For years, local developer Chris Bortz would complain whenever I referred to him in columns and news articles as a “registered Republican” while he was a member of Cincinnati City Council. Bortz insisted that he should be referred to as a Charterite, because he ran for council as an endorsed candidate of the Charter Committee, long considered to be the city’s de facto third political party.
But really, that’s just so much bull, nothing more than a calculated diversion for voters who might not be inclined to cast their ballot for a particular candidate otherwise because of his or her stance on certain issues.
For starters, the once-powerful Charter Committee doesn’t qualify as a political party under Ohio law. Although some media pundits, bloggers and others may occasionally refer to the “Charter Party,” if you listen closely you’ll discover that Charter’s own leaders are careful never to refer to the group in that manner.
The definition of what constitutes a bonafide political party under Ohio law is fairly simple.
A political party is defined as any group of voters that, during the most recent regular state election, received at least 5 percent of ballots cast for its gubernatorial candidate or nominees for presidential electors, or that filed with the Secretary of State’s Office — if it received less than five percent — a petition signed by qualified voters equal in number to at least one percent of the total vote for governor or nominees for presidential electors.
Therefore, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party are actual, honest to goodness political parties, but the Charter Committee? Meh, not so much.
So, if I want to do some play-acting and declare myself as a candidate for Cincinnati City Council representing the “Flat Earth Society” while campaigning, I am free to do so but it has no legal bearing whatsoever.
In fact, elections for Cincinnati City Council technically are nonpartisan, which is why no political affiliation is listed on the ballot next to candidates’ names. That’s one of the reasons why the local Democratic and Republican parties often hand out so-called “sample ballots” listing their preferred candidates to voters outside of polling places. Otherwise, people who don’t follow the race closely but who want to remain loyal to the party of their choice would be confused when they read the official ballot.
People familiar with Queen City history will remember that the Charter Committee was formed in 1924 to help end the corrupt political machine operated by “Boss” George Cox, a Republican that dominated City Hall and local politics, arranging tasks like fixing tax rates for friends and contributors.
Historian Landon Warner once described Cox in an article as a “self-styled Republican ‘boss,’ who operated behind the scenes, (and) had gained a stranglehold on the Queen City. The hard kernel of his political strength was a tight, disciplined gang of 5,000 petty jobholders, each of whom was required to deliver four or five votes for the machine candidates on Election Day.”
As a result, one magazine during this era dubbed Cincinnati as “the most corruptly governed major city in the United States.” (And you thought we had it bad now.)
Charter successfully pushed to create the city manager form of government, which was designed to depoliticize the daily administrative tasks of municipal government.
Now, some 87 years later, Charter has seen better days but still desperately tries to hang onto its relevance. The group regularly touts itself as “the good government people” and often uses the tagline, “There is no ‘Republican’ way to fill a pothole, no ‘Democratic’ way to recruit business to the city of Cincinnati.”
Although the phrase might be catchy, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Elected officials still must set priorities and decide how to use limited resources, and they factor in their core principles when making the choices.
In recent years, Bortz was one of two Charterites on City Council. For awhile, the other one was Jim Tarbell and, later, it was Roxanne Qualls. Despite their common endorsement, Bortz frequently ended up opposing them on many issues, especially Qualls, who became his political arch-nemesis on budget matters.
Charter’s leaders poo poo the differences, stating the group “welcomes diversity of thought and ideas.” But a list of Charter’s candidates in modern times reveals little commonality and seems almost bipolar in its extremes. They range from Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams and WLWT-TV anchorman Courtis Fuller, to stalwarts like Bobbie Sterne and Marian Spencer, to Establishment figures like Arn Bortz (Chris Bortz’s uncle) and Charles Phelps Taft II (son of President William Howard Taft), to then-nightclub owner Nick Spencer and Christopher Smitherman during his initial term in 2003-05.
Does such a wide-ranging legacy represent diversity, or does it denote a group willing to accept almost anyone in order to keep its presence on City Council? You decide.
Which brings our tale back to Chris Bortz: Before Bortz lost his reelection bid in November for a fourth and final term on City Council, he wrote another email to CityBeat, objecting to his depiction as a “registered Republican” in an Oct. 11 cover story on the council race.
CityBeat used the description in the interest of accuracy after checking Bortz’s registration at the Hamilton County Board of Elections and because the Charter Committee isn’t a political party. Also, Bortz’s most frequent allies on City Council were Republicans Leslie Ghiz, Wayne Lippert and Amy Murray.
Bortz disliked the phrase, stating that he was an “unaffiliated voter” because he does not vote the ballot of a political party in a primary election.
“I selected a Republican ballot for the first primary election after I moved back to town,” Bortz wrote in an Oct. 13 email. “What would it take for you to stop calling me a registered Republican? If I take a Democratic ballot in the next primary, will you call me a registered Democrat? I am an independent (or unaffiliated voter). Please let me know what it would take for you to print that fact.”
But a check of Bortz’s voting record at the Board of Elections tells another story. Whenever Bortz had to declare his party affiliation, he always voted Republican. He did so in four primary elections: in May 2010; March 2008; May 2006; and June 2005.
Not long after Bortz’s council defeat in November, the local Republican Party began actively wooing him to run next year as its challenger against Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a longtime Democratic incumbent. The Enquirer detailed the effort in a Dec. 7 column.
Howard Wilkinson wrote: Bortz said Wednesday he is considering running against Portune, but is not ready to make that decision yet.“I’m giving it serious consideration, talking to advisers, looking at the impact on my career,” said Bortz, who lost a bid for a fourth term on city council last month.
Yep, that sounds about right. And this is why I will continue listing the party affiliations of Charterites.
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