After 24 years in the most thankless job in local politics, Democratic party chair Tim Burke retires

Posted at 7:00 AM, May 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-17 08:10:22-04

Tim Burke is stepping down as head of the Hamilton County Democratic Party in the coming weeks, marking the party’s first big leadership change in 24 years.

“In many ways I am looking forward to it, but I also recognize I will miss it,” Burke, who recently turned 70, said. “But it’s time.”

Burke has led the party through six presidential elections and five Cincinnati mayors, while helping to elect hundreds of council members, judges and county leaders. In the May primary -- Burke's last election as party chair -- Democrats had one of their strongest showings at the polls in decades. 

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After nearly a quarter century of what many describe as the most thankless job in local politics, Burke is ready to retire.

The Hamilton County Democratic Central Committee, made up of precinct executives, will vote on Burke’s replacement on June 9.

“I’m anxious to explore free time and what that is,” said Burke, who often gets up before 4 a.m. to get to his Downtown law office.

In between clients, Burke is busy doing unpaid party work: raising money, speaking to the media and mediating in-party fighting.

While Burke isn’t ready to retire from his law firm of Manley Burke, he would like to spend more time gardening, walking his terrier mix, Buster, and spending time with his wife and six grandchildren.

But he will miss the best part of the job: helping young candidates win their first offices. He still remembers David Pepper and John Cranley both fresh out of law school, long before Cranley became mayor and Pepper won a county commission seat and later state party chair.

"For no pay, Tim Burke has spent most of his career as a volunteer leader, as a concerned citizen standing up for his ideals -- successfully -- to build a more just county," Cranley said. "Tim Burke is citizenship at its best."

Changing demographics have helped Hamilton County trend blue, and under Burke’s leadership the party has gradually taken over seats that had been controlled by the GOP for decades – such as local judgeships and clerk of court.

That led to a friendly rivalry with Hamilton County GOP chair Alex Triantafilou. The two often appeared side-by-side at local political debates and events.

“While we often disagreed on many issues, I always found Tim to be honorable and a man of integrity,” Triantafilou said. “I respected him as an adversary because of his strong mind and work ethic.”

Whoever replaces Burke will likely be tasked with building a heavy roster of local candidates to challenge GOP seats. What’s Burke’s advice to his replacement?

“Get a thick skin,” Burke said.

So far the only official candidate to replace Burke is former municipal court judge Cheryl Grant. But Burke expects others to step forward.

Potential candidates include Eric Kearney, CEO of the region’s African-American Chamber and former state senator; and former state Rep. Connie Pilich, who bowed out of the Democratic race for governor in February.

“I want to get out of the way,” Burke said. “Whoever is the new chair needs to be the new chair and that’s who people need to look to, and not me.”

Despite stepping down as party boss, Burke will continue to serve on the Hamilton County Board of Elections until his term expires in March 2019.

The party committee meets at 9:30 a.m. on June 9 at the UAW Local 647 office, 10020 Reading Road in Evendale. The meeting is open to the public, but only precinct executives can vote.