Dems' hunger hard to stomach

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There is only one carnivore in the natural world we know of that is willing to eat its own kind - the common Democrat.

There must be some anomaly in the typical Democratic genetic code that compels them to swallow each other whole, even when they're not hungry.

Look at the Hamilton County Democratic Party, for example.

You could look at the results of the Nov. 4 election and reasonably conclude that it was a pretty good day for Democrats locally. Roxanne Qualls held on to the Cincinnati mayor's job without breaking a sweat. Five of nine Cincinnati council seats went to Democrats. A Democrat knocked off a Republican judge in the Hamilton County Municipal Court.

In most political organizations, this kind of day would set off rounds of back-slapping, toast-making and general delirium. No lampshade would be safe from becoming the victory chapeau of some giddy Democrat dancing on a desktop.

But not this party.

Instead, on this election night, the local Democrats saw round one in their first official knock-down, drag-out fight of 1998.

Late on election night, after the votes were counted and before the card-counting computers had a chance to cool, the second-place finisher in the Cincinnati council race, Councilman Dwight Tillery, was busy telling anyone with a microphone or note pad that he had new worlds to conquer.

Mr. Tillery, who won his fourth and final council term under term limits, said he just might announce soon that he is a candidate for the 9th Ohio Senate District seat held by Republican Janet Howard of Forest Park.

Democrats in Cincinnati would have found this proclamation interesting but not particularly momentous had they not thought they already had a candidate for the seat in 1998 - State Rep. Mark Mallory, who has spent two years chafing at the bit for a chance to take on Mrs. Howard.

Two Democrats saying they want the same office. That means only one thing - a primary contest, and, in this case, a primary contest between candidates with big names and strong support among African Americans, a core Democratic Party constituency. No sane political party leader wants to deal with this.

That night, when told of Mr. Tillery's semi-announcement, Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke could have ducked the issue and issued some pabulum about how the party has enormous respect for both men, yada, yada.

Instead, Mr. Burke said flatly he is committed to Mr. Mallory, who has been quietly lining up support for quite some time.

This pronouncement - words that Mr. Burke probably now wishes he could pluck out of the air - set off Mr. Tillery, who tends to bleed profusely every time life in politics hands him a paper cut. Mr. Tillery has spent the past two weeks, in public and in private, calling Mr. Burke everything but Mister.

Mr. Tillery has spent the past two years as a card-carrying member of the coalition of two Democrats and three Republicans that has had its way at City Hall. Mallory partisans are busy spreading the notion that this ''fight'' with Mr. Burke might give him political cover to switch to the Republican Party, something Mr. Tillery says will never happen.

Some Democrats might prefer that to the carnage of a Tillery-Mallory primary battle.

Others are wondering why candidates are lining up for the chance to take on Mrs. Howard in the first place. Yes, the district includes most of Cincinnati's east side, where both the Mallory and Tillery strength lies, but it also includes places like Sharonville and Blue Ash. Three years ago, when Mrs. Howard was first elected over Democrat Tyrone Yates, Blue Ash gave Mrs. Howard 3,435 votes. It gave Mr. Yates a whopping 895. And 718 Sharonville voters cast ballots for the Democrat; 3,464 for the Republican.

With numbers like that, the primary could be a lot more interesting than the general election.

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer. His column appears on Sundays.

WILKINSON ARCHIVE