Winburn and Smitherman: Two Frequent Allies Headed For A Confrontation?

Nov 29, 2015

Politics is a funny business.

Two people can be pals and political allies, and then, after the next sunrise, became political rivals, eyeing each other warily and ready to slug it out before the voters if necessary.

It happened this past week.

The allies-turned-combatants: Two Cincinnati city council members, Republican Charlie Winburn and independent Christopher Smitherman, both of whom pulled petitions Tuesday to run in the March 15 GOP primary for Hamilton County Commissioner.

And there may be a third GOP council member to jump into the fray, turning from pal to rival – Amy Murray, who says she is thinking about it and will decide soon.

There could be even more Republicans who file petitions for the office next month.   

But Smitherman and Winburn have their petitions in hand now; and they are the two who are making the most noise about running for the seat.

Up until the wee hours of last Monday morning, everyone in Hamilton County politics assumed that two-term Republican county commissioner Greg Hartmann would be running for re-election and be opposed by State Rep. Denise Driehaus, a Clifton Democrat who is term-limited out of the Ohio House.

But Hartmann – who had already raised about $300,000 for a re-election campaign and could have raised considerably more - issued a news release saying he had had enough and would not run for re-election.

He called it a “self-imposed term limit,” saying he did not want to grow stagnant.

That set the phone ringing at the Hamilton County Board of Elections Monday morning with calls from people wanting to know what they had to do to run for county commissioner, either as a Republican or an independent.

And Smitherman and Winburn began seeing stars in their eyes. Before the end of the day Tuesday, they had petitions in hand.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear about one thing: Pulling petitions for an elective office from the board of elections is not the same as formally filing them.

Turning your petitions in and having the signatures verified by the board of elections is what makes you a real, live candidate for public office. And the deadline for turning in petitions for the March primary is Dec. 16.

But Winburn and Smitherman are clearly interested – and there may well be other Republicans to come out and file. All of this gives a major case of heartburn to Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou, who hates contested GOP primaries like a dog hates fleas.

“I’d very much like to avoid a primary,’’ Triantafilou told WVXU. “We don’t endorse in these races. We really don’t have a written policy on what to do in situations where you have a contested primary.”

That is mainly because Triantafilou and other party leaders are ordinarily willing to move heaven and earth to cajole certain candidates out of races and allow the party’s “preferred” candidates to run without opposition. Usually they succeed.

But, in Smitherman and Winburn, Triantafilou and the party are faced with a couple of hard-heads. It’s really difficult to imagine  these two doing an Alphonse and Gaston routine, each deferring to the other’s wishes.

“You should run, Christopher; you are such a fine public servant and you’d make such a fine commissioner. I shall step aside.”

“Oh no, Charlie, my dear friend, I defer to your great wisdom and experience. You should run. I will withdraw.”

That conversation is not going to happen.

Instead, assuming they both file, we can expect this kind of political rhetoric for three solid months:

“I’m not even sure he wants to be a Republican,’’ Winburn told WVXU the other day, as he was huffing and puffing on his daily treadmill workout. “The Republican Party has been begging him for a long time to become a Republican but he hasn’t done it. Now he wants to be a Republican because there is a county commission seat open.”

And Winburn makes the point that Smitherman has, in fact, voted in Democratic primaries in the recent past.

In some ways, that makes them even-steven.

Way back when, in the 1970s, Winburn was a Democrat too; he worked on the staffs of Democratic elected officials such as former U.S. Rep. Thomas Luken and former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste.

But, in 1990, when Republican George Voinovich was elected governor, Winburn became a Republican too, running as a Republican for city council and as an unsuccessful candidate for the Ohio Senate and Cincinnati mayor.

It’s not like Smitherman, though, is a stranger to the GOP. He’s played ball with them on a number of occasions; and, in many of his council votes, he aligns himself with the council conservatives.

Smitherman, the former Cincinnati NAACP president, has an alliance of sorts with the very conservative Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) – an alliance that has ruffled some feathers in the African-American community.

One of the first things Smitherman did after Hartmann made his announcement was to go on the show of conservative talk show host Brian Thomas on 55KRC.

“You know, I’ve been talking about running for commissioner for a long time,’’ Smitherman told Thomas.

Then, he sent a personal message over the air waves to Triantafilou about what will happen to his seat on city council if he is elected county commissioner.

“Alex Triantafilou here, who might be listening, has to understand that I am not going to put my seat in the hands of the Democratic Party,” Smitherman said.

His election, he said, “would also provide the Republican Party to make an appointment to council for someone to hold that seat.”

The last thing he wants to see happen, Smitherman said, is to see the Democrats have a majority “to build the second leg of that streetcar.”

Smitherman, on the radio, said nary a word about Winburn.

“The Republican Party would have to decide what candidate they would want to come out to run against Driehaus,’’ Smitherman said. “So that would be the discussion and who they thought could win and beat her in a toe-to-toe race with possibly Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket.”

Winburn had taken out petitions some time ago to run for county recorder against Democratic incumbent Wayne Coates.

But, when the opportunity to run for county commissioner came up, Winburn was more than willing to chuck those petitions in favor of a set of county commission petitions.

Winburn said he believes Smitherman is the “darling” of conservative radio talk show hosts in town.

“But you know what?,’’ Winburn said. “Radio stations don’t vote.”

Uh no, they don't. But the people who listen to them do. 

And he accused Smitherman of not being a true fiscal conservative because Smitherman backed Mayor John Cranley’s one mill property tax levy, Issue 22, that was soundly defeated by Cincinnati voters in November.

“Fiscal conservatives don’t support tax increases,’’ Winburn said.

Driehaus doesn’t seem to care who runs against her.

“For me, it was never about who my opponent was going to be,’’ Driehaus said.

She said she is focused on getting her message out countywide.

If Driehaus were to win next fall, it could mean the first Democratic majority on the three-member county commission since 2010, when Democratic county commissioner David Pepper decided to run for state auditor, a race he lost. It depends on whether or not Democratic incumbent Todd Portune, who faces a challenge from Republican Andrew Pappas of Anderson Township in 2016, is re-elected.

How would Smitherman or Winburn fare in a head-to-head race with Driehaus.

It would be a tough race.

Either one, if elected, would be the first African-American county commissioner in Hamilton County’s history.

And both have the potential to pull away African-American voters in the city of Cincinnati who generally vote Democratic – although that is not guaranteed.

Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke said he is not convinced that either Smitherman or Winburn would pull that many Democratic votes.

“Being an African-American candidate doesn’t translate into huge amounts of votes when that you have that ‘R’ behind your name,’’ Burke said.

Again, we go back to our initial warning – nominating petitions do not a candidate make. Filing petitions creates candidacies. And the deadline for that is Dec. 16.

And that gives the leadership of the Hamilton County Republican Party 17 days to figure out a way to avoid a kerfuffle of monumental proportions.