Monday, July 5, 2004

For Democrats, slate's half-empty

Hamilton Co. voters have no choice in key races

By Cindi Andrews
Enquirer staff writer

The idea of having an election is to give voters a choice, but that's not how it will work in more than half of Hamilton County's local races this fall.

Democrats fielded no candidates for 14 county and statehouse seats, including prosecutor, sheriff, and all 10 judgeships on the ballot.

"It has become increasingly difficult to get attorneys to give up significant portions of their time - which means giving up fee-paying clients - for a race they're probably not going to win," Hamilton County Democratic Co-Chairman Tim Burke said of the struggle to find candidates for judge.

With the exception of Cincinnati City Hall, Republicans have long dominated local politics, including countywide offices, the courthouse and legislative seats. The growth of the suburbs, where Republicans are most influential, and the decline of the center city, is likely to continue the GOP's dominance. Republicans also dominate in Butler, Clermont and Warren counties.

While Democrats struggle to find candidates in Hamilton County, Republicans failed to contest only one race: the Ohio House seat held by Democrat Catherine Barrett of Cincinnati.

The Democrats have had the most problems finding judicial candidates, which are technically nonpartisan, although the parties endorse and support candidates. Nearly all Hamilton County judgeships are held by Republican-endorsed candidates.

It's hard to raise money for the judicial races, which are largely ignored by voters, said state Sen. Mark Mallory, the Democratic Party co-chairman.

But the Democrats are increasingly conceding non-judicial county offices, too. The party has not run any candidates for prosecutor, sheriff and engineer since 1992. The Democratic candidate for clerk of courts this year dropped out, and the party has until Aug. 18 to replace him.

"I always think competition is good," said Bruce Taylor, vice chairman of the county Republican Party.

Still, the lack of a campaign frees Prosecutor Mike Allen to run President Bush's re-election campaign in Southwest Ohio instead of talking about the cases his office has tried. It also could give Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann a free pass to keep the job he was appointed to in early 2003.

The upside for the county, Taylor said: "It gives them more time to concentrate on their jobs."

Democratic leaders are putting a positive spin on their short slate, saying it allows them to focus their time and money on the presidential race and on a few local candidates who they believe have a good shot of getting elected.

"We're frankly very pleased," Burke said. "I don't count our current slate as having any sacrificial lambs in it. I think we're going to have a net gain both at (the county administration building at) Court and Main, and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Their first priority locally is Commissioner Todd Portune, who is up for re-election for the first time since defeating incumbent Bob Bedinghaus in 2000 amid controversy over the county's construction of Paul Brown Stadium.

Portune was the first Democrat elected commissioner in more than three decades. He remains one of only two county elected leaders who are Democrats; the other is Auditor Dusty Rhodes.

Portune will be challenged by retired Juvenile Court Judge David Grossmann, who won a five-way primary in March to challenge Portune in November.

Democrats are also running real estate attorney Steve Brinker for recorder against incumbent Rebecca Prem Groppe and pitting former Recorder Eve Bolton against Cincinnati Councilman Pat DeWine for the second commissioner's seat.

The Democrats' best hope for a gain may be in the coroner's office. Well-known fertility expert O'Dell Owens is taking on incumbent Carl Parrott in a race that's likely to dwell on photos of posed bodies taken at the county morgue in 2000.

"Candidate recruitment is sometimes easier when there are very clear issues in a campaign that could give us an advantage," Mallory said, citing the coroner's race.

Party leaders also hope to capitalize on interest in presidential politics to recruit campaign help for local races. Two meetings for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry volunteers each drew about 300 people, Mallory said.

Both the Kerry campaign and Howard Dean's failed candidacy have generated excitement that the county party would like to capture and build on long-term, said Steve Huffman, a Norwood Democrat who ran for party chairman this spring.

"I think we'll see some of the folks who are involved in the Kerry camp get involved in the mayoral race next year," he said.



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