A Look at Ohio

Posted January 26, 2004 at 5:23pm

This is the first in a two-part series examining the future of Ohio politics.

The saying goes that it’s always darkest before the dawn, and if that’s true, then Ohio’s Democrats have been languishing in one very long, dark night.

Republicans hold the governorship, the Legislature, all statewide offices, both Senate seats and 12 of 18 House districts.[IMGCAP(1)]

In years past, many Congressional Republicans have been re-elected unchallenged, but now, state Democrats say things are changing.

This year Democrats have fielded at least one candidate in every district — the first time that’s happened in 40 years.

“Everybody’s got to come home and campaign this year,” said Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) really worked to make sure the party did not give out any free passes this year, he added.

“Marcy Kaptur really did a lot of mentoring,” Trevas said. “She inspired and recruited a lot of them.”

Kaptur recently told The Toledo Blade that she saw it as part of her job as the Democratic dean of the delegation.

“I thought that we have to do our part,” she said. Republicans “put money against me and they recruited candidates against me. You just cannot sit back and not step up to the table when you see what has happened on the other side of the aisle, and your party is absent,” she told the Blade.

Republicans seized power by having a farm team at the ready and immediately redrew Congressional and state House districts in the late ’80s and ’90s when they won control of the Legislature, Trevas said.

“When we had a good bit of everything in the ’80s, we didn’t do a good job of continuity,” he said.

When Democratic politicians such as former Sens. John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum retired, the party had no one groomed to take their place.

The more “sophisticated” Republicans were able to sweep in and pick up those seats and more, Trevas said.

The Democrats have learned their lesson, however, and have been working diligently since 1999 to try to regain some of the ground they lost by focusing on building a farm team.

They have already seen some local victories beginning with the mayorship of the state’s capital, Columbus, where Democrat Michael Coleman, the city’s first black mayor, is in his fourth year in office.

Denny White, who became Ohio Democratic Party chairman in 2002, has worked hard to rebuild the party from the ground up, Trevas said. He has improved the state party’s technological capabilities, upped coordination with the Democratic National Committee and worked on candidate outreach and fundraising.

While that has paid off in terms of recruitment, most Democratic candidates still face uphill battles in unseating Republicans in safely drawn House districts.

At the top of the Ohio ticket, state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, a former one-term Congressman, is challenging popular Sen. George Voinovich (R).

Trevas acknowledges that the stars have to align just so in order for Fingerhut to upset Voinovich, but he says it is possible.

Fingerhut began laying the groundwork for his campaign in March 2003 and has been working tirelessly ever since, Trevas said.

If he fails to beat Voinovich, he will have built a base and his name recognition to a point that he would be in good shape to run for state attorney general or state auditor in 2006, Trevas said.

He might be too late to run for governor then because several Democrats are already lining up to replace term-limited Gov. Bob Taft (R).

Among them is controversial television talk show host Jerry Springer, who considered running for Senate but ultimately decided that 2004 was not his political comeback year and backed Fingerhut instead.

Springer remains on the political circuit, making the rounds of state party dinners and generally helping to promote the party.

Coleman already has a full-time gubernatorial campaign staff in place.

Rep. Ted Strickland (D) is also said to be interested in helping Democrats regain the governor’s mansion for the first time since Voinovich won his first term in 1990.

But before ’06 — which Trevas says could be a banner year for the party — Democrats crave success on the Congressional front this year.

Attorney Ben Konop, a former Kaptur staffer, is challenging Rep. Mike Oxley (R) in the 4th district, and university think tank official Robin Weirauch is taking on Rep. Paul Gillmor (R) in the 5th. Both are first-time candidates.

There is a “complete frustration with [President] Bush” in Ohio that led political novices to throw their hats in the ring against well-established veterans, Trevas said.

Both candidates could be laying the groundwork for another run in 2006 if they fail this year, he said.

Trevas said Democrats have their best chance of winning a Republican seat in the 14th district.

Five Democrats have filed against Rep. Steven LaTourette (R), who not only has to quiet gossip about his personal life but also has to handle the district that is home to First Energy — the source of last August’s major blackouts, Trevas said.

One is state Rep. Ed Jerse, a lawyer from Euclid who is fairly prominent in the state House. Retired businessman Herb Hammer is also vying for the nomination and willing to commit his own resources. Dale Blanchard, who has twice lost to LaTourette in the past, is in the race too.

Trevas thinks both Jerse and Hammer have the makings of future, if not immediate, winners.

Other up and comers in the state are Cincinnati Vice Mayor Alicia Reese and former Notre Dame football standout Bryan Flannery, Trevas said.

Flannery lost the secretary of state contest in 2002 but is primed for another statewide race in 2006. Reese is another name that might be found on a statewide ballot then, he said.

Another intriguing name for Democrats further down the ballot this year is author and one-time hostage Terry Anderson.

Though he could probably run for higher office off the bat because of his name recognition, he’s opting to “do it right” and starting with the state Legislature, Trevas said.

Anderson, a former Associated Press reporter now retired from the faculty of Ohio University, will run for state Senate this year.

The DNC “wants [Ohio] back” and is helping the state party a lot, Trevas said.

Democratic-leaning 527 groups are also on the ground, ready to mobilize voters.

“We’re going to have so much energy in this state,” Trevas predicted.

But how much of that will translate into wins for Democrats remains to be seen.