The most influential job you've never heard of

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jan 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-27 06:00:52-05

It is the lowest rung on the political ladder.

Yet this year in Hamilton County, some of the fiercest races in the March Democratic primary will be at the most grassroots level – neighborhood precinct executive.

This job is virtually unknown outside of political circles. Yet there are 78 opposed races, and in some Downtown neighborhoods up to six Democrats are competing for a single seat.

“There are more (contests) than I can recall in any year since I have been chair. That’s 20-plus years,” said Hamilton County Democratic party chair Tim Burke.

Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke

A growing rift among county Democrats may be the reason for this new volunteerism. The party has been divided over support for the streetcar and the failed city parks levy. Just as polarizing is Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, who is up for re-election in 2017.

While precinct executives don’t have much power, they do control party endorsements. They will decide the official party stance on the 2017 mayoral race, and any local tax levies on the ballot.

“These races, if nothing else, are about fights within the family… the Cranleys vs. the anti-Cranleys,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven.

There is a long political rift between Cranley and other Democrats on Cincinnati City Council, most notably Chris Seelbach and Yvette Simpson.

If some Democrats want to change the direction of the party, running for precinct executive, “is the direct route,” Niven said.

There are 662 precincts in Hamilton County. In 59 percent of them, someone is running for the executive position, according to board of elections records.

Even more astounding is that in 78 races there is a contest between at least two people, and in many cases between three or four, all for a single seat. There are usually only 40 contested races, Burke said.

“All these folks, I hope they will be devoting time for whomever is our candidate for president …. and all the candidates running for other offices,” Burke said. “We need to fight those battles before we fight over who gets the Democratic endorsement for mayor in 2017.”

Many precincts in rural areas of the county, which lean Republican, have no one running. These seats stay empty until the Democratic party’s executive committee makes appointments, Burke said.

But precincts in Cincinnati, particularly Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, have highly competitive races. That’s where Ryan Messer is running for precinct executive for a second time.

“John Cranley’s team has too much control over what the Democratic Party (endorses),” said Messer, who is also president of the Over-the-Rhine community council.

He believes the city parks levy, for example, might not have received the party’s backing last fall if a different group of people were selected as precinct executives.

“(The parks levy endorsement) woke a lot of people up and they said, ‘we’ve got get a lot of people at the table,’” Messer said. “The mayor had a stronghold.”

Don Mooney, who is another Cranley critic, has run off and on for precinct executive for 20 years, and is running opposed this year.

“There is divide among Democrats about whether Mayor Cranley should be re-elected,” he said. “There is an informal effort to encourage people to run to make sure folks do not support an early endorsement of Mayor Cranley.”

John Cranley winning the mayor's race in 2013

Cranley will seek his party’s endorsement when he runs for re-election in 2017, said Jay Kincaid, his chief of staff.

"John has spent his entire career working for the Democratic Party,” Kincaid said. “Like Mayor Luken and Mayor Mallory before him, of course Mayor Cranley will seek the party’s endorsement. We believe it is warranted.”

Cranley has recruited many people to run for precinct executive, just as his opponents have done, Burke said.

“I have tried to recruit people as well for my own self-preservation,” Burke said. “When there’s controversy, there tends to be greater interest.”

Burke, who chairs the party, doesn’t know of anyone who is running against him for the top spot. But that could change, he said.

Dan Driehaus, a Hyde Park resident who has served in a precinct post for 20 years, is running opposed for the first time he can remember.

“This is a good problem – if it’s a problem, it’s certainly a good problem,” Driehaus said. “The fact that people want to influence the party at that level and exert their influence, I think it’s a wonderful situation for the Democratic Party.”

And if there is controversy, Driehaus doesn’t want to be a part it.

“I’m friends with Yvette Simpson and I like John Cranley,” Dreihaus said. “I don’t like the idea that I’m not allowed to like both people.”