Politics
12:00 am
Sun May 11, 2014

Tuesday's primary produced some races to watch this fall

Tuesday’s primary was a low turnout affair. There was no county in southwest Ohio where the turnout reached 20 percent.

So a relative handful of Democratic and Republican voters got to choose the candidate for this this November’s election.

Many of the fall match-ups are mismatches. Most of the state legislative districts are so heavily Republican or Democratic that the primary winners will almost surely be the winners in the fall.

And, in county races, incumbents – both Democrat and Republican – have a distinct advantage.

Most of the truly competitive races will be in Hamilton County, with its heavily Democratic core vote in the city of Cincinnati and its Republican domination of the suburbs.

This is not by any means a complete list, but here are a few that bear watching:

Hamilton County Probate Court judge:

It’s not often that a judicial race becomes a bloody, bare-knuckled brawl, but this one has the potential to be just that.

The county’s incumbent probate judge, James Cissell, can’t run again because of Ohio’s judicial age limit law.

That turned the judgeship into an open seat; and it has drawn two candidates who each possess one of the most recognizable and potent last names in Hamilton County politics – Winkler on the Republican side, Luken on the Democratic side.

Hamilton County Common Pleas court judge Ralph E.  Winkler is the candidate of the GOP. Former Cincinnati mayor and congressman Charlie Luken is the Democratic candidate.

For both of them, politics is the family business.

Winkler is a name that has been a powerful vote magnet in Hamilton County for decades – particularly in the west suburbs and townships that are chock full of GOP voters

Ted Winkler has been a judge for 15 years. His wife, Tracy, is the county clerk of courts. His brother, Robert Winkler, is also a common pleas court judge.

His father, Ralph Winkler, served many years on the bench, retiring as a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals. His late mother, Cheryl Winkler, was a Green Township trustee and state representative.

In Green Township and environs, you could probably name a cardboard box “Winkler” and it would get elected.

“Luken” is no slouch as a political name either.

Three of them – Charlie, his father Tom and his uncle Jim have served as Cincinnati’s mayor.  From the mid-1960s to 2005, when Charlie Luken left the mayor’s office, there was always a Luken serving in elective office in Cincinnati or Hamilton County.

Tom Luken served as a council member in the 1960s and early 1970s, serving a term as mayor. Then, he went to the U.S. House where he remained through 1990, when he retired and his son Charlie won a battle with a popular Republican, Ken Blackwell. Tom Luken made a come-back of sorts in the 1990s, when he served another term on city council.

Charlie Luken served on council in the 1980s. He became mayor in 1983 under the old “top vote-getter” system, where the candidate with the most votes in a council race became mayor. He stayed in the mayor’s office until 1990 when he was elected to his father’s old seat in Congress.

He only stayed one term, coming back to become a news anchor for WLWT (channel 5) for several years.

Then, in 2001, he ran in Cincinnati’s first direct election for mayor and defeated another WLWT anchor, Courtis Fuller. After serving a four year term, he left to practice law and become a lobbyist.

But he caught the candidate bug again this year; and filed to run for probate judge.

Both Winkler and Luken are tough, hard-nosed politicians who will have no trouble raising money. Watch this one carefully – it will be the most high profile county judicial race you are likely ever to see.

9th Ohio Senate District:

This is a good district for Democrats, taking in the bulk of the city of Cincinnati. Democrat Eric Kearney has held it for the past eight years and is term-limited out; Democrat Mark Mallory held it before that, until he ran for Cincinnati mayor and won in 2005.

It shouldn’t be much of a contest for former Cincinnati council member Cecil Thomas, who bested State Rep. Dale Mallory and a field of four other candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

But the Republicans have a wild card in their hand; and, if they play it, the 9th Ohio Senate District could become a very competitive race.

Back at the primary filing deadline in February, Republican party activist Jackie Mikita agreed to be a “place-holder” candidate for the seat – holding down the fort until the Hamilton County Republican Party could find a better known and well-funded candidate to run for the seat. They have until August to replace Mikita should she withdraw.

That candidate could be one of the best-known names in Cincinnati politics – council member Charlie Winburn, who has won council elections time and time again as a Republican in a heavily Democratic city. Last year, he finished second in the council race, behind Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld.

Winburn is mulling over whether or not to jump into the race; and you can be assured that he is doing polling in the district to gauge his chances. He’s also said that he, if he runs, he would try to raise $500,000 – an extraordinary amount for a state legislative race in these parts.

The secret to Winburn’s success over the years has been that he attracts both more conservative white voters and a sizeable portion of the city’s African-American vote. It is a potent combination.

Thomas was elected city council four times and spent very little money doing it. As a former Cincinnati police officer and former executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations, Thomas is a familiar figure in the African-American community. He campaigns close to the ground, walking the streets, shaking hands, showing up at the churches and neighborhood meetings, festivals and anywhere people gather.

If Winburn were to run, Thomas couldn’t match him in terms of campaign dollars, but Democratic party officials believe he could more than match the Republican in “street cred,” especially with the district’s large African-American population.

If Winburn decides to run, it’s likely the Republican party’s executive committee would approve him, even though there has been some grumbling among Republicans about Winburn’s cozying up to the Democratic mayor, John Cranley, who made him chair of the powerful Budget and Finance Committee; and his on-the-record opposition to moving the board of elections from downtown to Mt. Airy.

Mikita has told party leaders she will stick it out if they do not find a better known candidate, but Winburn’s entry into the race would be a game-changer.

The ball is in Winburn’s court now.

28th Ohio House District:

After the 2010 Census, the Republicans in the Ohio legislature re-drew this district of northern Hamilton County suburbs to make it more Republican. Their object was to defeat the Democrat who held the seat, Connie Pillich.

But two years ago, Pillich spoiled the plan by defeating Cincinnati Tea Party founder Mike Wilson.

This year, Pillich decided to give up the House seat; and she is now the Ohio Democratic Party’s candidate for state treasurer, running against Republican incumbent Josh Mandel.

The Republicans see this as their chance to win back that House seat.

There was a bruising GOP primary for the seat, with three candidates in the hunt.

The top two were Rick Bryan, the Blue Ash council member and former mayor, and Jonathan Dever, a party activist who had the backing of tea party organizations.

To the surprise of many, Dever, a first-time candidate, defeated Bryan in the unofficial vote count Tuesday by a scant 79 votes. Provisional and overseas ballots have yet to be counted, but the result is unlikely to change.

That means Dever will face a young Democratic candidate who hopes to duplicate what Pillich did two years ago.

The Democrat, Micah Kamrass, is a former student government president at Ohio State University – a position that has been a springboard to many a career in politics. He is just finishing up law school and has worked as a clerk in the law office of Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke.

Kamrass is extraordinarily good at raising money; and he is raising it both at home and through his Ohio State connections. His pre-primary campaign finance report showed that he had raised $122,758 and had $96,179 in the bank – more than any other Democratic candidate for the Ohio House in the state.

Dever will have to work hard to match Kamrass in the fundraising department. Both will work hard on grassroots organizing. This is our pick for the sleeper race to watch.

Hamilton County juvenile court judge:

This looked like it was going to be a slam dunk election, without opposition, for Republican incumbent John Williams.

No more.

He had a Democratic candidate file for his seat in February, lawyer Susannah Meyers, but she withdrew in March, leaving the Democrats without a candidate and the party leadership fuming.

But a few weeks before the primary, civil rights lawyer Jennifer Branch, a Democrat, decided to run as an independent. The filing deadline for independent candidates was the day before Tuesday’s primary.

Last Monday, she filed  petitions with nearly 6,000 signatures at the Hamilton County Board of Elections. If 2,841 of them turn out to be valid – which is likely – she will be on the ballot as Williams’ opponent this fall.

If you know Branch’s name, it may be because of the 2010 juvenile court election, when Williams faced Democrat Tracie Hunter. In the election night vote, Williams won by a scant 23 votes.

But Hunter went to U.S. District Court, with Branch as her lawyer, to fight to have hundreds of provisional ballots that were rejected by the elections board, counted.

After a protracted legal battle, the provisional ballots were counted and Hunter was declared the winner. Williams was later appointed to a vacant seat on the juvenile court.

Branch’s law firm, Gerhardstein & Branch, is also representing couples who are suing in federal court to have Ohio’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriages overturned.

Branch will have the backing of the Democratic Party; and is likely to inherit the African-American voters who supported her former client, Hunter. She also has substantial support in organized labor and in the gay and lesbian community.

Williams is an indefatigable campaigner; and the Republican Party will pull out all the stops to help him retain his seat.

It may be too soon to tell, but Williams-Branch has the potential to be a highly competitive race.