturday. "May he rest in peace. We will take the torch from here Todd. Watch over us."

Portune racked up some big wins during his last months as commissioner — continued motion on a long-desired new hotel and potential convention center expansion at the site of the now-shuttered Millennium Hotel downtown, the eventual passage of a .25 percent sales tax to balance the county budget and the final handshakes on a once-fraught deal that made way for a music venue at The Banks. 

Like others, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley found himself at times on the other side of the negotiating table with Portune during the contentious weeks when a deal for the music venue at The Banks was being hashed out. The two finally worked out the city and county's differences during a Saturday meeting at Portune's house shortly before he retired.

“Tonight we mourn the loss of a giant in our community," Cranley said in a statement following the news that Portune had passed. "Commissioner Portune was a force of nature, a visionary with a true servant’s heart. But most important, he was my friend and I viewed him as a mentor that taught me the importance of speaking up for the public interest. He said things that are true but most politicians were afraid to say. He had courage. May we all strive to live up to the legacy he leaves behind. Todd did not lose the battle, he persevered—as he did his whole life—to the other side. We will miss him terribly. Please join me in praying for the Portune family, may they find peace and comfort during this time of incredible grief.”

Portune's visitation will run from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Feb. 3 at the Duke Energy Convention Center. His funeral services will start at 12 p.m. that day at that location. He will be buried in Spring Grove Cemetery. 

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