Hamilton County's most expensive election ever?

Hamilton County's most expensive election ever?
Posted at 8:06 AM, Apr 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-22 08:06:11-04

In a typical summer before an election, Denise Driehaus would knock on 10,000 to 12,000 doors from Clifton to Amberley Village to meet voters.

But this veteran Democratic politician has a lot more ground to cover this summer.

After being term limited from leading Ohio’s 31st District, Driehaus is now running for Hamilton County Commissioner in what is expected to be one of the most expensive, hotly contested races in county history.

“I think there are huge stakes in this election,” said Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.

Driehaus is running against Republican incumbent Dennis Deters, who belongs to a political family just as well known as hers.

If she wins in November, it would give Democrats their first majority on the commission since David Pepper won in 2006.

“Our goal is to raise $800,000 to a million dollars,” Driehaus said. “In this race I will need to spend a lot of resources just because the county is so big.”

As of April 15, she has raised $308,301, including an additional $64,595 from the last 50 days. Of those, more than 540 contributions, or 65 percent, were $100 or less.

According to her campaign, she has $251,446 on hand.

Meanwhile Deters is slightly behind on fundraising, with $92,082.

Deters announced his bid for the seat in mid-December, after former commissioner Greg Hartmann unexpectedly dropped out. That was almost three months after Driehaus had launched her campaign. 

"She's obviously got a head start financially because of the time she's been campaigning,” said Deters, who's still assembling his campaign team.

Deters recently got serious about fundraising and held his first event in March. From Feb. 26 to April 15 he raised more than $85,000.

What Deters lacks right now in money, he may make up for with name recognition (his brother is longstanding county prosecutor Joe Deters) and his status as incumbent.

The Hamilton County Republican Party picked Deters as Hartmann’s replacement in early January, giving him 10 months in office to gain experience and build name recognition before Election Day.

The GOP wants to keep its majority on the three-member board. Commissioners oversee a roughly $1.1 billion budget, as well as vital programming in offices such as the county job and family services agency.

Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou said the race is top priority for the party.

“We’ll be investing heavily in the race,” Triantafilou said. “We’re quietly raising money for Dennis right now … I’m not too worried about his fundraising.”

Democrat Todd Portune is also facing re-election to county commission in November. But he is so entrenched in the seat that a win by Republican challenger Anderson Township Trustee Andy Pappas is considered a long shot, and the race won’t attract heavy campaign spending.

Deters said he’s unsure just how much will be spent on his race but he wouldn’t be surprised if it comes close to the excess of $1 million used in the last big battle for the seat between Pepper and Republican incumbent Phil Heimlich in 2006.

“It will be up there,” Deters said of the money in the race. “With what’s at stake, for control of one of the most important offices in government, it will get close, if not exceed it.”

A New Ground Game

Hamilton County has more than 800,000 residents spread out over 413 square miles. (By comparison, the 31st District has a population of 98,000.)

With so much ground to cover, a door-knock campaign alone can’t work, so Driehaus had to trade in her sneakers for a different kind of ground game. 

“I’ve been doing a lot a house parties so I’m very busy in the evening,” she said. “They are a lot of fun and I’m meeting people from all over the county.”

So far, she’s attended roughly a dozen house-party fundraisers. By the end of her campaign, she expects to attend 50 or 60 of them.

Three nights each week she also visits village council meetings across the county as part of her “Listen and Learn Tour.”

“I’m moving around a lot trying to understand what the issues are, what the county does or maybe what the county should be doing,” she said.

For his part, Deters has been attending four to five community events each week, such as drug court graduations and talks to business groups.

“It gets me out in public; that’s a joy for me,” Deters said. “My position as commissioner allows me a pretty unique opportunity to get into some doors that I otherwise wouldn’t.”

He plans to hit “every one” of the county’s neighborhoods but may not get to shake hands with everyone given the sheer size of the area. Advertising and mailers will play an important role in the race, too, he said.

In between campaigning, Driehaus is studying how other counties in Ohio manage their sewer districts.

That’s because the Metropolitan Sewer District here – which the county owns and the city of Cincinnati runs – is likely to play a big role in this race. The bitter feud between the two governing bodies has gotten much worse, and in February commissioners asked a federal judge to intervene.

“The county’s position right now, which is a complete takeover of MSD, would in fact destroy the pension deal that we came up with and the pensions of thousands of city workers,” Cranley said. “I believe that Denise will be a strong advocate for the rights of those workers.”

Cranley, a Democrat, believes the city’s rocky relationship with the county would be improved if the commission had a Democratic majority to match City Council.

Yet, Deters said lingering questions about the city’s management of its park system and MSD show how important it is for the Republicans to stay in control of the commission.

“We can see the Republican Party has controlled the county commission for the better part of eight years (and) we’ve got pretty responsible management of a significant amount of funds,” Deters said. “On the flip side, you see some of the questions about financial responsibility on a Democratically controlled City Council.”

“Is it important for me to win this race? Heck yeah, it is. I think the future of this county is at stake,” Deters said.