Hamilton County Democratic Party co-chairmen Tim Burke and Mark Mallory might face the first official challenge for their positions since they began leading the party.
Steve Huffman, a union activist and construction worker by trade, says his next project won't involve jackhammers or concrete. The longtime Norwood Democrat says he's ready to rebuild the party and give it a strength that hasn't materialized since Burke became party boss more than a decade ago.
"I think they could do a better job," Huffman says. "For us to be effective, we need a better organizational structure."
Huffman is critical of the current leadership's ability to build a pool of elected officials and says the party's precinct executives need to be given more specific goals.
The number of Democratic Party precinct executives — or lack of them — is part of the problem, according to some Democrats lining up behind Huffman. Hamilton County has more than 1,000 precincts, but only about 500 have Democratic Party executives.
'Not a coup'
Most Democrats are also discontented with the number of uncontested races in the county that give Republicans a free ride. Six judicial races are uncontested by Democrats this year, and so are the offices of county prosecutor, sheriff and engineer.
Burke says he's aware of the problems but says solutions don't come easily.
"When you don't have any statewide offices or the White House or any members of Congress, it becomes very difficult," he says.
Burke also says the party promotes promising young officials such as Cincinnati City Council members Alicia Reece, David Pepper, Laketa Cole and John Cranley.
"I think our party organization is strong," says Mallory, the state senator who joined Burke as co-chair in 1999. "I think we have the broad support of the party."
He and Burke will find out when precinct executives take a vote at the organizational meeting held every two years during a 45-day window following the primary.
"I'm a firm believer that every office, even if it's my favorite elected official, should have opposition or else it's not democracy," Huffman says. "Sometimes you can get a little lax if you think no one else wants the job."
But Mallory says Huffman's desire to better the party went awry when he decided to take a shot at becoming party chief.
"If Steve has some ideas about how to improve the structure of the party, I wish he would bring those up to the attention of the leadership," Mallory says. "If he legitimately feels that way, then there are ways to address any concerns he may have without challenging the leadership."
Huffman sees it differently.
"This isn't a coup," he says. "It's about making the party stronger."
At least some Democrats agree with Mallory that Huffman's challenge is inappropriate.
"I think the timing is poor," says County Commissioner Todd Portune. "I think an internal fight right now is a distraction."
Portune, who kicked off his own campaign for re-election last week, says there is too much at stake, especially in light of the presidential election and a rare breach in unity among local Republicans (see "Elephant Walk," issue of Jan. 14-20).
"Let the other side implode for a while," Portune says. "We've got larger objectives in the fall."
Still, Portune says there are several serious shortcomings in the Democratic Party, such as a tendency to let races go uncontested instead of backing lesser-known candidates who are likely to lose but can still get the Democratic message out.
"I've been at odds with the party leadership on some pretty significant issues," he says.
When Portune left Cincinnati City Council for the commissioner's office in 2000, Burke appointed Cranley to take his place despite Portune's recommendation of other candidates.
'What better time?'
While Portune seems content to put up with the current leadership's weaknesses, others are not.
Bob Drake, a Democrat who is making his second run at county treasurer, supports Huffman.
"I think our current leadership has done very little to support viable Democratic candidates," he says. "It is time for us to find someone who actually has some vision of where the party needs to go and has the energy to make the Democratic Party successful again."
Burke's support for Cranley in 2000 is one of Drake's complaints.
"I think he is personally impressed with the wrong things in candidates," Drake says. "I think if his candidates aren't able to raise a great deal of money, it doesn't matter to him what their position on the issues is."
Burke's decision to leave some precinct seats vacant is another concern voiced by some. Drake and other Democrats such as Scott Seidewitz encouraged some of their supporters to apply for precinct executive positions in January 2001. Some applicants were ignored and others rejected.
"I personally submitted half a dozen names to be considered," Drake says. "None of them were contacted."
In fact, Drake says the precinct positions were instead left vacant.
"That's just an example that if someone doesn't want to march in lock-step with what they're ordered to do, they're brushed aside," Seidewitz says. "That's not healthy."
Seidewitz doesn't buy into suggestions that Huffman's challenge will damage party unity and its effectiveness in November.
"What better time to for us to have an open discussion that gets people thinking about the issues and how to best get the party organized than before a key race for county commissioner and such an important race for president?" he says.
Marilyn Hyland, a Democrat who has unsuccessfully run for county commissioner and city council, says such leadership decisions have had a chilling effect on the party. She's not fond of policies that discourage self-motivated Democrats such as Drake who have demonstrated loyalty to the party by fronting their own resources without encouragement from party leadership.
"They don't use people well," Hyland says. "You have to invigorate people to participate."
Many Democrats are looking forward to seeing just what will happen when Burke — the man who many deemed a maverick when he took over a decade ago — faces a challenger for the first time in his tenure. Others, however, aren't expecting much to materialize from the challenge. After all, Burke took 10 years' worth of shots at party chair before he finally won the title in 1993.©