Sunday, November 21, 1999

Chabot's grip on voters stronger than politics

West-side backers show up at polls

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There are Democrats on Capitol Hill who would sincerely love to see Ohio's First Congressional District dry up and blow away.

        That little corner of southwest Ohio — made up of most of Cincinnati and many of its most populous suburbs — is like carrying around a pebble in a shoe to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Com mittee. An irritation. An annoyance. A place where voters stubbornly refuse to behave the way the pollsters and strategists think they should.

        It is a optical illusion, politically speaking — a district that looks, at a distance, as if it would be a pretty good bet for a well-funded Democratic congressional candidate, but when you hold it up right in front of your nose the reality is apparent. It is a district that has, for the past three congressional elections, chosen a Republican named Steve Chabot.

        Democrats in Washington will look with lust in their hearts at the First Congres sional District in 2000 as they have the past two congressional elections — especially now that they need to pick up only six seats nationwide to win back the House and make Dick Gephardt the new speaker.

        But with Ohio's primary election moved up to March 7 and an early filing deadline, Democrats have only 47 shopping days left to come up with a candidate willing to go into the ring with the champ next fall.

        So far, most of the specula tion has centered around Cincinnati City Councilman Todd Portune, who finished second in this year's council campaign.

        Mr. Portune missed out on the mayor's job this year, and he will probably have to take a seat behind Charlie Luken when direct election of the mayor comes to Cincinnati in 2001.

        Term limits will make this Mr. Portune's last term on council, so he will have to be looking for job opportunities elsewhere.

        Congress is a possibility, but Mr. Portune may decide that running against one of the two Hamilton County commissioners up for re-election next year is a better prospect than getting into a rugby scrum with Mr. Chabot, who usually manages to get out from under the pile with his teeth and bones intact.

        On the surface, the Democratic Congressional Campaign

        Committee has some selling points as it knocks on Mr. Portune's door.

        This is, after all, a district that Bill Clinton won in two presidential elections; that gave Democrats 56 percent of the votes cast in the Cincinnati City Council election earlier this month, compared with 36 percent for Republicans; and that has a base of about 35 percent African-American voters — a loyal Democratic constituency — from which to work.

        Sounds good. Where do you sign up?

        Part of the reason for Mr. Chabot's success is that, in First District elections, his voters show up and the Democrats' don't. In 1998, 65 percent of the voters in Green Township, Chabot Country, voted. In Avondale, where Democrats thrive, the turnout dropped to 45 percent.

        Turnout matters, but the rest is explained by Mr. Chabot himself.

        In the past two elections, 1996 and 1998, the Democrats — along with their friends in the AFL-CIO, which spent well over $1 million trying to take away Mr. Chabot's House voting card — tried to morph him into Newt Gingrich, paint him as the Scrooge who would take away old folks' Social Security and Medicare and make them live in refrigerator boxes, and cast him in the role of right-wing kook as one of the House managers in the impeachment trial of Mr. Clinton.

        It was a campaign straight out of the textbook for Politics 101 — throw a bowl of spaghetti at the wall and maybe some of it will stick.

        Problem is, none of it did.

        Yes, there were voters in the First District — even GOP voters — who thought Mr. Chabot was a little out there on some issues and scratched their heads over why he seemed to think bringing federal dollars into his district was a mortal sin.

        But, in the end, he was still good ol' Steve, the Westwood boy who lived in a trailer until his parents could afford a house, played football at LaSalle, and stood out in front of the Kroger in Western Hills every campaign season passing out his dorky plastic cups.

        In the First District, personality trumps politics every time.

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