Could 2018 Be The Year When Democrats Elect A Third Hamilton County Commissioner?

Dec 3, 2017

It's not quite time to break out the noisemakers and drop the balloons in celebration, but Hamilton County Democrats could do something in 2018 that hasn't been done in the lifetime of anyone reading this column.

They could end up holding all three seats on the Hamilton County Board of County commissioners.

Todd Portune's not going away anytime soon; Denise Driehaus just arrived earlier this year; and neither of them are up for re-election until 2020.

Mt. Healthy Mayor James Wolf
Credit Provided

So, if Mt. Healthy Mayor James Wolf, who formally kicked off his campaign for county commissioner last week, ends up being successful and knocks off two-term commissioner Chris Monzel, the sole surviving Republican on the board, that would be a clean sweep.

It would be a pretty astounding occurrence. We have been around here a long time – since 1982, and, for most of those years, the Hamilton County Republican Party has had a vise-grip on county government.

Lose that last county commission seat and they barely have a toe-hold.

But Wolf, who teaches government and psychology at Mt. Health High School, says becoming the third Democrat on the three-member board would be great, but that's not why he is in it.

"I'm not doing this to make history,'' the 38-year-old Wolf said. "I'm doing it to bring experience to the table that the other commissioners don't have."

Portune, he said, has the perspective of having served on Cincinnati City Council, the governing body of the biggest political subdivision in the county. Driehaus, Wolf said, has the experience of understanding how state government works, having served as a state representative before she was term-limited out.

"I've got the perspective of knowing the needs of the smaller, suburban cities in the county,'' said Wolf.

He's in his second year as mayor of Mt. Healthy and served on the city council there for 10 years before that. His grandfather, a Republican, was mayor or Mt. Healthy, as was his father, a Democrat.

There hasn't been anyone who served as an elected official in a suburban community since the late John Dowlin, a Republican, was county commissioner in the 1990s. Dowlin had been mayor of Sharonville for many years before becoming a county commissioner.

The filing deadline for candidates for next May's primary election is Feb. 7.

Wolf is convinced that he is going to have a clear path in the primary election. Other Democrats have thought about running, but they have all seemed to drop by the wayside – at least for now.

Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said he knows of no other potential candidates out there and certainly none that are as organized as Wolf. Wolf already has paid campaign staff, including Kevin Tighe, who says he will act as a strategic adviser for Wolf. Tighe is coming off of two big wins – he played an integral role in the election of Driehaus as commissioner and worked for Tamaya Dennard, a first-time candidate who was elected earlier this month to a seat on Cincinnati City Council.

Burke said Cincinnati deputy city solicitor Luke Blocher who ran now-mayor John Cranley's congressional campaign in 2006, had been considering a run for county commissioner, but has told party leaders he's decided against it.

So, if no other candidate comes out of the woodwork, Wolf will have a "no contest" primary and face Monzel next fall.

In 2014, Monzel, a former Cincinnati councilman who now lives in Glendale, got what was nearly a free pass for another term. His Democratic opponent turned out to be a totally unknown computer consultant from North College Hill named Sean Patrick Feeney. And then former Cincinnati council member Jim Tarbell jumped in as a write-in candidate.

Monzel was re-elected with 57 percent of the vote.

Monzel has a full-time job outside of his commission duties – he's an engineer at GE Aviation and has been for 21 years.

Wolf said that if he is elected, he will quit his teaching job "and be a full-time county commissioner. Chris Monzel is not."

Monzel said that's not an issue. Yes, he said, he works a lot of long days between his county commission office and GE, but he thinks it is a help and not a hindrance to being a county commissioner.

Monzel said the late Gene Ruehlmann, a former Cincinnati mayor who was the county Republican Party chairman when Monzel began his political career in 1999 gave him two pieces of advice.

"Gene said don't ever quit your day job, because then you start making decisions more about getting re-elected than what is right for the community,'' Monzel said. "And he said to never take out a second mortgage on your house to run for re-election."

Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel
Credit Sarah Ramsey / WVXU

Monzel said that while he has prior political experience in Cincinnati City Hall, his experience is broader than that – he grew up in Loveland and he and his family now live in Glendale. When he was on city council, his family lived in what is now Spring Grove Village.

"I think I bring a lot of different perspectives to the job,'' Monzel said. "I have my real world experience at GE. I grew up in the suburbs and I've lived in the city."

This year, he has been dealing with being from the minority party on the county commission for the first time. It's not the first time he's been in the minority party – Democrats dominated Cincinnati City Council when he was there.

"I look for common ground with Todd and Denise whenever I can,'' Monzel said. "I think I play a role as a person trying to bring a different view to issues. The view of a fiscal conservative."

The Hamilton County GOP establishment will, no doubt, make certain that Monzel has plenty of money to run for re-election.

Wolf has been out raising money for months now; and, although he expects to be outspent by his opponent, it's not the only factor in the race.

"Money is going to be a big issue, I know that,'' Wolf said. "But, more than that, I just have to get out and talk to people."

He thinks he can pick up votes from people who voted for Donald Trump for president last year. Trump lost Hamilton County to Hillary Clinton while he was winning Ohio's electoral votes.

"I see a lot of anger out there, particularly in some of the smaller towns in the county,'' Wolf said. "We feel like we have been left behind. We haven't seen the growth that you are seeing in Cincinnati, particularly downtown.

"I think that as the mayor of one of those towns, I am the candidate who can tap into that."