Buoyed by a huge surge in new voter registrations prompted by Barack Obama’s historic candidacy and the anti-incumbent fever sweeping the electorate, Democrats believe this is the year they’ll finally unseat U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the longtime Republican incumbent. Chabot, however, isn’t going down without a vigorous fight.
Facing term limits in the Ohio Legislature, State Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Price Hill) is challenging Chabot for Ohio’s 1st Congressional District seat. If you own a TV, though, you probably already know about the race. That’s because both the national Democratic and Republican parties have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in media buys for campaign advertising in one of the country’s most hotly-contested races.
In recent years, Chabot has successfully resisted challenges from then-Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who received help from President Bill Clinton; City Councilman John Cranley, who had the backing of powerful labor unions; and Greg Harris, an earnest, young reform candidate who was praised by Howard Dean, the true maverick presidential candidate.
With Driehaus, Democratic leaders say they’ve found the ideal candidate to take on Chabot. Driehaus is a husband and father who’s Catholic and opposes abortion. He comes from a family that has deep roots on Cincinnati’s West Side, and his relatives have been involved in several local boards, commissions and civic groups.
In short, he’s a known commodity who generates warm and fuzzy feelings among his neighbors.
“I think the environment is different this time and the Democratic base is mobilized,” Driehaus says. “I am a straight-shooter and a moderate. I am not beholden to any party or ideology. I don’t believe in big government, but I do believe it should protect the public good.”
Referring to the recent economic crisis fueled by defaults on sub-prime mortgages and the credit crunch, he adds, “Make no mistake, I am not anti-government like my opponent. We are in the mess we’re in because (Republicans) were believers in complete deregulation.”
Chabot describes Driehaus as a liberal disguised as a moderate and questions whether Driehaus would be willing to buck his party’s leaders on important issues like Chabot has done. Despite pressure from President Bush and GOP congressional heavy-hitters such as John Boehner, Chabot opposed the recent bailout package for Wall Street investors.
“We’re facing tough economic times and must do everything we can to stabilize our financial system as quickly as possible,” Chabot says. “However, I voted against the package that forces taxpayers to bail out an industry that acted recklessly, possibly even criminally. The bailout package made no substantive reforms, including stopping the lending practices that are at the core of this decline to prevent a future financial crisis.”
Noting that congressional Democrats opposed a bill to provide greater oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Chabot adds, “Our current financial crisis was the result of a number of factors, including the failure of regulators to crack down on those who engaged in reckless, possibly illegal behavior.
I support ongoing investigations by the FBI into possible criminal activity undertaken by officials at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as AIG and Lehman Brothers. In addition, I believe that reforms are needed to curtail the lax lending practices that put us here in the first place.”
Driehaus supports the recent bailout but agrees more congressional action was needed before the crisis. He notes that Chabot opposed bills that would have restricted property flipping and predatory lending, two practices that Driehaus says caused the meltdown. Worse, Chabot hasn’t proposed any legislation that would help the wave of foreclosures and resulting blight that has swept the West Side over the past few years.
“He’s been absent for 14 years on the issue of housing,” Driehaus says.
Pointing to his own efforts at the statehouse to restrict predatory lending, he adds, “It takes the type of legislator who wants to get his hands dirty and study the issues to be effective. It can be monotonous, tedious work.”
And in what might be the most damning bit of criticism these days, Chabot has voted to support Bush’s policies more than 90 percent of the time. Republicans have controlled Congress for 14 out of the last 16 years, Driehaus says, which has been a time of record spending and record deficits. During that period, the Mortgage Bankers Association has been among the biggest contributors to the House GOP Caucus.
“There’s no question in my mind why they didn’t do anything,” Driehaus says.
Driehaus, 42, is a senior associate and former director of the Community Building Institute, a joint effort of Xavier University and the United Way that promotes citizen-led, asset-based community development projects. He previously worked for Todd Portune in his Cincinnati City Council office and for Charlie Luken in his congressional office.
Chabot, 55, is an attorney who began his political career by serving on Cincinnati City Council. He was first elected to Congress in 1994 as part of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” crowd by defeating Democrat David Mann. It was Chabot’s second congressional race, after an unsuccessful bid in 1988.
The 1st District spans roughly from Vine Street downtown westward to the Indiana state line and northward into Butler County. It includes such communities as Evendale, Norwood, Reading, Springdale, White Oak, Woodlawn, Colerain Township and Delhi Township.
Although both Driehaus and Chabot oppose abortion, they disagree on whether the Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade decision should be overturned.
“I believe our society has an obligation to protect innocent lives, and my vote and conscience have always reflected that core principle,” Chabot says. “In that vein, I think that Roe v. Wade should be overturned and abortion should be illegal, with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. I authored the critical legislation that ended the abhorrent practice of ‘partial birth’ abortion, and I was pleased that the Supreme Court recently chose to uphold the ban.”
Driehaus counters, “I’m pro-life, but I’m not sure a lot can be done legislatively. I don’t think Roe v. Wade will be overturned. I think the focus should be on reducing abortions and the conditions that lead to them.”
The candidates differ sharply, however, on the Iraq War.
Chabot still supports the launching of the war and opposes any timetables for troop withdrawal.
“This past April, I returned to Iraq to evaluate the effects of the surge,” he says. “There is no doubt that it has been successful, and we owe our military our deepest gratitude and thanks. To ensure the safe withdrawal of our servicemen and women, I believe those with expertise, our military commanders on the ground, should recommend timetables, not legislators in Washington, D.C.”
Driehaus also praises the efforts of U.S. troops but says the war is a drain on resources needed in the United States.
“I think we should get out,” he says. “We are spending an inordinate amount of money there. For the president to enter the country into a war we’re not paying for (instead borrowing much of the cost) is unconscionable. We’re pushing the costs off to our children and grandchildren.
“It’s going to limit the ability of any future president and Congress. You can’t just keep cutting the revenue stream while you keep spending.”
Voters also have a third choice in the congressional race, a write-in candidacy by independent Eric Wilson.
Wilson, 46, is a Westwood resident and a full-time law student at the University of Dayton. He ran unsuccessfully for Cincinnati City Council in 2005.
“I’m the only candidate in the race who supports freedom of choice and reproductive freedom,” he says.
An African American, Wilson believes people agitating for civil rights in the 1960s — an unpopular cause then — is similar to the push for gay rights now.
“Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton energized the base of this district, but there’s no one who represents their views,” he says. “I do. The other two candidates are good people, but that’s not enough. There needs to be fundamental change.”