Ohio House Endorsement Debate Sparks Democratic Discord

Nov 15, 2015

Hamilton County Democrats can’t go too long without a good family fight.

They pop up regularly; and, more often than not, they involve whether or not the party should endorse for this office or that.

Well, the time has come again.

This time it is in the 31st Ohio House District, where six Democrats say they intend to run in the March primary for a seat now held by State Rep. Denise Driehaus, who is running for Hamilton County commissioner next year.

Five of the six were unhappy that the county party organization has begun a process that could end up in an endorsement; and they sent a letter to Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke in late October to express their displeasure, telling him that the party organization should butt out and let the Democratic voters of the 31st District decide.  

The one candidate who didn’t sign? That would be Brigid Kelly, a former Norwood council member who is an organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 75.

That would be the Brigid Kelly who would be, as it happens, the odds-on favorite to get the county party’s endorsement – if in fact the party’s executive committee decides to make one next Saturday.

The executive committee could meet and choose not to get involved. 

The other five candidates are Nicholas Hollan, the owner of Valley Dental Management Services and a Cincinnati council candidate in 2009 and 2011; Paul Booth, a former Cincinnati city council member and NAACP president; Brian Garry, a former city council candidate who owns a construction company called Green City EcoStruction; Paul Sohi, a dentist who was an unsuccessful candidate in the 9th Ohio Senate District primary last year; and Ben Lindy, executive director of Teach For America of Southwest Ohio.

And, heaven knows, there could be more between now and the Dec. 16 candidate filing deadline.

Saturday, in the conference room of the Burke's law office downtown, 17 members of the party's state legislative nominating committee, plus co-chairs Bernadette Watson and Micah Kamrass, spent over three hours interviewing two of the candidates - Kelly and Lindy - and arguing about whether or not to recommend an endorsement. Lindy was present; Kelly was out of the state and interviewed via speaker phone.

Lindy told WVXU he decided to participate in the candidate screening, but told the committee that, as a first-time candidate, he would prefer to see an open primary process.

In the end, the committee voted 11-6 (the co-chairs don't vote unless there is a tie) in favor of endorsing. But that was one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to decide to make an endorsement. If they vote had been 12-5, the committee would then have voted on which candidate to endorse and that vote would have only needed a simple majority. 

But, after three hours of rather intense discussion, the nominating committee will have no recommendation for the Hamilton County Democratic Party executive committee, a much larger body that will meet next Saturday. 

"The executive committee can do what it wants,'' Burke said after Saturday's meeting. "It can endorse someone; or it can decide not to."

Burke personally favors an endorsement for Kelly, but he told WVXU Saturday he has not yet decided if he will recommend that to the executive committee next Saturday. 

One thing that both Burke and party executive director Caleb Faux said Saturday was that the nominating committee was extremely displeased that four of the candidates chose not to go through the interview process. 

"Saying they were displeased would be putting it mildly,'' Burke said. 

Hollan said the candidates who did not participate were upset when they found out that 10 members of the state legislative nominating committee  set up to screen the candidates had already endorsed Kelly personally.

“There are concerns about the integrity of the process,’’ Hollan told WVXU on Thursday. “I’ve asked that, at a minimum, those 10 people recuse themselves from a decision on whether or not the party endorses. It’s only fair.”

Burke said he had put out calls to all in the party organization in May and July asking for volunteers for the committee “and these are the people who responded.”

Burke said Kelly has a “strong case to make” for a party endorsement.

“In the last six or seven years, nobody has done more to help other candidates and the party than Brigid Kelly,’’ Burke said.

What that nominating committee did was ask that candidates complete a questionnaire and interview with the committee.

Kelly and Lindy did that Saturday; the other four chose not to participate. 

Kelly says she has no apologies for seeking her party’s endorsement.

“We’ve been working hard to raise money, recruit the volunteers and have put together a good organization,” Kelly said.

To call the endorsement process unfair “is just wrong,’’ she said.

“It’s going to be up to the committee on whether or not to endorse,’’ Kelly said. “I’m really proud of the campaign we have; and I’d be proud to have the party endorsement.”

It’s not like she doesn’t have plenty of endorsements already.

She has four city council members, Mayor John Cranley, former governor Ted Strickland, the union local she works for and several others, several present and former state legislators, and the Cincinnati Women’s Political Caucus. Even Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley has endorsed her.

But a party endorsement – that’s the big prize. Here’s how important an endorsement from the party could be in this district:

It is heavily Democratic – it is made up of Oakley, Hyde Park, Madisonville, Norwood, Evanston, Walnut Hills, Mt. Auburn, Corryville, Clifton, the CUF neighborhoods (Clifton Heights, University Heights and Fairview), part of Northside, part of Hyde Park and all of St. Bernard, Silverton and Amberley Village.

It was created by the Ohio General Assembly essentially to run Driehaus out of the west side when her district in that part of town was turned a deep shade of Republican red by the legislative mapmakers.

What Driehaus did was move into the newly created 31st Ohio House District and declared her candidacy in the 2012 primary. She quickly had Democratic opposition – former state representative Terry Tranter and political newcomer Luke Brockmeier.

The Democrats fussed and fought for a while; and, in the end, decided not to endorse in that contested primary. Driehaus won the primary easily, even without a party endorsement.

But the party has a mixed record on endorsements. In 2014, the Democrats had a dust-up in the 32nd Ohio House District primary; and ended up endorsing Christie Bryant Kuhns over Bentley Davis, causing a few hard feelings – but not enough to prevent the endorsed candidate from easily winning in the Democratic district.

Cincinnati council member Chris Seelbach agrees with the five candidates who believe there should be no endorsement.

“There are times when endorsements make sense, but this isn’t one of them,’’ said Seelbach. “There are some really good candidates in this race; and the party shouldn’t just dismiss them.”

An endorsement from the party for Kelly – or anyone else – “would carry incredible weight,’’ Seelbach said. “This is a Democratic district.”

In the end, though, Kelly has something that is even more valuable than a party endorsement.

She had raised $73,000 through July – an extraordinary amount for a non-incumbent candidate for an Ohio House seat.

In the end, it could well be money and not endorsements that give Kelly the edge over her five opponents.