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Remembering Todd Portune's life of public service

Posted at 10:08 PM, Jan 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-28 07:13:22-05

CINCINNATI — Todd Portune, who wouldn’t allow disability or cancer to stop him from becoming the longest-serving elected commissioner in Hamilton County history, has died.

Portune's family announced the news Saturday night, with the release of a statement:

It is with sadness that the family of Todd B. Portune share the news of his passing at his home in Green Township Saturday evening. Todd was surrounded by his entire family and passed with grace and peace. Todd was a tireless champion for all people, and has left the world a better place through his long legacy of care and love for Hamilton County. Todd is survived by his greatest love of all, his children Ethan, Ellyse and Emma. The family would like to thank everyone who has expressed their support, and well wishes. Arrangements for his services will be announced soon.

The 61-year-old father of three spent 27 years in public service, where he was known for a tireless work ethic and devotion to the needs of average citizens.

He served four terms on Cincinnati City Council before breaking the Republican stronghold on the Hamilton County Commission in 2000 by becoming the first Democrat to be elected in nearly four decades.

Photo provided by Hamilton County.

Portune never let his long health battle, or the amputation of his leg, deter him from public service. He left his mark across the Cincinnati skyline, from The Banks and Paul Brown Stadium, to the county administration building, which will be renamed in his honor.

“You can see his fingerprints on almost every part of our county. And that’s a testament to his 20 years of service,” said Chris Monzel, who served on city council and the commission with Portune.

When Monzel visited Portune at Christ Hospital recently, he said Portune’s eternal optimism was intact, as he raved about the view of the city skyline from his hospital bed.

Portune announced his retirement in September, telling reporters that his cancer had returned and chemotherapy could not stop its spread. He officially resigned on Dec. 31 and his chief of staff, Victoria Parks, took over as commissioner.

Todd Portune at September 2019 press conference announcing his retirement.

“Public service is in my blood. It’s a mission, it’s a calling. It’s not a job,” Portune said in September. “It’s what I am, it’s what I’ve been about, and I love what I do.”

Portune was called to public service at a young age.

“When his father died, he was walking from the funeral with one of his friends and trying to figure out what he was going to do and he’s like, ‘I felt this electricity in my stomach that I’m supposed to do something,’” Monzel said. “’That I’m supposed to give back, to make my community better.’ He felt that at the age of 14.”

Portune graduated from Colerain High School, where he was a track star in 1976.

Todd Portune, second from left, on his Colerain High School track team. Photo provided by Hamilton County.

Afterward, Olympic gold medalist and former Bengal Tommie Smith recruited Portune to run track at Oberlin College.

While at Oberlin, Portune set seven school track records and was a standout football player. He was inducted into Oberlin’s Hall of Fame in 1998.

Todd Portune ran track at Oberlin College. Photo provided by Oberlin.

He graduated from the University of Cincinnati Law School and worked as an attorney until he was tapped to replace David Mann on Cincinnati City Council in 1993 after Mann had won a congressional seat.

Three years later, doctors discovered tumors on Portune’s spinal cord. Treatment of a blood clot in 2002 caused those tumors to hemorrhage, paralyzing his leg and leaving him a paraplegic.

“This is a man who was told 16 years ago that he would never walk again because he had tumors around his spine,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said. “He was in a wheelchair for a year and a half and he trained himself back to be able to walk.”

Photo provided by Hamilton County.

Cranley described Portune as a visionary “for civil rights, equal rights, disability rights and to speak up for the taxpayer in ways that a lot of other people were afraid to do when he did it.”

“A little bit like FDR he was able to overcome his physical disability to continue to serve, but unlike FDR he didn’t hide it and showed people … what people with disabilities can do to continue to serve,” Cranley said.

In 2000 Portune pulled off a political miracle when voters elected him to the Hamilton County Commission as the first Democrat in nearly 40 years. His attacks on the Bengals stadium deal, with himself as an action figure in television commercials, helped him break the Republican stronghold.

“Todd was Cincinnati’s really original populist,” said former commissioner Greg Hartmann. “The way he viewed public service was incredible in his care for every single citizen.”

Photo provided by Hamilton County.

Portune never lost an election, serving for 19 years on commission, where he helped overhaul the SORTA Board and the Metropolitan Sewer District, develop The Banks, and improve infant mortality and dental health for the impoverished.

"In the past seven years, because of his leadership, Hamilton County’s infant-mortality rate has been dropping – more than 130 lives have been saved," said Ryan Adcock, director of Cradle Cincinnati, an organization that Portune helped to create.

"Lives were saved because Todd Portune simply would not give up. He first became aware of our county’s high infant-mortality rate in the year 2000. Only after more than a decade of fighting for change, including several false starts and hard lessons, did he get to see the fruit of his hard work," Adcock said. "That level of commitment is irreplaceable and he will be greatly missed."

Portune was known to give long public speeches and would not end a meeting until every citizen had a chance to speak. He had a special love for transportation projects, often championing big ideas involving multi-modal transit.

Photo provided by Hamilton County.

Many Republicans deeply respected him because he didn’t make partisan attacks or pick personal fights; he simply debated the issues.

“I often disagreed with Todd, but never found him disagreeable,” said Hamilton County Republican Party chairman Alex Triantafilou. “I liked him because of his passion for public service. He was a tireless combatant, but he did it with good humor.”

In August 2018, not long after he had his leg amputated, Portune showed up unexpectedly at a Republican meeting at Price Hill Chili to launch a petition drive to repeal a sales tax increase that had been passed by Democrats.

“Todd had the gumption to show up at our petition-signing party at Price Hill Chili. He showed up, answered questions, respectfully and politely argued with us and FACED THE PEOPLE,” Triantafilou wrote on his Facebook page. “The picture also is a stark reminder that Todd Portune had recently lost his leg.”

Even as Portune faced losing his leg, he did so with the same unwavering optimism that defined him. He told colleagues and reporters that a new prosthetic leg would allow him to walk better than ever.

“He’s never showed anything but courage through it. He’s an amazing person, he really is,” Hartmann said.

Even as Portune’s health declined in 2018, he never backed away from public service, going so far as to meet with commissioners at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Todd Portune, with Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus. Photo provided by Hamilton County.

“His heart is with the people of this county and he will go to great lengths to help people in this community and he doesn’t care what anybody thinks about any of it,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus at a December meeting in which she announced the county administration building would be renamed in Portune’s honor.

City leaders will also rename a portion of Court Street in front of the county administration building as Todd Portune Way.

Todd Portune with two of his three children, Ethan and Elyse. Photo provided by Hamilton County.

At the September 2019 press conference, surrounded by family and friends, Portune seemed at peace with what lay ahead.

“I thank God for the privilege to have had the life that I have,” he said. “And if that means I get to live for a long time, that’s great. And if that means that the Lord has something else in mind for me, then I’m comfortable with that, too.

“Because I’ve lived a wonderful life. And we should all be thankful for the lives that we have and the blessings that we have received.”

A public visitation will be held from 10:00 a.m. to noon Monday at the Duke Energy Convention Center with a funeral service immediately following. The family invites the public to participate in the procession from the convention center to Spring Grove Cemetery but ask that his burial be private for close family and friends. Traffic control will be in place to direct drivers around the gates.

Portune's family said donations can be made in his honor to the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati.

Arrangements are being handled by Spring Grove Funeral Homes.