News: The County Adds Pepper

Democrats even take Hamilton County

Matt Borgerding

David Pepper talks to the media Election Night about his goals as the new Hamilton County Commissioner.

In an election season riddled with more negative ad campaigns than anyone seems to remember — until next year's — David Pepper attributes his defeat of incumbent Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich to taking a positive turn.

"When we went positive three weeks ago, the race took off," Pepper says.

It was one of the only non-thanking points that Pepper, a Democrat, hit during a short victory speech at Arnold's Bar and Grill downtown on Election Night.

"I'm proud of not just why we won and that we won, but how we won," he told supporters packed elbow-to-elbow into the courtyard.

Pepper said that what was dubbed his "Heimlich Remover" campaign ran "some tough ads."

But he said, "We didn't do one negative robo-call to any of your homes, and I'm very proud of that."

Pepper told CityBeat that, of course, the county must still address the issue of its overcrowded jail. Heimlich had sought to solve that conundrum by almost single-handedly forcing onto the ballot a county sales tax to build a new jail (see "The Politics of the Jail," issue of Aug. 2). Many read re-election ambitions — and some ducking of political accountability — into Heimlich's last-minute push to have voters decide the issue.

"It was such an overly politicized issue," Pepper says.

"The voters spoke loudly."

Issue 12, the proposed sales tax for a new jail, lost 57-43 percent. Heimlich fared better, but not well enough. Pepper bested Heimlich 53-47 percent after two terms on Cincinnati City Council and last year's failed bid to become mayor of Cincinnati.

The tsunami that swamped Heimlich
Heimlich's hushed post-election gathering at Havana Martini Club fell silent for his concession speech.

"I'm very disappointed that the jail Issue 12 did not pass," Heimlich said for TV cameras, radio mics and half a roomful of downbeat supporters.

Like any good concession speechwriter, he urged focusing on his accomplishments in office rather than his loss in the election. Among the accomplishments he named: cutting property taxes by $100 million and bringing under control county spending that had been increasing at two and a half times the inflation rate. He said he'd done more in two years than the county commission had accomplished in 30 years.

Heimlich essentially laid the blame for his defeat squarely at the Oval Office door of President Bush.

"We were running in a very, very tough environment," Heimlich said.

He said that negative sentiments toward national and state Republican officeholders had trickled into local politics.

"It was described to me as a 'tsunami,' " Heimlich said. "It was just too much to overcome."

Heimlich supporter Cliff Bishop of Sycamore Township also attributed the loss to a "big trickle-down effect from the federal government."

Bishop had hoped that Hamilton County conservatives could divorce the local election from the national situation.

"But the big tie to the president is difficult to overcome," he said.

Among those whom Heimlich thanked was a man he called his mentor, Christopher Finney. Some have alleged that Finney and others close to Heimlich held too much sway over the ousted commissioner. A few of Heimlich's buddies were even appointed to positions influencing the county commission in ways that presented clear conflicts of interest.

Finney, for instance, co-founded the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). Once elected to the Commission, Heimlich found Finney a spot on the county's Tax Levy Review Board (see "County at a Crossroads," issue of Sept. 27).

That and similar moves smacked of the same cronyism and worse that landed Republicans throughout the nation in an electorate doghouse.

And Pepper railed against Heimlich for it. No. 2 on Pepper's "Ten Simple Rules to Clean Up County Government" was "No Friends for Hire."

"Chris was there for me before I ever ran for office," Heimlich said Nov. 7. "Wherever I end up, whatever I do, I'll always cherish that relationship."

Heimlich also thanked West Side activist Melva Gweyn and billionaire financier Carl Lindner, among others.

As Heimlich left Havana Martini Club, CityBeat asked him what he plans to do next.

"Up until now I was thinking of serving on the county commission, so I'll have to think about it," he said.

Crossing over
Earlier that night, Gary Wright watched early returns at the Hamilton County Board of Elections. Wright is president of the Equality Cincinnati PAC that succeeded in convincing voters to repeal Article 12 of the city charter in 2004.

Unseating Heimlich means the end of the "Lindner/CCV politics" we've seen in this part of the state, Wright said.

CCV, or Citizens for Community Values, sponsored Article 12 and fought its repeal.

This year's crowd at the board of elections found itself uncharacteristically deprived of heavy Republican representation.

"They're feeling beat up," said Pete Witte, a Republican West Side activist. "They've already got ice bags on their heads."

Last year Witte worked hard on Pepper's failed mayoral campaign against Mark Mallory, a fellow Democrat. Even when Pepper went up against Republican Heimlich, Witte called the county commissioner race a "no-lose situation."

That kind of crossover support had Pepper crowing during his victory speech. He singled out one couple.

"In 2004 they got rid of their Heinz and bought W ketchup," he said. "So that's a great crossover for me."

Before Pepper's win, Commissioner Todd Portune was the only Democrat elected to the Hamilton County Commission since 1964. So on Nov. 7, Portune was understandably happy that his party is no longer outnumbered. Given such a mandate, he said his first order of business would be to "meet and confer."

"It would be very presumptuous of me to start outlining an agenda," Portune said. "That's not collaborative government."

Portune hopes that now the commission can start taking about developing county policies for public transportation, health care, public safety, economic development and job creation.

"This is going to be a working board," he said "That's in stark contrast to Commissioner Heimlich."

Portune called what happened during Heimlich's tenure on county commission "governance by crisis management."

"We never met to discuss policy," Portune said.

He and Pepper said they won't visit Heimlich's maneuvers upon Commissioner Pat DeWine, the lone remaining Republican on the three-person county commission.

"No more two-to-one stuff," Pepper said in his victory speech. "No more leaving people out because we're not from the same party."

Pepper also thanked a number of current officeholders.

"It really made a difference to have so many elected officials in support of me," he said.

His good friend Leslie Ghiz effused.

"It's a good night," she said, and then the Republican city councilwoman rephrased. "It's a bad night for Republicans. But it's a good night for David." ©

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