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News: Democrats Aim for County

Tuesday's primary pits known winner versus diversity

By Lew Moores · April 26th, 2006 · News
  Former Cincinnati City Councilman David Pepper and former Forest Park Mayor Stephanie Dumas want the Democratic nomination to run for county commissioner against incumbent Phil Heimlich.
Eric Chapman

Former Cincinnati City Councilman David Pepper and former Forest Park Mayor Stephanie Dumas want the Democratic nomination to run for county commissioner against incumbent Phil Heimlich.

Check this out -- it will be an election season in which local incumbents face serious challenges:

· U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Milford) faces a serious challenge from former Congressman Bob McEwen in the May 2 Republican primary for the 2nd Congressional District.

· U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Westwood) faces Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley, a Democrat, in the November election for the 1st Congressional District.

· Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich, a Republican, could be up against former Cincinnati Councilman David Pepper, a proven vote-getter who twice finished first in council elections, in November. If Heimlich loses, the county commission will be controlled 2-1 by Democrats for the first time in narly 40 years.

Crime creep
"What we are seeing is one failure after another, whether it be The Banks or the jail or now the confusion around what's happening with Drake," Pepper says. "Everything the county touches seems to be the opposite of the Midas touch ­-- everything turns to mud. The county commission, led by Phil Heimlich, has really contributed to that problem."

But wait, slow down, says Stephanie Dumas, a retired social service provider and former Forest Park mayor. The road to Hamilton County Commissioner, she says, must pass first through Forest Park and a Democratic primary.

"My opponent has decided to ignore me, that I'm not a real challenge," Dumas says. "He's already looking toward Heimlich, and I think that's where he's going to make his mistake. Even though I don't have a lot of money, I have a lot of people who know me."

Pepper, whose electoral prowess is almost inarguable, even when he lost the run-off election to Mark Mallory for mayor of Cincinnati last year, is facing a primary challenge from Dumas on Tuesday.

Dumas is hardly dismissive of Pepper but is quick to point out her political credentials compare favorably.

"I have three times as much experience in government as he has," she says. "I've worked with regional government. I have 12 years in government. I ran a city. I've shown I can be a leader and team player. I was chosen unanimously (by Forest Park city council) to be their mayor, even among Republicans. I've had lots of experience with regional agencies like OKI, the port authority, MSD."

Pepper served two terms as a Cincinnati councilman, serving as chair of council's Law and Public Safety Committee, and finished first among candidates for council in both 2001 and 2003. In 2005 he ran for Cincinnati mayor in an open primary that included seven candidates, finished first but lost to Mallory in the run-off.

Dumas served six years as mayor of Forest Park and has worked 30 years as a mental health professional, including work as a client rights advocate at the Mill Creek Psychiatric Center.

Both candidates believe too much emphasis has been placed on The Banks -- the proposal to develop the riverfront downtown between Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park -- and that public safety is much closer to the hearts and minds of county voters. Both talk about Drake Hospital.

Drake Center, located in Hartwell, has consistently been a subject of controversy over the years because it has lost loses millions of dollars in recent years in spite of help from a property tax levy. A deal to have the Health Alliance of Cincinnati take over management of Drake has fallen through, and the county continues to look for a buyer of the hospital.

Both talk about the loss of population.

Pepper talks about the ignominy of releasing prisoners from the Hamilton County Jail for lack of space and contracting with other counties to house inmates, while Dumas talks about the inattention paid to AIDS funding and infant mortality rates.

"It becomes a regional issue and not just a city issue," Pepper says of public safety. "What you see throughout the country is that when you let your core decay, it ends up harming more than just the core over time. If we don't start solving some of these problems, they aren't going to be just city problems. You see safety problems in what's called the near suburbs, the older suburbs. If people haven't noticed that yet, they'll notice it soon."

Dumas also cites public safety as the biggest issue facing the county, saying it has bled over from the city and has been exacerbated by illegal drugs, lack of jobs, poverty, lack of affordable housing and low wages. The result, she suggests, is a siege mentality.

"What happens is that when people stay in their homes, they don't come out and spend money in the economy," she said.

All white guys
One issue that Dumas believes belongs exclusively to her this primary is the notion that the county commission is hardly reflective of the county it represents -- three white males, all former Cincinnati city councilmen, that wouldn't change even if Pepper replaced Heimlich as county commissioner.

"There's never been a woman elected," Dumas says. "One was appointed (Sandra Beckwith, now a federal judge). There's never been an African American. Of course, I'm not saying I can speak for all women or all African Americans, but at least somebody can bring up those issues to be discussed. Which commissioner brings up women's issues? I have supporters who want a change, who want an option. Financially, we're not doing as well as we would like. But you'll be in awe when I win this primary: 'How did she do this?' "

Pepper insists he's not looking beyond Dumas.

"No, no, any time you go to a poll, you take nothing for granted," Pepper says. "You need to earn every vote, on May 2 as well as in November. I take her seriously. She has a record of her own in Forest Park."

But he returns to The Banks and what he perceives -- they both do -- as the cloud it casts over other pressing issues. By his estimate, Pepper says 50,000 Hamilton County residents have left for nearby counties between 1995 and 2000.

"That's the only thing the county seems to be talking about," he says. "We know it's an important project. But you can build the Taj Mahal on The Banks and it's not going to solve the major reason people are leaving the county. Not only are they not accomplishing anything on The Banks, they seem to be focused only on The Banks. They're not solving the deep problem of safety and other quality of life issues that are leading people to leave."

OHIO'S PRIMARY ELECTION is Tuesday and polls are open from 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Voters can request a Democratic ballot, a Republican ballot or an issues-only ballot. For more information about the election, see "Porkopolis" on page 18 and "Deciding District Two" on page 20.


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