In 2016: Driehaus vs. Hartmann, Hendon vs. Portune....Could Well Be

Jul 5, 2015

  Most people assume that next year is the year when the presidential campaign and the U.S. Senate race suck all of the air out of the room in Ohio.

You won’t hear about anything else, especially in Hamilton County, which will end up being one of the most sought-after prizes in the Buckeye State by the presidential campaigns, and by both U.S. Senate candidates.

But they won’t suck quite all of the air out of the room in Hamilton County.

Two of the three incumbent county commissioners – Republican Greg Hartmann and Democrat Todd Portune – are up for re-election next year, as are a raft of other county offices – prosecutor, coroner, sheriff, among others.

There are going to be some loud, expensive and raucous county races here that will somehow break through the wall of noise that a presidential election year produces.

Let’s start with Hartmann.

Last Tuesday night, the Republican commissioner – the current president of the  county commissioners – held a big-dollar fundraiser at the Queen City Club where most of the local GOP money-bags showed up.

Alex Triantafilou, the Hamilton County Republican Party chairman, is, in local politics, the undisputed King of Social Media. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Triantafilou was flooding Twitter and Facebook with photos from the Hartmann fundraiser, calling it “record-setting” and saying the GOP commissioner raked in over $250,000.

One-quarter of a million dollars for a county commission race in one night? Yes, that is large. Gargantuan, even.

Some thought Hartmann might have some trouble raising money in some GOP quarters after joining with fellow Republican commissioner Chris Monzel last year in voting not to include Music Hall with the Museum Center at Union Terminal in the “icon tax” passed by voters last fall. Democrats were furious with Hartmann, and so were some big-money Republican donors who wanted to see the icon tax fund restoration of Music Hall.

But Hartmann held firm – making the fiscal conservatives of the anti-tax, anti-government spending organization COAST very happy.

And, so far at least, it doesn’t seem to have hurt his fundraising a bit.

Money is a sweet thing to have in politics. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court says money equals speech and can’t be limited (apparently, then, no money then means no speech).

But money does not always buy happiness in politics.

Hartmann is going to have a Democratic opponent; and not a pushover who is just going to take a place on the ballot and draw votes from his or her immediate family and friends.

State Rep. Denise Driehaus is likely to be the Democratic candidate for Hartmann’s seat.

Driehaus is a member of a family that has been something of a political dynasty on the West Side of Cincinnati for a long time. She served in the Ohio House for two terms in a West Side district until the Republicans in the legislature re-drew her district and made it almost impossible for a Democrat to get elected.

So she moved first to Clifton Heights and then to Clifton to run in the new 31st Ohio House District, which is solidly Democratic.

A few months ago, Driehaus appeared at a Hamilton County Democratic Executive Committee meeting and said she was interested in running for county commissioner but wouldn’t make up her mind until the state’s biennial budget was finished.

Well, it’s finished now. Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed it into law last week.

“I was serious about waiting until the budget work was done before I considered this seriously,’’ Driehaus told WVXU. “Now I’m considering my options. I expect to make a decision in a week or two.”

Driehaus might not raise as much money as Hartmann, but Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said it doesn’t matter.

“We don’t need as much money to win as they do, especially in a presidential year,’’ said Burke, who is enthusiastically touting a Driehaus candidacy.

Back in 2012, Burke said, Democrat Jim Neil spent far less money than the Republican candidate for sheriff, Sean Donovan, the chief deputy who was hand-picked by his old boss, Si Leis, who retired that year. And Neil won. Rather easily, in fact.

If Driehaus were to be elected, she would join Portune and the Democrats would have a majority on the county commission again – something they lost in 2010 when David Pepper decided to run for state auditor and lost.

Portune will be running for a fifth term next year; he’s been on the county commission since 2000, when he up-ended Republican incumbent Bob Bedinghaus.

Portune appears to be entrenched, but he may have some serious opposition. Republican Sylvia Hendon, a long-time judge, can’t run for re-election to the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals because she’s 71 and Ohio law has an age limit for judicial candidates.

Hendon is clearly interested, but hasn’t yet committed to the race. But Andrew Pappas, the Anderson Township trustee, has also expressed interest in running for county commissioner.

Pappas would be unlikely, though, to challenge Hendon in a GOP primary. There’s also a possibility that Hendon could choose to run against Democrat Wayne Coates, the county recorder; and if she does that would probably clear the path for Pappas.

Whatever happens, both Triantafilou and Burke told WVXU that there would be no deals between the parties to give each other’s candidates for county offices a free ride.

That has happened in the past; and is probably never going to happen again.

The demographics of the county are changing constantly in the favor of Democrats. More and more of the old GOP base in Hamilton County has moved out to places like Butler and Warren counties – or retired to warmer climes.

That is why from now on in Hamilton County, you can expect full-fledged warfare between the parties for nearly every county office.

Buckle your seat belts, Hamilton County – with a presidential race, a U.S. Senate race and county battles, 2016 could be a turbulent ride.