Is the big elephant about to lay an egg?
For decades the Republican Party has had a virtual lock on Hamilton County government. But as the November election draws near, party leaders seem jumpy. Simple questions evoke answers that betray an unexpected nervousness.
Ask GOP executive director Chip Gerhardt if the party tried to get County Commissioner John Dowlin to forego re-election, and he fairly fumes with outrage. Did the party offer Dowlin the job of director of the Board of Elections if he would step aside?
"That's completely false," Gerhardt says. "This party has never broached that subject with John Dowlin."
Ask Dowlin the same question, and he says the opposite.
"That is true," Dowlin says.
"It came from the party, the Republican Party. It came through somebody who's a friend of mine. It was obvious to me the official party did not want me again to run for county commissioner."
Ask GOP Chairman Joe Deters if he were behind the move to dump Dowlin, and he seems unsure.
"I don't believe I ever made that offer to him at all," Deters says.
In fact, Deters remembers exactly how it didn't happen.
"This goes back a long ways, at least eight months," he says. "Some people told me John wasn't interested in running again. I met with John, and he assured me he was going to run, and he is in fact running."
Dowlin refuses to say if Deters wanted him off the county commission, or if it were another fellow Republican.
"The message was from the party," he says. "It came through a person I really don't want to identify. I'm told the big businessmen do not like my votes on issues dealing with the stadium. Who's behind the screen? I really don't know."
Deters is treasurer of the state of Ohio. The approach of the Labor Day weekend finds him out of town, with his press secretary in Columbus saying he can't be reached until the following week. But minutes later, Deters returns a reporter's phone call.
"I'm on a rooftop overlooking Wrigley Field," he says.
That kind of quick response could indicate a commitment to keeping constituents informed. But it could also mean Deters is nervous about party affairs back at home.
Of course, Hamilton County isn't Deters' home. The chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party doesn't live in Hamilton County at all. On that point, too, Republicans seem to be using different scripts.
Ask Gerhardt where Deters lives, and he isn't sure.
"He lives on the Butler-Warren County line," Gerhardt says. "I'm not sure which side he's on."
Ask Dowlin where Deters lives, and he thinks he knows.
"I guess he's living in Warren County, but people still view him as Hamilton County," Dowlin says.
Ask Deters where he lives, and he gives only a partial answer.
"Butler County," he says.
Can you name the community?
"I'd rather not," Deters says. "We've had too many problems with goofballs from when I was prosecutor."
Deters was Hamilton County Prosecutor before moving to the state treasury and before moving his family out of the county. Having a carpetbagger-in-reverse run the party is something the Democrats wouldn't countenance, according to Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Timothy Burke. Democrats want their county officials to live in the same county.
"I think the Democratic Party would insist on that for their party chair," Burke says.
For Republicans, Deters' residence isn't much of an issue.
"Joe Deters has a great political mind," Gerhardt says. "He is intensely dedicated to this county, regardless of where he lives. We're just lucky to have him."
How long Republicans will keep him might depend on the election. A conservative wing of the party took on the leadership's endorsed candidates in the spring primary and won several races. Tom Brinkman Jr., for example, beat the party's pick for state representative in the 37th District.
Brinkman doesn't hesitate to say he wants change in the county GOP. How serious is the rebellion? A lot is riding on incumbent County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, a fellow Republican, in the general election.
"If Bedinghaus loses in November, that would probably create a pretty good shake-up," Brinkman says. "A lot of conservatives hope he does lose, because they feel he's betrayed conservative values. It's not just about the stadium."
Ask Brinkman how he will vote, and he says it depends on — what? — the way Bedinghaus treats the Democrat in the race.
"I'm undecided," Brinkman says. "I am waiting to see what kind of campaign Bob Bedinghaus wages against Todd Portune. I'm afraid they plan to drag Todd Portune through the mud. If Bob Bedinghaus tries to pull Todd Portune down to his level, I don't believe I could support him."
Deters says the intra-party fight at least shows the party is no monolith.
"Everyone complains, 'These wishy-washy, vanilla, white-bread Republicans don't take positions,' " Deters says. "Then when they do, they get criticized."
For Brinkman, however, the signs point to something else.
"The party is terribly split," he says. "It's really almost spiraling out of control."