News: No Right Turn

Local Democrats deny trying to keep out progressives

Jan 25, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Doug Trapp

At a press conference on Fountain Square in December, Scott Seidewitz called for a progressive to succeed Todd Portune on Cincinnati City Council.

Progressive Democrats suspect leaders of the Hamilton County Democratic Party are shutting them out, leaving precinct-executive positions vacant rather than have them filled by liberals. Party leaders, however, say the nomination process just takes time. The issue came to a head Jan. 13 at the monthly meeting of the Democratic Executive Committee, at a union hall in Northside.

Nearly all of the higher-profile Democrats elected in Hamilton County attended the meeting, including Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken and County Commissioner Todd Portune. Progressives used the 90-minute meeting to complain that their nominees for leadership positions are being ignored.

The executive committee heads the local party, but ward chairmen and precinct executives form its body — the people responsible at the neighborhood level for organizing support for candidates. Hamilton County has 73 wards and 1,025 precincts. Four wards have no Democratic chairman and about 400 precincts — many of them in predominantly Republican suburbs — have no executives, according to Tim Burke, co-chair of the party.

Scott Seidewitz of Hyde Park, a liberal Democrat and a veteran of local campaigns for several years, recently began asking his supporters to apply for precinct-executive positions. A former candidate for Cincinnati City Council who is likely to run again, Seidewitz was on a list of people Portune recommended to replace him on city council, following his election to the county commission.

But Seidewitz didn't get the council seat, and neither did anyone Portune recommended.

Instead the post went to John Cranley of Price Hill, a pro-lifer. Cranley impressed party leaders with his ability to raise money and attract votes during his unsuccessful race last fall for Congress. Disappointed he didn't get the council seat, Seidewitz vowed to rally support from more progressive Democrats for future elections.

Last month the party sent a letter asking Democrats to nominate precinct executives in time for the Jan. 13 meeting. About a week before the meeting, Seidewitz supporters began applying for precinct positions. Some did not receive a call back from ward chairmen; others were allegedly told they wouldn't be considered if they had ties to Seidewitz.

Three of the four people backed by Bob Drake, Democratic candidate for county treasurer last fall, were told by ward chairmen they wouldn't be recommended for precinct executives. The reason? They had supported Seidewitz over Cranley for city council. Ward bosses, Seidewitz says, thought he was trying to pack the party leadership.

Shawn Baker, who worked in Democratic campaigns in Butler County, recently moved to North Avondale and inquired about becoming a precinct executive. He was less than impressed with his reception.

"My own ward chair didn't know what was going on," Baker says.

Baker says he received misinformation and was not welcomed.

State Sen. Mark Mallory, the party's other co-chair, challenged anyone who was turned away to name the responsible ward chairmen and specify what they said. So far, no one has come forward, according to Mallory.

The executive committee appoints precinct executives in case of vacancy. The first step is getting approval from a ward chairman. But ward chairmen only had a few days to review many of the applications, Burke says, and no chairman is going to approve a precinct leader without careful consideration.

After explaining the process Jan. 13, Burke quickly nominated a group of 40 people to be precinct executives and called for a vote. Drake immediately raised his hand to ask how many precinct positions were open, but Burke cut him off, saying questions could not be asked while a vote is in progress.

In the end, the executive committee failed to approve about 25 people who wanted to be precinct executives but lacked a ward chairman's approval — including the Seidewitz group. Drake and others argued the executive committee should just appoint the remaining 25. But Burke said that would be unfair to ward chairmen, because they should have some say in who works under them.

"We have always done it this way," Burke said.

Mallory agreed. But Burke's account isn't true, according to Seidewitz. Never has there been a delay in appointing people who wanted to help the party, Seidewitz says.

The executive committee also ruled that four other precinct nominees were ineligible, even though some have been active in the local Democratic party, because they registered as Republicans and voted for John McCain in last year's presidential primary, according to Seidewitz. Cranley says that ruling also blocked some of his friends who were interested in leadership positions in the party.

Drake wondered why the executive committee appointed Cranley's mother and brother as precinct executives when some of the Cranleys are registered Republicans. Cranley says his father's side of the family leans Republican; in fact, his father gave $150 to Bob Bedinghaus, the Republican county commissioner unseated by Portune. But Cranley's mother, he says, favors Democrats.

"I don't understand why people keep digging into my family," Cranley says. "I'm a committed Democrat."

After others at the meeting spoke in favor of the existing system, Portune wondered why.

"If it's worked so well, why are there hundreds of (precinct-executive) vacancies?" Portune says.

Burke says the evaluation process is continuing, and more precinct leaders could be appointed during future meetings of the executive committee.

"They haven't met criteria yet. It doesn't mean they won't," Burke says.

Although the remaining applicants might eventually be appointed, Seidewitz says Burke accomplished his real intent: to keep certain progressives off the nominating committee for city-council candidates. In previous years, Seidewitz says, the party welcomed applications from anyone who wanted to run. This year, members of the nominating committee are asking some people to run and turning away others.

Mallory disagrees, saying the process hasn't changed and the nominating committee hasn't even met yet.

"Don't believe the hype," Mallory says.

Mallory also dismisses assertions the party is leaning to the right and Carl Lindner is influencing the party through donations.

"I'm still waiting on that check," Mallory says.

Drake remains dissatisfied.

"Our party cannot afford to shut out anyone," Drake says. "To have one (Democratic) county commissioner in the last 36 years does not speak highly of our effectiveness." ©