News: Don't Call It a 'Battle'

Campbell County commissioner race gets ugly early

Matt Borgerding

Gun shop owner Pete Garrett sets his sight on incumbent Dave Otto's seat on the Campbell County Fiscal Court.

Gunsmith Pete Garrett is characteristically dismissive when confronted with the old admonition, "Don't pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel." Printer Dave Otto is similarly characteristically dismissive of any suggestion he should hold his tongue when dealing with an opponent who might carry a gun.

That's 21st-century politics in the Campbell County Commission's second district.

Incumbent Democrat Otto is president of Otto Printing & Entertainment Graphics in Dayton, Ky. Peter Garrett Gunsmiths Inc., which the Republican challenger describes as the oldest gunsmith shop in Kentucky, is on Monmouth Street in Newport.

If opening salvos are a reliable indicator, it's going to be an ugly, personal campaign.

'This isn't for fun'
Garrett won't speak on the record about his derogatory comments about Otto, other than to say Otto was elected as a Republican on 1986 Reagan "coattails" but soon changed parties.

Otto is less reticent. He says Garrett's published outburst over a curbside argument was that of a "madman."

Should be fun.

Hang around Garrett's shop, and a cross section of Northern Kentucky drops in: cops, hunters, collectors, elderly neighbors, suits.

Garrett is the descendant of Revolutionary War soldiers, Kentucky pioneers and elected and appointed public officials, and he's making his first run for elected office. Victory in November would seat him among three commissioners on the Fiscal Court, along with the fiscal court judge-executive. The fiscal court is Kentucky's equivalent of County Board of Commissioners in Ohio.

Garrett, who can be offhand or lighthearted about his craft, is anything but when he talks about politics.

"I've been wanting to run for a long time," he says. "Campbell County is not well governed because southern Campbell County is not well represented."

He can get away with such parochialism with a shop in urban Newport, a family in suburban Fort Thomas and a farm in the thinly populated southern part of the county that's ripe for development.

But he generally doesn't like changes he sees in rural areas.

"These people don't want their green space paved over," Garrett says. "You need planned development."

The problem, he says, is zoning officials and the Fiscal Court too often ignore the comprehensive plan drafted about five years ago — by Garrett and others.

Another issue is eminent domain. Garrett lost one property to Newport and generally opposes eminent domain, especially when it enriches a private party. He also wants to change the county rule that he bars public comment once a zoning recommendation goes to commissioners for approval.

Garrett says the campaign will cost $50,000 to $100,000, and he laughs at the idea that he or campaign treasurer Terry Flynn, a retired Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, would pony up that amount. (Disclosure: Flynn and I are friends; Garrett has been a source for my news stories when firearms expertise was required.)

They must raise it with $1,000 limits on individual gifts and a ban on corporate donations. Most will go for lawn signs, newspaper ads, direct mailings, bumper stickers, etc. TV ads haven't been a major factor in county elections, although that might change this year, Garrett says.

"We have never had a problem raising money in Campbell County," says Barb Haas, county GOP chair.

"This isn't for fun," independent voter Flynn adds. "He's dead serious about it. If he didn't think he could win, he wouldn't be doing this."

Otto estimates his campaign will cost about $40,000 and laughs when asked if he gets a price break on printing.

"No, but I know what I'm doing," he says.

Garrett says he doesn't know how much the part-time commissioner is paid for the four-year term but says, "I'll give this job all of time it requires because it's something I care about."

Words at the curb
Garrett is an old hand at public issues that touch his life. When he feared Newport would take his shop, as it had his building next door, he looked in Dayton and Bellevue.

Meeting resistance there from Otto and civic officials, Garrett sued and lost but campaigned successfully for a state law that effectively stops communities from using zoning to ban gun dealers.

His dad, Morris Garrett, a physician and deputy coroner, was a member of the Committee of 500 that started the Newport anti-vice cleanup more than 40 years ago. Two decades later, the son and others formed NEWPAC to finish the work by electing its candidates to the city commission (council).

Their victory created the stability that attracted developers and laid the foundations for Newport on the Levee and the Newport Aquarium, he says. Monmouth Street also is benefiting from renewal, he adds.

Incumbent Otto also bears an old family name with high personal name recognition.

Whatever one thinks of Otto's switch in party affiliation, it wasn't stupid, Garrett concedes, because Campbell County was a Democratic stronghold. Now, Garrett says, the county is about 50-50 and it's a good time to challenge Otto.

What once was a 10,000-vote Democrat advantage might now be as close as 1,500, and an attractive candidate like Garrett can woo them to the Republicans, Haas says.

"This won't be the first time a Republican has beaten a Democrat in Campbell County," she notes.

It's not that easy, says Otto. He acknowledges the Republican growth but says there are possibly 6,000 independent voters.

"I get my share of votes from all three parties," he says.

Moreover, with Republican scandals in Frankfort and Washington, D.C., "this should be a banner year across Kentucky for Democrats," Otto says.

A predictor of how this campaign might go came in Garrett's letter in the May 20, 2005 issue of Dayton's weekly River Cities Beacon. In it, Garrett says he encountered Otto outside a coffee shop and, after an unpleasant exchange, Otto "stuck his hand in my face with his thumb and finger about an inch apart and said, 'People who own guns have small penises.' "

Added Garrett, "I wonder how he intends to offend the female gun owners?"

Otto says he starts each day at that Newport Starbucks and Garrett "was there for a reason ... to instigate a scene." They had curbside words, Otto says, but nothing about anyone's penis or gun.

Garrett's letter reflects the mind of a "madman" who spends his days surrounded by guns and might carry one, Otto says, but "I will not back down to anyone."

Garrett says Otto objects to any challenge. Otto says the animosity originates in his support of Bellevue and Dayton zoning when Garrett considered moving his gun shop there.

"He started off the ugliness with his remarks about (the confrontation at) Starbucks," Otto says.

Before Garrett, Otto's most recent challenger was Jim Stegman, of Fort Thomas, in 1998. He lost by 40 votes out of more than 23,000 cast.

"I was robbed," Stegman says.

He blames Democrats, who control the county courthouse, for putting one voting booth on his strongly Republican and populous home turf. Waits exceeded two hours, Stegman says.

"Many of them couldn't wait and they left," he says. "It just wasn't right to lose that way."

In part, Stegman blames the lack of term limits for the way elected officials and parties become entrenched and "too cozy." He never ran again.

"I've been doing very well without that," he says. "I don't need it." ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

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