Underdogs Get Some Respect

But incumbents keep their Hamilton County Commission seats

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The endorsed candidates of the two major political parties for the Hamilton County Commission won election Tuesday night, but the unendorsed challengers could also claim victories of a sort.

Democratic incumbent Todd Portune and Republican Greg Hartmann — endorsed candidates who received money and volunteer help from their respective parties — easily won in their separate commission races.

Still, Ed Rothenberg, an unendorsed Republican who challenged Portune, and Chris Dole, an unendorsed Democrat who vied against Hartmann, each nabbed more than one-third of the votes cast in the races.

Their strong showing despite long odds, local political observers say, is a repudiation of the backroom deal cut by Portune and Hartmann with party leaders in an effort to eliminate competition from the two races.

Portune won a third commission term, receiving 63.5 percent to Rothenberg’s 36.5 percent. That’s a sizeable dent for Rothenberg, who didn’t seek contributions and barely campaigned. Portune, meanwhile, raised tens of thousands of dollars and erected splashy billboards along local highways.

In the other commission race, Hartmann received 64.9 percent to Dole’s 35.1 percent.

Hartmann, currently Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, dipped into his campaign war chest for that office to pay for a series of TV commercials, while Dole raised about $18,000, mostly from his labor union colleagues, and relied on appearances at parades and community forums to get his message to voters.

The results underscore the public backlash against the Portune/Hartmann deal.

Under the deal, the local Democratic Party promised not to recruit or endorse any candidate against Hartmann. In return, the local GOP wouldn’t recruit or endorse any candidate who challenged Portune. Additionally, the parties wouldn’t commit any money or volunteer help to challengers who bucked the arrangement.

After Portune spent his first six years on the county board in the minority and largely ignored, one of his initial acts after Democrats took control in 2006 was voting to increase the sales tax to build a new jail sought by Sheriff Simon Leis Jr., a Republican.

A diverse array of groups such as the Cincinnati NAACP and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes quickly gathered enough signatures to force a voter referendum on the tax hike, however, and the measure was soundly defeated at the polls in fall 2007. Worried about the political fallout, Portune began hatching a behind-the-scenes deal, relying on millionaire litigator Stan Chesley as the negotiator. The pact was accepted by Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke and then-GOP Chair George Vincent.

If the fates had been kinder to Hartmann in the past, he would have been in charge of Ohio’s elections on Tuesday night. He ran against Democrat Jennifer Brunner for Ohio Secretary of State in 2006 but lost.

Hartmann’s campaign Web site for the county commission race states, “Greg will be announcing his plan for Hamilton County during the months ahead. In the meantime, please check this Web site frequently and sign up to receive e-mail updates on his campaign!”

Alas, no such plan was ever unveiled before the election.

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