CINCINNATI -- There wasn’t any tension evident one night last week when seven candidates for the 31st District seat in the Ohio House of Representatives shared the stage in the MERC auditorium at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
No one called an opponent a “liar,” a “loser” or a “lightweight.” No one had a comment about the size of another candidate’s ears or hands, or their propensity to sweat profusely under the glare of overhead lights.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not a fair amount of friction in the March 15 primary race to choose a Democrat to run for the seat that incumbent Democrat Denise Driehaus must relinquish because of term limits that bar her from seeking a fifth consecutive two-year term.
But the discord in the race is being generated inside of the Democratic Party and has nothing to do with a battle between Democrats and Republicans.
Six of the candidates are Democrats, and five of them worked together in November to block the Hamilton County Democratic Executive Committee from endorsing Brigid Kelly, according to Brian Garry, Paul Booth and Paul Sohi, three of the Democrats who hope to capture the nomination to run against Republican Mary Yeager in November.
Garry said the party had been poised to provide Kelly with its support in the primary when he contacted the other candidates and persuaded them to urge the executive committee not to support one Democrat over another.
“We were all working for a no endorsement pre-primary. It’s unfair endorsing in a primary, because it’s the function of the people to select their candidate,” said Garry, who ran twice unsuccessfully for Cincinnati City Council in 2003 and 2007.
“It’s unfortunate, but the Hamilton County Democratic party does not have a policy on endorsing in primaries. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t,” said Booth.
Once it became clear that five of the candidates opposed the move to make an endorsement, Kelly said she opted not to accept a declaration of support from the party.
“We should be talking to voters about important issues and not get caught up in the process,” Kelly said. “Party politics doesn’t impact people every day. It’s inside baseball. We should be talking to people about the things that are really important to them.”
Garry and Sohi don’t agree that Kelly actually turned down the endorsement at a meeting of the party’s executive committee. Garry said he’s convinced Kelly didn’t pursue party support because she didn’t want to be labeled as the “establishment candidate” at a time when the political establishment has been the target of frequent fire.
With or without any formal endorsement from Hamilton County Democrats, it’s clear that Kelly may prove to be a formidable force March 15 and that she’s lined up substantial support from a long list of people and organizations that aren’t new to the political process.
Driehaus has made it clear that she backs Kelly, who also has received support from former governor and U.S. Senate candidate Ted Strickland, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, Norwood Mayor Tom Williams, 9th District Ohio Sen. Cecil Thomas, 32nd District State Rep. Christie Bryant Kuhns, two teachers’ unions and the Ohio AFL-CIO.
Two other points of contention involve political newcomer Ben Lindy, a Yale Law School graduate who has raised about $130,000 for his campaign, a total that’s second only to the $160,000 that Kelly has received in the race.
A campaign finance report filed last week shows that the Ohio Education Association Political Action Committee contributed $12,532 – the maximum amount allowable – to Kelly in the latter part of February.
When he was a law student at Yale in 2009, Lindy said he wrote a paper about teachers’ unions in New Mexico and the impact they had on student performance. His most unflattering findings about the unions were excerpted to support an argument that was made before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lindy said he did not know if the education association contributed to Kelly’s campaign because of the article, which was published in 2011 in the Yale Law Journal.
“I’m not sure why they decided to max out this contribution. It’s ironic because I’m the only one of the candidates who has been a public school teacher,” Lindy said. “I support collective bargaining rights for teachers.”
“We believe that Kelly is the strongest candidate, which is why we supported her,” Michele Prater, a spokeswoman for the association, said Sunday.
Lindy also said his campaign has been prohibited from taking advantage of lower postal rates that the state Democrats have provided to Kelly and other candidates.
Kelly, 32, who served one two-year term in 2006-07 on council in her hometown of Norwood, is the public relations director for Local 75 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
With the exception of Lindy, all of the other candidates have run for office at least once.
Kelly is the only woman running for the Democratic nomination, while the lone Republican on the ballot is Mary Yeager, 31, of Norwood, a CPA who ran for the 31st District seat two years ago. Booth is the only African-American on the ballot in a district in which just over a third of the voters are black. President Barack Obama carried the district with 68 percent of the vote in November 2012.
Perhaps surprisingly, if healthy teeth emerge as a critical issue in this race, voters have two choices: pediatric dentist Dr. Paul Sohi and Nicholas Hollan, who owns a dental practice in Roselawn.
Although she’s required to step down in a district that has a population of about 98,000, Driehaus isn’t disappearing from politics. She’s actually running on a bigger stage as a candidate for commissioner in Hamilton County, which has a population of about 807,000.
In terms of geography, the 31st District includes a substantial chunk of the city, including Oakley, part of Hyde Park, Madisonville, Evanston, Avondale, North Avondale, Walnut Hills, East Walnut Hills, Mount Auburn, Corryville, Clifton, Clifton Heights, University Heights and Fairview, part of Northside as well as St. Bernard, Silverton, Amberley Village, Norwood and a slice of Columbia Township.
Sohi said the district includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city – Evanston and East Walnut Hills – as well as far more affluent Hyde Park and Amberley Village.
“I think the district is really segregated both economically and socially,” he said.
Yeager, the lone Republican in the race, won the Republican primary in the 31st District two years ago but lost in the general election to Driehaus by more than a two-to-one margin.
Besides being an accountant, she is the mother of five who ran unsuccessfully for Norwood council in 2011 and Norwood treasurer in 2013.
During last week’s candidates’ forum, organized and sponsored by the Urban League Young Professionals of Southwest Ohio, Yeager said she was in the race for a variety of reasons, including her reluctance to concede the district to the Democrats.
“If I didn’t run in the primary, the representative for the district would have been decided in the primary,” Yeager said. “People need an extra eight months to ask questions about the candidates, and they need to have a choice.”
Yeager also said she thinks she can provide sound financial advice to state government about how to spend its money.
Some background on the Democrats:
Booth, 61, of Amberley Village was appointed to Cincinnati City Council in 1998 and then elected to two terms before he resigned in late 2003 when he was appointed by former Ohio Gov. Robert Taft to serve as the Democratic representative on the State Personnel Board of Review.
Booth said he held that state position for six years and then was appointed to the Ohio Liquor Control Commission by Strickland to a term that expired last year. He said he is now devoting all of his time to running for the 31st District seat.
Booth was the president of the local chapter of the NAACP for more than three years and now serves as co-chair of Cincinnati’s Economic Inclusion Advisory Council.
At the candidates’ forum last week and in a follow-up interview, Booth said his No. 1 priority is “constituent service. That’s at the top of my list – effective and timely customer service.”
He said a variety of “quality of life” issues also are extremely important: expanding Medicaid coverage, improving the quality of education from preschool to high school, and restoring local government funding that has been cut by the state Legislature.
Garry, 50, of Clifton grew up in Bond Hill and emphasized that he has a long track record of working on social justice issues.
A video of Garry making an impassioned pitch for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a rally is featured prominently on his campaign website, and he said he and Sanders are sharing office space for their campaigns in downtown Cincinnati.
Garry mentioned a long list of issues he considers important. But when pressed to select one as a top priority, he talked about “more education and less incarceration” as a key to improving the lives of Cincinnatians, especially African-Americans. He said somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of African-American men are either in prison or on parole or probation.
Garry, who has a two-year degree from the University of Cincinnati and a bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University, owns a building and remodeling company called Green City EcoStruction, which emphasizes energy efficiency and sustainable building practices.
“We hire urban youth and disenfranchised workers – felons – people who are recovering and need a second chance,” Garry said when asked about his company.
Responding to a question about voting rights at the Urban League forum, Garry said Republicans routinely try to suppress a voter turnout because they’ve done the math. “They do this because they know that there are more of us (Democrats) than there are of them,” Garry said.
The Rev. Damon Lynch III, a well-know activist, is among the prominent Cincinnatians who have endorsed Garry.
Hollan, 35, of Clifton owns Valley Dental Management Service, which manages a dental practice in Roselawn. He said 93 percent of the Valley Dental patients receive assistance through the Medicaid program.
Hollan ran unsuccessfully for Cincinnati City Council in 2009 and 2011 and is in his second year of a three-year term as a Clifton Town Meeting (Clifton Community Council) trustee.
Hollan introduced himself at the Urban League forum last week but left early to chair a Clifton education committee meeting. One topic discussed at the meeting was Cincinnati Public Schools’ plan to use the old Clifton School building again, displacing the Clifton Cultural Art Center, he said.
Another important issue in the neighborhood is access to a quality education at the elementary level. The neighborhood school for Clifton is Rockdale Academy Elementary School, one of the poorest-performing schools in the city, Hollan said.
He said his two key issues are early childhood education and expanding health care coverage in the state. Hollan also voiced unequivocal support for Planned Parenthood, an organization that has been controversial in Cincinnati and elsewhere in the country.
“It all boils down to community service,” said Hollan, who added that he had been active in the Westwood neighborhood before he moved to Clifton with his family.
Kelly, who moved to Hyde Park about six months ago, was born and raised in Norwood and received an undergraduate degree from Xavier University in marketing and entrepreneurship and a master’s degree in human resources from the University of Cincinnati.
Key issues are paid leave for family members who have an infant child or an illness in the family, strengthening local schools and holding corporations responsible when they take advantage of Ohio citizens, Kelly said.
Her most recent campaign expense report showed that she had raised more money – about $150,000 – than any other candidate in the race, she said.
Lindy, 35, a Cincinnati native and Yale Law School graduate, lives in Hyde Park and works as the executive director for the Southwest Ohio region of Teach For America, a nonprofit that focuses on providing a quality education for children from low-income families all over the country. The 25-year-old organization, based in New York, recruits teachers to work in low-income communities for two-year periods.
After completing law school, Lindy said he worked on the central office staff for the Washington, D.C., schools and was assigned to hire teachers. He then taught school for three years in North Carolina through Teach For America, which is supported through donations.
A graduate of Walnut Hills High School, Lindy said he stands out from the other candidates because he’s the only lawyer and former teacher in the race.
Opening up opportunities for education and the economy and reforming the criminal justice system are top priority issues, according to Lindy. He said he also believes that independent prosecutors should be called in routinely to handle shooting incidents involving police officers.
Sohi, 57, of Mount Auburn has offices for his Cincinnati Dental Care in Clifton and Norwood. He is a native of India who lived in Chicago while studying dentistry at Loyola University. He has lived in Cincinnati for nearly 29 years and is a former attending surgeon in dentistry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
He ran for office two years ago and finished fourth in a field of six Democrats who vied for the 9th District Ohio Senate seat that had been held by Sen. Eric Kearney, who could not seek re-election because of term limits. Cecil Thomas won the primary as well as the general election.
“A critical issue is health care,” said Sohi, who made it clear that he supports the Affordable Care Act and said the 99-member Ohio House does not have a single member with a medical or health care background.
Sohi said he believes he would bring important insight to the Legislature on issues such as the heroin epidemic and generic drugs. Crumbling neighborhoods that have been labeled “concentrated disadvantaged areas” also are a serious problem that Sohi pledged to address.
“There is no transportation, deplorable housing, bad roads, no grocery stores and no place for the kids to go,” Sohi said. “This is very challenging for me, but I like challenges.”