Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Deal avoids primary battle

Combs and Jolivette will switch jobs

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FAIRFIELD - Political rivals Greg Jolivette and Michael A. Fox say they won't have any problems working side-by-side as Butler County commissioners after a GOP primary battle was averted. The deal was announced Monday.

"We're not going to agree on everything," said Jolivette, the 54th District Ohio House representative. He will swap jobs next week with Commissioner Courtney Combs. "But I expect him to disagree in a professional manner."

Fox had made enough foes, including in his own party, during his six years as county commissioner that Jolivette had decided to leave Columbus and oppose him in the March 2 primary. However, some Republican leaders worried that an expected hard-hitting fight between two of the county's best-known officeholders would divide the party and undermine fund raising and support for President Bush's re-election battle.

All that ended Monday when Jolivette withdrew from the primary race and announced he was resigning his legislative seat on Friday.

Combs, who is now running unopposed for that seat in November, also will resign his commission seat Friday. He will be appointed to the job next week - and Jolivette will fill the three years remaining on Combs' commission seat.

The deal was brokered by Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett, who came to Butler County a week ago.

"He (Bennett) was the catalyst," said Jolivette, a former Hamilton mayor who replaced Fox as Hamilton's state legislator in 1997. "He made a very good state and national argument for not having a primary fight... He proved to me why he's the state party chairman."

Also as part of the arrangement, Joe Statzer withdrew from the Ohio 54th primary race with Combs. Statzer, a former county party executive director, remains as chief administrator for Prosecutor Robin Piper.

The two primary contests could have cost a combined $700,000 to $1 million, Fox says. He and Jolivette were expecting to spend a minimum of $300,000, while Combs and Statzer were looking at spending at least $150,000, Fox says.

"Avoiding the primary is in the best interest of the people of Butler County," said Joe Schwarz, county party chairman.

Schwarz bristled when a reporter referred to Monday's announcement at county GOP headquarters here as a "backroom deal" that deprived voters from making a decision.

"It's really not a backroom deal. It's being done in accordance with the laws of the state of Ohio," Schwarz said. Technically, the Ohio House speaker will fill Jolivette's vacancy, and commissioners will fill Combs' seat.

Because three years remain on Combs' commission term, Jolivette must face re-election on the November ballot - along with Fox and Commissioner Charles Furmon.

"In terms of voter choice, the voters will have an unprecedented opportunity to vote on the whole commission," Fox said.

Democrat Catherine Stoker, the West Chester Township trustee running against Fox in November, says Republicans wanted to avoid "airing a lot of dirty laundry about Mike Fox" in the primary.

The Jolivette-Combs swap also saves Republican donors a lot of money - while both men remained on public payrolls, she said. "They want to use taxpayers' money instead of having to use up their own money in a primary shoot-out," Stoker said.


E-mail jkiesewetter@enquirer.com

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