When Hamilton County voters go to the polls Nov. 4 and cast their ballots in the two county commission races, they will have their choice of candidates in each contest — despite the best efforts of local Democratic and Republican party leaders to prevent it.
In one race, longtime Democratic incumbent Todd Portune is facing off against Republican Ed Rothenberg, although Rothenberg isn’t endorsed by the Hamilton County Republican Party. In the other race, Republican favorite son Greg Hartmann is pitted against Democrat Chris Dole, although Dole similarly isn’t endorsed by the county Democratic Party.
As is well-known in local political circles by now, the unusual situation occurred because Portune and Hartmann didn’t want to face competition and successfully convinced their respective party chairmen last winter to cut a deal to that effect.
Under the deal, the local Democratic Party promised not to recruit or endorse any candidate against Hartmann. In return, the local GOP wouldn’t recruit or endorse any candidate who challenged Portune. More importantly, the parties wouldn’t commit any money or volunteer help to challengers who bucked the arrangement.
Portune, 50, is a former Cincinnati city councilman and CityBeat’s “Person of the Year” in 2002. He’s seeking a third term on the county commission. After spending his first six years on the county board in the minority and largely ignored, one of Portune’s initial acts after Democrats took control in 2006 was voting to increase the sales tax to build a new jail sought by Sheriff Simon Leis Jr., a Republican.
After a diverse array of groups like the Cincinnati NAACP and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes quickly gathered enough signatures to force a voter referendum on the tax hike, the measure was soundly defeated at the polls in fall 2007. Worried about the possible political fallout, Portune began hatching a behindthe-scenes deal, relying on millionaire litigator Stan Chesley as the negotiator.
Hartmann, 41, is currently Hamilton County Clerk of Courts. Pat DeWine, the sole Republican on the three-member commission, decided not to seek reelection in favor of running for a judgeship, after he angered Leis by opposing the jail tax. At that point, Hartmann decided to run for DeWine’s higher-profile commission seat.
After much public criticism about the deal, including from CityBeat and The Cincinnati Enquirer, Hartmann now concedes the back-door pact was a mistake. Still, he continues to benefit from it.
The outrage over the deal, however, prompted Rothenberg and Dole to step into the race.
Rothenberg, 73, is a Hyde Park real estate investor who was part of the “We Demand a Vote” coalition that overturned the jail tax.
“(Portune’s) very popular, but he did a very bad thing when he tried to raise the sales tax for a jail without a vote by the people,” Rothenberg says.
“It’s legal, but it’s very unusual and kind of dirty.”
Dole, 48, is an electrician and township trustee from Crosby Township who’s been active in other Democratic campaigns in the past. Among his supporters are former U.S. Congressman Tom Luken, Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
“There was no excuse for the backroom deal between the two political bosses,” Dole says. “I was aggravated and disgusted with the system. This just feeds into voter apathy.”
Rothenberg decided not to seek any campaign contributions, while Dole has raised about $18,000 so far, more than half coming from his labor union colleagues. Both men have made frequent appearances at community forums, parades and similar events to get the word out about their campaigns.
If Rothenberg is elected, he wants to review all of the various property tax levies that Hamilton County has, adding that the overall tax burden is too high and places the county at a disadvantage with surrounding areas.
Additionally, he’d lobby for a state law that limits levy attempts to one per year and would propose to build a 500-bed jail without asking for new revenues. Rothenberg would do that by building a “no frills” facility using a 30-year bond financed at about 5 percent, meaning the county would pay $800,000 annually.
Dole proposes a special task force that would get the county’s cities, villages and townships to coordinate their economic development efforts.
“We need to get all 49 political jurisdictions in the county working together,” he says. “It’s too scattered right now. Let’s start thinking regionally within the county.”
Also, Dole wants the county to invest more in mass transit and create a better system for identifying criminal offenders who have mental health problems. Doing so would relieve jail overcrowding as those prisoners are diverted to other types of programs, he adds.
“More funds should be put into the mental health system and create a database so police can identify who they’re dealing with, so they know how to respond,” Dole says.
Despite his botched attempt at raising the jail tax, Portune is campaigning as a moderate Democrat who is conservative on fiscal issues. One of his highway billboards reads, “Two balanced budgets, no new taxes.”
Under his “Portune Plan,” the commissioner pledges to increase the county’s earnings on investments by empowering the County’s Cabinet of Economic Advisors to develop an aggressive strategy of investments and create a “positive growth climate” for business. How that could be done in the midst of Wall Street’s recent meltdown, though, is unclear.
Further, Portune wants to grow revenues from the county-owned Reds and Bengals stadiums by persuading the Bengals to possibly sell the naming rights to Paul Brown Stadium and developing a stadium entertainment authority to find more events that could be held there. Hamilton County’s stadium fund currently estimates a $191 million deficit by 2013.
For Hartmann’s part, he notes that as court clerk he returned more than $1.3 million to taxpayers by making operations in his department more efficient. He says he’ll apply the same expertise and critical eye to all of the county’s operations to find budget savings.
A Texas native, Hartmann worked for one year at a law firm there before moving to Cincinnati in 1999 and joining the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office. He was appointed as Clerk of Courts in 2003, then won election to that post a year later.
He was defeated in his second political campaign, running against Democrat Jennifer Brunner for Ohio Secretary of State in 2006.
Interestingly, Hartmann’s campaign Web site states, “Greg will be announcing his plan for Hamilton County during the months ahead. In the meantime, please check this Web site frequently and sign up to receive e-mail updates on his campaign!” As of Oct. 21, however, no plan had been posted.
Back to the unendorsed candidates, Rothenberg concedes his unlikely campaigning style is a longshot.
“It’s a million to one, there’s no way I’m going to win,” he says. “It just gives people a way to send a message about their anger if I bite into Portune’s vote total a little. It sure beats having no one else to vote for.”
By comparison, the busy Dole is much more optimistic about his chances at success.
“I think my chances are pretty good, based on the feedback I’m getting from people,” he says. “They’re all very supportive. I try to tell people that, if they want a voice who’s going to represent the townships and the suburbs, I’m their man.” �