Friday, December 10, 1999

Deters to step in as county GOP chairman

Niehoff to return to fund raising

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Joe Deters
        Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters is stepping in to take control of a Hamilton County Republican Party operation fraught with internal dissension and in danger of losing its decades-long grip on county government.

        “There's too much at stake in next year's election,” Mr. Deters, the former Hamilton County prosecutor, said Thursday. “We've got to go in united.”

        He'll replace H.C. Buck Niehoff, a lawyer and party fund-raiser who took over the party reins a year ago. The party's central committee is expected to elect Mr. Deters chairman on Monday, making him the only statewide officeholder in recent memory to run a county party organization.

        In Hamilton County, the county GOP chairman pulls the strings on a well-funded, extensive political machine that, for most of this century, has controlled county government, from judgeships to the county commission and the other county elected offices.

        The county party is still a powerhouse, but many in the party have started seeing cracks and are afraid that next year's election — with state legislative seats up for grabs and two county commission seats in jeopardy — could be the Democrats' best chance in decades to grab some of the political power.

        “It's a real threat,” Mr. Deters said of the possibility of Democratic victories next fall. “We don't like to lose elections.”

        Mr. Niehoff will return to his former role as head of the party's finance committee. U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, a Republican from Terrace Park, will also have a role in leadership, possibly as chairman of the party's executive committee.

        Mr. Niehoff has been struggling to deal with the fallout of a process he set up last summer to weed out a large field of potential candidates for five Ohio House seats that will be open in 2000 and to avoid bloody primary battles.

        The party's screening committee came up with five endorsed candidates for the seats of term-limited legislators. But in three of those districts, candidates who are backed by an alliance of conservative “pro-family,” anti-tax and anti-abortion groups are going to challenge the party-endorsed candidates in the March primary.

        The prospect of hard-fought GOP primary battles in heavily Republican districts came on the heels of a Cincinnati City Council election in which the Republicans failed to gain any seats, much less the majority they were shooting for. They also botched an attempt to get Democratic Councilman Paul Booth thrown off the ballot on a residency challenge.

        Now, the party faces not only a battle for Ohio House seats in March, but the possibility of losing control of the Hamilton County commission next fall.

        Both GOP incumbents, Bob Bedinghaus and John Dowlin, are likely to face strong Democratic opposition, possibly from county Auditor Dusty Rhodes and State Rep. Jerry Luebbers, two conservative Democrats. Marilyn Hyland, who lost to Republican Tom Neyer Jr. in 1998, is a de clared Democratic candidate.

        There also is pressure on local Republican officials to deliver a big vote in next fall's election for the GOP presidential nominee.

        Mr. Niehoff said Thursday the decision to leave as party chairman was his and that he contacted Mr. Deters, Mr. Portman and Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, who was chairman of the party before Mr. Niehoff.

        “We talked about it and we felt that with important races coming up that will define the future of this county, the county commission races at stake and the presidential contest, we needed to have the best people doing what they do best,” Mr. Niehoff said.

        “In my case, that is raising money.”

        The departure of Mr. Niehoff as party chairman will not make the looming problem of contested state legislative races go away.

        The party has endorsed former Assistant County Prosecutor Steve Adams in the 37th Ohio House District, Madeira Mayor Michelle Glass Schneider in the 36th Ohio House District and Tawana Keels Simons in the 32nd Ohio House District.

        Three candidates endorsed by the Pro-Family Alliance say they will challenge the party candidates in the primary — Tom Brinkman Jr. in the 37th District, Charles Tassell in the 36th and Jim Raussen in the 32nd.

        “All we wanted was a free, open process of endorsement, and we didn't get that,” said lawyer Christopher Finney, a longtime party activist who is running the Pro-Family Alliance candidates' campaigns. “They may beat us in the primary, but they will permanently scar the party in the process.”

        Mr. Deters, who recently moved his family from Hamilton County to Butler County to have a shorter commute to his Columbus job, said he will live with his parents in Cincinnati until he can move the family back to Hamilton County.

        “I want to make it clear that I will not let this interfere with my job as state treasurer at all,” Mr. Deters said.

        State legislators, he pointed out, have run county party organizations for decades. State Sen. Mark Mallory of Cincinnati is co-chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.


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