Local Democrats hope to take advantage of plummeting support for President Bush and Congress and increase their influence at the county and state levels, but a bitter dispute has emerged about the party's leadership and how candidates win endorsements.
Tim Burke, the attorney who chairs the Hamilton County Democratic Party, angered several candidates, including State Rep. Tyrone Yates (D-Walnut Hills), with a mass mailing shortly before the May 2 primary election.
Burke's letter, entitled "The Forgotten Elections," urged support for certain candidates in four contested races for the Democratic State Central Committee. The committee consists of one man and one woman elected from each of Ohio's 33 state senate districts.
Little known outside of hardcore political wonks, the committee nonetheless wields considerable clout. It helps determine governance of the party over a two-year period, electing the state chair, setting by-laws and making appointments to the Democratic National Committee.
Those decisions, in turn, affect which candidates get financial aid and what issues the party will support or oppose. Put more simply, those who control the committee largely control the state party.
In a typical contested race for a political office during a primary, the Hamilton County Democratic Party will have a local endorsement committee interview each of the contenders, then vote on whom the party should endorse, if it makes an endorsement at all.
But no such process was set up for the state central committee slots.
A letter merely appeared in the mailboxes of hundreds of local Democratic precinct executives with endorsements from Burke. That had several people who were running — but didn't get Burke's nod — crying foul.
'Seen that pattern'
Yates, a state lawmaker and former Cincinnati City Council member, ran for the 9th Senate District slot on the central committee. Although he initially ran unopposed, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory jumped into the race. Mallory, who previously served as party co-chair with Burke, received Burke's endorsement and won the seat May 2.
Joe Mallory, Mark's brother, ran unopposed for the 8th Senate District slot.
Shortly before the primary Yates sent a mass e-mail to Democrats decrying Burke's tactics, which he described as "Tim's now standard 11th-hour efforts to shape your vote."
"Our party has fallen prey to a terrible recent pattern of minimizing and marginalizing the hard work and loyalty of team-oriented Democratic workers by seeming to make the party an instrument of power only for an inside few," Yates wrote.
The local party should make the process for endorsements more equitable and transparent, he says.
"I was a little surprised (by Burke's letter), but I wasn't shocked," Yates says. "My impression is that I have seen that pattern. We have to have a process. If the offices were that important, as he suggests in his letter, we should have had a process in place. My wish would be that Tim would stop putting out these midnight letters. Without attacking him, I did try to face the issues that several Democrats have raised with me about his leadership style."
Burke counters that the letter was appropriate, noting that he personally paid for its expense and that it wasn't sent on party stationery.
"It was sent in my capacity as an individual, not as Democratic Party chairman, written on my own paper and sent using my own money," he says. "I think I have as much right as anyone to let people know who I support in an election. ... My letter made it clear it was my personal endorsement."
But nowhere in his letter did Burke state that the endorsements were his individual choices and not those of the party. In fact, the letter closes, "Tim Burke, Hamilton County Democratic Chair."
Elizabeth Motter, who lost in her bid for the 9th Senate District's female slot and didn't receive Burke's endorsement, also is upset.
"I felt it was unfair," she says. "(Burke) didn't go through any type of formal procedure, so he essentially was expressing his own personal opinions. If it was a private opinion, he should have reserved it for his own private circles instead of sending it using the list of precinct executives. It was the wrong thing to do. He should have remained neutral."
'Lack of fairness'
It's not the first time Burke's actions have irritated some of the party's rank-and-file members.
Several party activists complained about what they called a "stacked deck" endorsement process that ensured the party's nod for attorney Paul Hackett in last year's special election in the 2nd Congressional District and for Bengals executive Jeff Berding in last year's city council election — despite Berding's earlier support for a Republican candidate in another local contest.
Critics allege that's because Burke places an emphasis on the amount of money that potential candidates can raise, rather than their stance on issues. Others dislike Burke's involvement in leaving some precinct executive seats vacant in recent years. Although party dissidents had several people apply for the empty posts, many applicants were ignored or rejected in favor of keeping the spots open.
Also causing friction with some segments of the party is Burke's role as attorney for the city of Norwood in its legal battles over eminent domain. Burke is representing the city against homeowners who refuse to sell their houses to make way for new retail and office development. Some Democrats say that position puts him at odds with the party's values of fighting for individual rights and opposing excessive corporate influence.
Some Cincinnati mayoral candidates complained in 2004 when Burke allowed Mark Mallory to remain as party co-chair for several months after jumping into the mayoral race. The situation gave Mallory an unfair advantage in deciding who received party funds, they said.
The wrangling led Norwood Democrat Steve Huffman, a union activist and construction worker, to challenge Burke for the chairmanship the last time he was up for election, in 2004. Huffman was unsuccessful, however, and it remains unclear whether anyone will run against Burke when he's up for re-election later this year.
Some longtime Democrats take the intra-party bickering in stride. It's part of the Democrats' time-honored tradition of openly debating issues and airing grievances freely, unlike their GOP counterparts. Such debate rarely affects either party unity or leadership decisions when all is said and done, the faithful say.
Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a Democrat who has sparred with Burke in the past, says the latest dispute raises issues that should be faced before the next election.
"I agree that the party's endorsement process is not perfect, and there are valid criticisms of a lack of fairness or objectivity in the process during certain elections, not across the board," Portune says. "The question becomes does Tim, as party chairman, give up his right to back candidates individually.
"It's a question that needs to be debated by the party and decided by the party. As chairman, he probably sits in a little bit of a different role. His personal endorsement probably would be construed by most observers as coming with the stamp of approval from the party, and that can be misleading." ©