True Believers

Charlie Winburn and Cecil Thomas perform political acrobatics in their fight for state Senate

click to enlarge Cecil Thomas, left, and Charlie Winburn are vying for a largely Democratic district encompassing Cincinnati.
Cecil Thomas, left, and Charlie Winburn are vying for a largely Democratic district encompassing Cincinnati.

T

hough this year’s election season is marked by some pretty uninspiring races, there’s at least one intriguing undecided contest. 

The race between Cecil Thomas and Charlie Winburn for the Ohio state Senate’s Ninth District hinges on unpredictable questions: Can Thomas overcome his support for a controversial judge embroiled in a legal battle and an unpopular city law he ushered in eight years ago? Can Winburn, a conservative opponent of gay marriage and abortion, win the hearts of the district’s voters by shuffling a bit more toward the center?

The two longtime Cincinnati politicians have some commonalities. Both come from hardscrabble, self-made backgrounds and are deeply religious. Both are hustling to convince the more than 330,000 voters in the district, which includes most of Cincinnati and breaks 70 percent Democratic, that they’re the right fit to represent the area in the state Senate. And they’re both doing their own political acrobatics to make their case.

Thomas and his family came to Cincinnati when he was 8, fleeing the South and the Ku Klux Klan. He says his life path has taught him to lead.

“Who would have ever thought that a young man born in the Appalachian Mountains in Alabama would be standing here today … as I pursue the Senate,” he said during an Oct. 8 debate with Winburn.

Thomas started his working life as a janitor before enrolling in criminal justice courses at University of Cincinnati and making his way into the Cincinnati Police Department in 1970s. There, he shattered racial barriers and took on discrimination within the department, eventually becoming a detective.

He shifted gears in the new millennium, becoming director of the Cincinnati Human Rights Commission in 2000, charged with helping mend tensions between police and citizens in the city. Then the 2001 police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine sparked civil unrest. Director Thomas was on the front lines, leading outreach efforts and helping calm the violence in OTR. He ran for council in 2005 and was elected, serving four terms.

Winburn, 63, has his own long history in the city. He first served on council in 1993 and served until 2000. He had a failed run for mayor in 2005, was elected to council again in 2009 and has held the seat ever since, getting nominated chair of the Finance and Budget Committee last year. Winburn has also been pastor of Renew Community Church in College Hill for more than 25 years. The church at one time gained notoriety for performing exorcisms but has since moved more toward the mainstream, patterning itself after the ultra-popular Crossroads mega church in Oakley.

Winburn can be a verbose, but genial, presence on Cincinnati City Council. His politics are generally what you would expect from a Republican — he has opposed expanding rights for same sex couples, has in the past garnered endorsements from pro-life groups for his staunch stances against abortion and has generally trod the path of a fiscal conservative, opposing Cincinnati’s streetcar. But, lately, he’s eased up on some of those issues, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to the Ninth District’s voters.

Winburn recently lost an endorsement from Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati because he said that as a lawmaker he would not necessarily act on his pro-life convictions in the state House. Winburn lost his mother at age 10 when she died during an abortion, and he continues to be pro-life. But he says he would be very careful about voting for restrictions on abortion.

“In the ’90s, I was pretty much this radical, right-wing guy, trying to be a good Republican,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t really believe all this stuff.’ ”

Thomas, too, is trying to distance himself from past anti-abortion beliefs. He says that since he’s not a woman, he wouldn’t try to legislate his own pro-life beliefs on women.

Thomas has also become a supporter of of same-sex marriage rights, a place where Winburn will not follow.

“I support gay marriage,” Thomas said during the debate. “I’ve evolved.”

Thomas says he would vote for legislation to repeal Ohio’s same-sex marriage ban, though in the past he has said he believes marriage is between a man and a woman. Winburn remains steadfastly against same-sex marriage and has voted against LBGT-friendly policies put before City Council, including the city’s domestic partner registry.

Thomas has his own vulnerabilities when it comes to winning Democratic voters. The former councilman sponsored a controversial 2006 city ordinance increasing penalties for marijuana possession. Ohio law considers possession of less than 110 grams of marijuana a minor misdemeanor. Convictions for the offense result in a ticket, no jail time and aren’t noted on a person’s permanent record. But the 2006 law changed that in Cincinnati, making possession a fourth-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail. That conviction stays on a person’s permanent record. A second offense netted offenders a six-month prison term, and the conviction couldn’t be expunged from a person’s record.

Council, including Thomas, voted to repeal the ordinance in 2011. But some of those with convictions under the law still feel its repercussions as their criminal records create barriers to employment.

That has created a window for Winburn to hit Thomas on an issue important to the district’s black and progressive voters. Data suggests that about 85 percent of those convicted under the ordinance were black. Winburn has sponsored an ordinance in City Council that would make it easy for the approximately 10,000 people convicted under the repealed law to get their records expunged, clearing the way for some to gain access to job opportunities that may not currently be available. Winburn calls himself “the most unlikely person” to bring such an ordinance, but says, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Besides the marijuana law, Thomas may also struggle because of his support of Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter. Hunter recently faced trial for nine felony charges, including misusing a court credit card, forging documents, and improperly intervening on behalf of her brother, a county employee who allegedly hit a juvenile inmate.

A jury found her guilty of the last charge Oct. 10 but could not agree on the rest. Supporters like Thomas say she’s a victim of politics, but Republicans have criticized Thomas for standing behind Hunter.

Thomas has pushed aside these criticisms and tried to focus on bread and butter Democratic proposals. He says he’ll be a fighter for perennially progressive issues like raising the minimum wage, defending voting rights, marriage equality and stopping cuts to education.

“The policies coming out of the state Senate are terrible — they’re detrimental to the middle class and the working poor,” Thomas said during the closing minutes of the debate. “My problem, Mr. Winburn, is that by sending you to the Senate, you’re going to carry the same attitudes to the Senate.”

Winburn, on the other hand, is trying to use his party affiliation as an asset, not a liability. He says he’s got the clout with the GOP to get things done and to bring benefits to Cincinnati. He says he’ll have access Thomas will not.

“The state House is run by Republicans, whether you like it or not,” Winbun said during the debate. “That’s a fact. And nothing gets done up there without the approval of Republicans. Mr. Thomas is a Democrat. Even if he gets elected, he’s going to be shut out of the room.”

If he’s elected, Winburn will be the only black Republican senator in the Ohio state house.

The winner of the Nov. 4 election will replace Democrat State Senator Eric Kearney, who is leaving office due to term limits. ©

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