Rank-and-file Democrats who dislike a deal cut this winter between the two local party chairmen that limits competition in the races for the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners will get their chance April 21 to endorse a candidate in defiance of the pact.
Responding to a recent letter from the deal's critics, Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke says he will allow the party's Central Committee to vote on an endorsement for Chris Dole. Burke won't allow one of the critics to co-chair the meeting during the vote, however, as the letter had sought.
Former Congressman Tom Luken, local attorney Tim Mara and party activist Jenny Edwards sent a letter to Burke last weekend seeking an assurance that Dole's endorsement would be voted upon and that Burke wouldn't try to block a decision.
"I met today with the other officers of the party," Burke wrote in an April 14 e-mail to CityBeat. "Following that meeting, I spoke to Tim Mara and told him we have agreed to send out a notice to Central Committee members advising them that at the request of Tom Luken, Tim Mara and Jenny Edwards, their motion regarding Chris Dole will be added to the agenda of the Central Committee meeting."
In its letter, the trio also asked that one of them be allowed to co-chair the meeting with Burke because the Central Committee had just been recertified and hadn't yet adopted rules. In the past, the party's rules have been overly complicated and written in a manner so party leaders can easily manipulate them, Luken says.
"The Byzantine rules of the Central Committee as they have been interpreted by you recently are suspect, to say the least," the trio wrote in the letter to Burke.
Luken notes that Burke has gone on record stating he helped craft the initial deal and opposes a Dole endorsement.
"The chair would normally voluntarily recuse himself if he has an interest in the matter," Luken says. "He should recuse himself but he won't."
That's not going to happen, Burke replies.
"I am the chair of the party and, until someone else is elected to that position, I will chair Central Committee meetings," Burke wrote. "The rules of the party are essentially as they were when Tom Luken was the chair, except that we opened up the party by doing away with the provision he imposed that required the county chair also be the chair of the Cincinnati Democratic Committee."
Luken and others are angry about an agreement hatched in January by Democratic and Republican party insiders.
Republican candidate Greg Hartmann and incumbent Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a Democrat, agreed to a deal that would eliminate party-endorsed competition in their separate commission races. Under the pact, the local Democratic Party promised not to run a candidate against Hartmann and, in return, the local GOP wouldn't endorse any candidate who challenged Portune.
Hartmann is campaigning for the seat held by Republican Pat DeWine, who isn't seeking re-election.
Five people were involved with negotiating the deal: Hartmann, Portune, Burke, former county GOP Chairman George Vincent and millionaire litigator Stan Chesley, a frequent contributor to both parties.
Some Democrats dislike the deal because they say it forfeits the party's best chance to win all three seats on the county commission in a presidential election year that promises to have a record-setting Democratic turnout. Some Republicans were angered that it ensured a Democratic majority on the commission until at least 2010.
"It stinks to high heaven," Mara says. "We need to give people choices, because that's what democracy is all about. I'm happy with the job Todd Portune is doing, I'm happy with the job (Hamilton County Commissioner) David Pepper is doing. But even they, the good guys, must submit themselves to voters periodically for approval or disapproval. Appearing on the ballot without an opponent is not the same thing."
Dole, a Crosby Township trustee who's a registered Democrat, recently collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and run against Hartmann as an independent candidate. If he receives the Democratic Party's endorsement, a "D" won't appear beside his name on the ballot, but it could help him raise money and get campaign volunteers, supporters say.
Some Democratic Party insiders privately say Luken's outrage over the deal is hypocritical.
When Luken was on Cincinnati City Council, he frequently teamed with Republicans and Charterites as part of the so-called "Gang of Five" and often verbally attacked fellow Democrat Roxanne Qualls. Also, while Luken was party chairman, he didn't run a full nine-member city council slate on at least one occasion.
Regardless, Luken says the county commission is too important to simply concede a seat to the GOP.
"The two-party system has broken down here," Luken says. "Something like this has never happened before, and I hope it never happens again."