By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
On the table beside Todd Portune's hospital bed sits a white binder that holds his re-election campaign strategy.
He waves it at a visitor after fielding a call about problems with child-support payments at the Department of Job and Family Services.
His aide hovers in the background, waiting to update him on other county issues.
On the phone is Carrie Davis, state coordinator for the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. She's managed to catch Portune after "therapy and recreation," his fourth therapy session of the day.
"People generally know we're open for business here, so I get calls," he says.
It's another day at the "office'' for Portune, a Hamilton County commissioner who has been hospitalized on and off for five months as he battles an illness in which tumors grow on his spine and affect his ability to walk. He hopes to be released this week from Drake Hospital. The 44-year-old will leave in a wheelchair, but he doesn't plan to stay in one.
The average voter would hardly know Portune has been dealing with a serious illness. He has weighed in on homeland security and the city's plan to change the Port of Greater Cincinnati Authority. He attended the dedication of Great American Ball Park. He is suing the Bengals and the National Football League.
Portune talks to his aides, Karen Ball and Dave Schaff, several times a day, and they tell him what's going on in the office and get their marching orders. They bring him piles of paperwork several times a week, and he jots brainstorms and memos in a wirebound composition notebook.
He regularly talks to county officials, too. He called Administrator David Krings the evening after his first surgery Jan. 14, an eight-hour operation at University Hospital in which neurosurgeon John Tew removed a tumor from Portune's spine.
"I was sitting at home worrying about him, and the phone rang, and it was him," Krings says. "He called for a lot of reasons, one of which was to have me not worry. My chin bounced off the desk."
"Do you want to sit?" physical therapist Heather Ford asks Portune after he takes about six steps while holding onto parallel bars.
"No." He takes two more steps.
"OK, sit and rest now," Ford says.
"Are you sure?" Portune asks.
"Yes, I can tell you're getting tired."
After a break, he walks the 15-foot length of the bars. He took his first steps only the day before.
The spinal tumors were first discovered in 1996, while Portune was on Cincinnati City Council. Doctors partially treated them with radiation and surgery and decided to monitor the rest. The tumors are benign and slow-growing, but as they grow they can put pressure on the nerves leading to the legs, and that's what happened in late 2002.
Political career: Cincinnati City Councilman from 1993 to 2000, when he was elected Hamilton County commissioner. He will be up for re-election in 2004.
Education: Graduated from Colerain High School, Oberlin College and UC School of Law. He is in the Hall of Fame at Oberlin, where he participated in track, cross-country and football.
After the surgery in January, Portune spent a couple of weeks at Drake Hospital. He continued outpatient therapy after leaving Feb. 7. Portune had progressed from a wheelchair to a walker in late March when doctors decided that tumors lower on his spine needed to be removed, too.
After a second surgery in early April, serious complications developed in the form of blood clots in his legs. He had to undergo a third surgery about three weeks later.
"I not only lost everything that I gained after the January surgery, but I took a step back," Portune says.
In spite of everything, he says, he has never felt like giving up.
"I'm an optimistic person, and somewhat driven," he says. "But you do have times when you have to confront the fact that it's difficult."
His recovery is a team effort, he says, crediting his doctors, nurses, therapists and his family.
"I clearly have married above my station," he says of wife Angie, who runs her own court-reporting business as well as caring for the couple's three children, 7-year-old twins Ethan and Ellyse, and 3-year-old Emma.
The kids visit at least every other day and have left their handiwork on the bulletin board in Portune's pale yellow room at Drake.
"Ethan and dad on a patasaurus," one picture says, while Ellyse's offering portrays dad as a mustached mouse from "auter space."
Portune hasn't been alone much, either at University or Drake. Jerry Springer has dropped by, as have several Cincinnati City Council members, fellow Commissioner John Dowlin and others. County Auditor Dusty Rhodes, a fellow Democrat who has clashed with Portune frequently, sneaked into intensive care to visit him at University.
"I said, 'Get back here, I've got nobody left to argue with,'" Rhodes says.
If you don't call him, Portune might call you. He paged an Enquirer reporter the day after his third surgery to give his thoughts on a TV news story. He reads and watches all the news he can, but is frustrated that he can't tune into commissioners meetings on his hospital television.
Dowlin looks forward to Portune's return.
"It has become much more boring," he says. "He definitely has a point of view. Sometimes I agree with it; most times I don't. ... And we're missing out on it."
Not for much longer.
Portune expects to get out of the hospital Friday and return to commission meetings next week.
His goal at Drake is to become "wheelchair-independent," which means he can get around in a wheelchair by himself.
He is not giving up on walking, he's just taking it more slowly this time. Portune's neurological level is better now than after the January surgery, but his legs are weaker because of the cumulative effect of the past five months, says Dr. Austin Nobunaga, Drake's director of spinal cord injury rehabilitation.
Portune admits he is in constant pain, but he doesn't expect that to last. He also hopes he won't be making any return visits to the operating room.
He sees his illness as a metaphor for the county: "None of us have any control over the challenges we are given. What's important is how you respond to those challenges."
And then there's that white election binder that's next to hospital bed. Because the primary is early next year, the commissioners' race will get under way soon. Portune, the first Democrat elected since 1964, is raring to start his re-election campaign.
"Todd is our candidate for county commission next time," Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke says. "The party's going to be behind him, and I'm convinced Todd is going to conduct an extremely energetic campaign, whether it's on foot or in a wheelchair."
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