Something is likely to happen in this year’s November election in Hamilton County that is pretty much unheard of.
The most competitive race in the county might be the race for the open seat of Hamilton County Probate Court judge.
There are others that might generate some fairly fierce competition, but there is nothing quite like the probate court race.
And it is all because the two combatants carry two of the most potent political last names in Hamilton County – former congressman and Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken for the Democrats and Common Pleas Court Judge Ralph Winkler for the Republicans.
This is a race that is going to attract a lot of attention and a lot of money.
What makes it so unusual is that races for probate court judge are usually sleepy affairs, dwelling at the bottom of the ballot and attracting little or no attention.
In fact, the Republican incumbent, James Cissell, who can’t run for re-election because of Ohio’s age limit law for judges, was elected to the probate court judgeship in 2008 and 2002 with no opposition whatsoever. One name on the ballot – Cissell – and one name only.
And what, you might ask, does a probate court judge do?
The probate court has a myriad of responsibilities – dealing with estates, mental health competency cases, adoptions, name changes and more. The judge can order people into treatment programs for mental health and drug and alcohol problems. The judge can issue marriage licenses and actually perform the weddings. And much more.
And, this year, the two candidates come from families where politics and running for office has been the family business for decades.
Winkler, 52, has been on the court bench for 15 years – first as a municipal court judge and, since January 2005, on the common pleas bench. Before that, he spent 12 years as an assistant county prosecutor.
His father, also Ralph Winkler, served many years as a judge, retiring as a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals.
His wife, Tracy Winkler, is the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts; and his brother, Robert Winkler, is also a common pleas court judge.
The candidate’s late mother, Cheryl Winkler, was a Green Township trustee and state representative.
“Winkler” has been a powerful draw for Republican voters for decades now, particularly in the GOP strongholds of Hamilton County’s western suburban townships.
The name “Luken” hasn’t done badly in those parts either over the decades.
Charlie Luken was elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1981; and, two years later, became mayor back when that office was a largely ceremonial position. He held it through 1990, the year he was elected to Congress in the 1st Congressional District, when he ran against Republican Ken Blackwell.
Luken served only one term in Congress before deciding not to run for re-election. He returned to Cincinnati and spent six years as the anchor for WLWT (channel 5) news, a move that just enhanced his name recognition.
He went back to council in 1999 and served as mayor under the old “top vote-getter” method of electing a mayor.
In 2001, Cincinnati went to a system where the mayor was directly elected and given more power. Luken ran and won that race, defeating another WLWT news anchor, Courtis Fuller.
Four years later, he decided not to run for mayor again; and went to work for a major Cleveland-based law firm, Calfee, Halter & Griswold, which has an office in Cincinnati.
But the Luken family’s involvement in politics pre-dates Charlie Luken’s career by a long shot.
His uncle, the late Jim Luken, served on city council in the 1960s and 1970s. His father, Tom Luken, served on council and as mayor; and held the 1st Congressional District seat until his son replaced him in 1990.
Charlie Luken, 62, told WVXU he decided to run for the probate court judgeship “because it has a fascinating jurisdiction and it seemed to suit my skill set.”
“I was looking for an opportunity, but I wasn’t interested in the more serious politics of city hall or the county commission,’’ Luken said. “I think I can do a good job at this. It’s not so much in the public spotlight, although this race might raise its profile a bit. For me, it seems like a nice way to end my career in public service.”
Winkler said he believes his qualifications for the job are far greater than those of Luken.
“People tend to blow sunshine at you when they talk to you about this race, but I know it will be a tough race,’’ Winkler said. “I’m ready for that.”
As a municipal and common pleas judge, Winkler said he has handled about 33,000 cases, “everything from speeding tickets to the death penalty.”
Winkler said he has an advantage in that Luken does not have - the job “judge” on his resume.
Luken sloughs off that argument, saying that the last two probate court judges, Cissell and Wayne Wilke, were elected to the probate court without prior experience as a judge.
Some people, Luken said, “seem to think the only way you can do this job is to have lived your life in a courtroom. I’ve had a variety of experiences in my life that have prepared me for this.”
Winkler pointed out that both Wilke and Cissell had much of their private practice as lawyers in the probate court. Luken said he practiced law in probate court, too, “many years ago.”
“I am going to run a positive campaign, but there may be a few comparisons made,’’ Winkler said.
One of them is that Winkler says that while he was serving on the bench in recent years, Luken was a lobbyist. Luken is unapologetic about his time as a lobbyist.
“I was able to do at least two things for this county,’’ Luken said. “I helped reduce electric rates through competition and I helped get the casino to Cincinnati.”
There are no party designations on the ballot in judicial races in general elections. But, given the fact that these two carry political names familiar to voters for decades, most voters should not have much trouble figuring out which candidate is the Democrat and which is the Republican. That’s not always the case in a judicial election.
Neither Winkler nor Luken will say how much they plan to spend on this race, but both will certainly raise and spend money well into six figures.
A hard-fought, competitive and expensive race for a probate court judgeship.
We never thought we would live to see the day.