Amy Murray isn’t just running to keep her Cincinnati City Council seat this year – she’s trying to hold on to the last council seat controlled by a Republican in Ohio’s three major cities.
Both Cleveland and Columbus city councils lack any Republicans -– a fate that could happen in Cincinnati in November.
In recent years, Ohio’s big cities have become increasingly Democratic, while the state’s rural areas have deepened as red Republican.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton may have lost big in Ohio in the November presidential election, but she won in Hamilton County by a wide margin that even Barack Obama didn't match in 2012.
At the local level, Democrats won the clerk of court race, two Hamilton County Commission seats, and all three county levies passed overwhelmingly in 2016.
This means there's a lot of excitement among Democrats.
“We will have too many candidates for City Council again and (the Republicans) will struggle to have enough,” said county Democratic Party chair Tim Burke. “I know that we will have more people wanting to get a Democratic endorsement than we have seats to endorse."
That’s why the Hamilton County GOP has made keeping Murray’s council seat its top priority this year.
“I think she’s well positioned, but we know the demographics so we’re not going to take anything for granted,” said county GOP chair Alex Triantafilou. “We obviously want to have a voice – or more than one voice -- in the city of Cincinnati.”
Murray won her council seat in 2013 with the lowest number of votes by a winner. That came with the help of hundreds of college students, retirees and others making phone calls and knocking on doors for her campaign.
While Murray will have much stronger name recognition going into the 2017 election, she will also have heavy competition from a Democratic slate of at least eight new candidates and four council members who are running again – David Mann, P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach.
Independent Christopher Smitherman is also running for re-election.
“It is a tough spot and I just feel so strongly for the city that I’m willing to put myself out there,” Murray said. “I will do the work and run the best campaign I can and work as hard as I can on City Council. That’s all you can do.”
Already Murray has raised $120,000 and expects to hit $300,000, which is a hefty amount for a council race - and $100,000 more than she raised in the 2013 race.
Her campaign will focus on her as a councilwoman for the neighborhoods, she said.
“I think for a city race, it’s less about your party affiliation and it’s more about what you have done and what you have accomplished,” Murray said.
For example, Murray made a point to visit all 52 community councils in the city in 2016, where she frequently hands out her office number and encourages citizens to call with any issue – from trash to potholes.
As chair of council’s Major Transportation and Regional Cooperation Committee, she has gained a reputation for making sure the project (which she did not vote for) came in on time and on budget. She is known for politely questioning how City Council spends its money.
“That’s one of the reasons I decided to run - you need a business person in there who says we need to manage our budget,” said Murray, who spent 14 years with Procter & Gamble and is fluent in Japanese.
But touting her achievements may not help if voters simply choose a straight-ticket of Democratic candidates in November. The top nine vote-getters of any party win council seats.
Just ask Dimitrious Stanley, a former Ohio State University wide receiver and a Republican who ran for Columbus City Council in 2015.
Despite money and name recognition, he still lost. He did come the closest to edging out a Democrat in the race.
Would he have won if he were a Democrat?
“Absolutely,” Stanley said.
The Republican Party doesn’t talk about social issues and civil rights issues, which are important to black urban voters, which gives Democrats a natural edge, he said: “The Republican Party has done a terrible time reaching out to the black community."
His advice for Murray: talk about social issues on the campaign trail.
“She has a tough road,” he added.
Yet, if Murray is the only Republican incumbent running (Councilman Charlie Winburn is term-limited from running again), she will benefit from all of the local party’s attention -- and money.
“Fundraising is a big component, and we will help rally donors to her side,” Triantafilou said. “I predict she will finish above her finish last time.”
So far the Republican slate looks pretty lean.
Two candidates have told Triantafilou they would like to run for council: Jeffrey Pastor, who is active in the Ohio Republican Party, and community activist Tamie Sullivan.
Meanwhile this election is crucial for Murray. Her name is already being floated as a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018.
“It’s really an honor to have that recognition and to have my name be on a list,” Murray said. “My focus right now is on winning City Council and serving City Council for four years. That is my interest and my passion right now.”