With Tim Burke Retiring, Who Will Lead Hamilton County Democratic Party?

May 23, 2018

For those who follow Cincinnati politics, from either side of the aisle, it is really rather hard to imagine: Very soon, Tim Burke will no longer carry the title of chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

Burke has been in that job for 24 years, and I'm old enough to remember when he was one of the "Young Turks" trying to oust the gruff, crusty Democratic party chairman, the late John "Socko" Wiethe, who is a legendary figure in Cincinnati politics.

Burke, who just recently turned 70, goes back even further than that. He was part of the young Democrats at Xavier University in the late 1960s who formed a posse around a young newcomer named Jerry Springer and got him elected to city council.

But Burke has had enough of what is, without question, the most thankless job in politics – trying to keep the peace and elect candidates in a political party where the favorite sport appears to be infighting among the various factions.

And, oh yes, did we mention that it is a job that pays nothing? Not a nickel.

Yes, he has been on the board of elections for some time and that job pays, but not enough to allow him to give up an active law practice. In fact, he is looking forward to being able to spend more time with that practice.

So, you ask, who is next to lead the Hamilton County Democratic Party?

Here are the four names to watch:

  • Former congressman Steve Driehaus, who returned last year from serving in Peace Corps jobs, running anti-HIV programs in African nations
  • Gwen McFarlin, the long-time Springfield Township trustee
  • Former state representative Connie Pillich, who ran a brief campaign for governor but dropped out in February and endorsed Richard Cordray, the eventual winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary
  • And former Municipal Court Judge Cheryl Grant, who is the only one who has announced publicly that she is a candidate. Grant is retired from the bench because of Ohio's law not allowing those over 70 to serve.

This is the Democratic Party, right?

The party where they appear to enjoy having knock-down, drag-out fights every once in a while, just to stay in practice.

So, of course, the potential candidates are in the process of bloodying each other up, right?

Well, no.

Actually, they are very well behaved.

You have four people here who are intelligent, serious-minded people who have been elected to some pretty important jobs in the past.

You can expect them to act like adults.

You might also ask how this decision will be made. Good question.

In the May 8 primary, Democrats elected a new set of precinct executives, all of whom will become (or remain) members of the Hamilton County Democratic Party Central Committee.

On the morning of Saturday, June 9, at a United Auto Workers hall in Evendale, the central committee will come together to elect new officers. That's when the decision will be made.

Pillich told WVXU she is seriously considering becoming a candidate. So too, did Driehaus and McFarlin. Grant couldn't be reached for comment, but Burke says she has made it clear she is a candidate.

So how will this turn out?

I can't say with any certainty, but I have reason to believe that the following is a scenario that could very well play itself out June 9. It goes like this:

The two largest (and most loyal) of the many constituencies in the Democratic Party are women voters and African-Americans.

Steve Driehaus falls into neither one of those categories. But he is highly respected in the party, and has a reputation as a good organizer.

Steve Driehaus.
Credit Alex Driehaus / Provided

Gwen McFarlin, on the other hand, is both a woman and an African-American. She is an experienced officeholder, who understands suburban politics and puts a high value on working to bring young Democrats into leadership positions.

Gwen McFarlin.
Credit Springfield Township

The party also has a First Executive Vice Chair and four Vice Chair positions that will be elected – an opportunity to bring other Democratic constituencies into the party leadership.

The two Democrats, McFarlin and Driehaus, respect and like each other.

There have been two occasions in recent decades where the party elected co-chairs – one white, one black.

First there was Steve Driehaus' father, the late Don Driehaus, who teamed with the late William Mallory Sr., the former Ohio House Majority leader.

Burke himself had an African-American co-chair for a time – former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who was in the state legislature at the time.

There have been discussions between the two about teaming up. That doesn't mean it is going to happen, but the fact that they are talking is significant in and of itself.

It would certainly avoid any significant resentment among African-Americans in the party, many of whom believe they have been cut out of a significant role in the party leadership.

What are the odds of a scenario like this working out on June 9?

Probably about as good as Justify winning the Triple Crown.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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