CINCINNATI -- Republican Matthew Wahlert doesn’t pull any punches with his message to voters in his effort to win the 32nd District seat in Ohio’s House of Representatives.
“You have given the Democrats 50 years. …Consider giving me two,” Wahlert says on a campaign website where he lists some of the gloomy facts about a district that is among the poorest in the state.
Whether anyone pays attention to his appeal is, of course, the critical question in a district that includes Cincinnati’s downtown business district and could have been called “Malloryville” ever since 1966.
That’s when the late William L. Mallory Sr. was first elected to represent the 32nd and began to establish himself as the patriarch of what was to become one of the most powerful families in Cincinnati politics.
Mallory represented the district until 1994, when he stepped aside to clear the way for his son Mark to run and win a seat that he held for four years. Mark Mallory then won two terms in the Ohio Senate and followed that with two terms as mayor of Cincinnati.
Catherine Barrett held the seat from 1999 until 2006 and was succeeded by Dale Mallory – son of William, brother of Mark – who won four terms before he was required to step down because of term limits at the end of 2014.
Term limits, however, weren’t his only problem. In the fall of 2014, Dale Mallory pleaded guilty to accepting an improper gift from a lobbyist and then failing to report that gift on a state-required disclosure form.
But as the March 15 primary approaches, there’s no Mallory and no incumbent on the ballot for a district represented by lawyer Christie Bryant Kuhns, who announced last December that she would not seek a second two-year term because she has agreed to take a job with UC Health to lead what she described as “strategic community relations activities.”
Her decision to step down prompted four Democrats to dive into the primary and square off against Wahlert, the lone Republican challenger in a district where Democrats rarely lose. President Barack Obama, for example, received nearly 77 percent of the votes that were cast in the 2012 presidential election.
Catherine Ingram, 64, of Mount Auburn, one of the four Democrats, said one poorly kept secret in the district is that Mark Mallory considered running for the seat again last year before he decided to support Shawn Butler, who was his director of community affairs during his term as mayor.
Butler, 35, of Mount Auburn acknowledged that Mallory told him that he might run but quickly changed his mind and decided against launching another campaign. Butler said he is appreciative of Mallory’s support, including a recent Mallory mailing that strongly endorses Butler.
The district, which has a population of about 103,400, is comprised of the central business district Downtown, Mount Healthy, North College Hill, unincorporated White Oak and a broad spectrum of Cincinnati neighborhoods, including Over-the-Rhine, Mount Adams, Mount Auburn, most of Northside, Westwood, College Hill, Cummingsville, the West End and a small slice of East Price Hill.
Ballotpedia, a website that tracks politics across the country, says the district is about 44 percent African-American and less than 3 percent Hispanic, while the balance of the district is white. Each of the three largest ethnic groups in the district is represented on the ballot. Three candidates are African-American, one is Hispanic and Wahlert is white.
And while six of the seven candidates in the neighboring 31st District have run for office at least once, only two of five candidates in the 32nd have track records at the ballot box.
Ingram, the only woman in the race, served five four-year terms on the Cincinnati school board before she decided not to seek re-election in 2013. Two years ago she lost in the Democratic primary for the 9th District Senate seat that is now held by Cecil Thomas.
She has a bachelor of science degree and an MBA from the University of Cincinnati and sells real estate for Comey & Shepherd Realtors. She has a long and varied work history.
Ingram said she worked full-time as a lecturer at Northern Kentucky University for 10 years and also was employed for about 20 years in public affairs for Cincinnati Gas & Electric and its successors.
During a candidates’ forum last week that was sponsored by the Urban League Young Professionals of Greater Southwest Ohio, Ingram joked that all of the other candidates on stage were young enough to be her children.
As might be expected from a longtime board of education member and a college lecturer, Ingram said education issues are her top priorities.
“Education is a key. We need some stability in what is expected from students, parents and educators,” said Ingram, who added that the battle over Common Core educational standards at the state level has created confusion for everyone.
She also said she wants to see improved services for senior citizens as well as improvements in the health care system for people who receive benefits through the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
Butler, 35, of Mount Auburn works as a resident specialist for The Community Builders, a nonprofit that owns or manages some 11,000 apartments in the Midwest and Northeast. He graduated from Walnut Hills Hill School and has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Cincinnati.
According to Republican Wahlert and U.S. Census Bureau data, only four of Ohio’s 99 House Districts are poorer than the 32nd when the districts are ranked by median household income. That figure is $30,700 compared to $54,700 for the entire city. By comparison, the 67th District around Delaware has the highest median in the state: $88,300.
Wahlert also points out that the district has the sixth-highest percentage of residents receiving food assistance (28 percent) and ranks 10th from the bottom in terms of educational attainment.
When asked to comment about poverty in the district, Butler said he wasn’t surprised. “I grew up as one of those statistics,” he said, adding that he now lives across the street from the home where he grew up. “Sometimes you have to work hard to overcome the statistics,” he said.
Butler said that one way to fight poverty is to improve the education system, which is his top priority for the campaign. He said every study demonstrates that getting a good job hinges on getting a good education. No. 2 on his priority list is creating jobs and developing a workforce that can handle those jobs, Butler said.
He also stressed the importance of improving services for senior citizens and the public transportation system.
Butler, who ran unsuccessfully for Cincinnati City Council in 2013, currently serves as a member of the Talbert House Executive Board, the Hamilton County Convention Center Facilities Board, the Cincinnati Human Services Advisory Committee and the Executive Committee of the Cincinnati Chapter of the NAACP.
Kevin Johnson is running as a write-in candidate for the seat and did not respond to requests for an interview.
In a Facebook posting about his campaign, Johnson said that he grew up in Avondale, graduated from Hughes High School and Morehouse College in Atlanta and then returned to Cincinnati to work for the Kroger Co. in regional management.
In the fall of 2007, Johnson and two partners founded Amir Wallace Johnson Cleaning Concepts, which is described as a “post-construction cleaning company.” Two years later, they expanded the company to Atlanta and then in 2012 to Charlotte, N.C., according to campaign information on Facebook.
Johnson was a community liaison for Chris Bortz’s re-election campaign and campaign manager for Jason Riveiro, who was the first Hispanic to run for City Council in Cincinnati in 2011. He also worked as a legislative aide to former Cincinnati council member Laketa Cole.
Johnson said he is running to ensure that the people in the district have a “clear measured voice in the Ohio House of Representatives.”
The lone Hispanic candidate is Leo D’Cruz, 34, of Northside, who has lived in Greater Cincinnati for about seven years and is originally from the area near Ithaca, N.Y. He said his background includes work as a community organizer in Philadelphia.
He and his wife, Michelle, run a business called Reverb Art + Design on Court Street, Downtown, and publish The Northsider Monthly newspaper.
D’Cruz received an undergraduate degree in international politics from Penn State and a master’s from George Mason University in sociology, which he taught at Cincinnati State. He said he and his wife played a role in the successful campaign to end admission charges at the Contemporary Art Center.
D’Cruz said the district is significant for a variety of reasons, including its incredible diversity from the Downtown business district and iconic institutions to crumbling neighborhoods.
“One thing I tell voters is that we’re all in this together and that it’s a diverse community with the economic engine and cultural treasures and vast poverty,” he said.
“One of the biggest issues for voters is livability – will I be able to age in place and will I be able to afford to stay in my neighborhood,” Cruz said. Almost equally important to him is the broad issue of equitable access to educational opportunities and quality health care, he said.
Wahlert, 46, lives in North College Hill and teaches Advanced Placement history and political science at St. Henry High School in Erlanger.
Wahlert, who holds a bachelors degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate in political science from Miami University, said he has studied voting patterns in the district and knows that he will have a tough battle against one of the Democrats in November.
“The big picture is that we can do much better. The 32nd District has kind of been left behind economically and educationally. It just doesn’t get the attention that other areas get,” Wahlert said.
Wahlert links the dominance of Democrats to its poor rankings when compared to other Ohio House districts.
“The district is hurting, and there’s just no talk about the issues – no discussion about the issues. It’s just assumed that the Democrat will win and that the Republican will be led to th