Top 9 political stories in the Tri-State for 2012

CINCINNATI - Whether at the local, state or national level, the past 12 months were full of unexpected occurrences for political junkies.

They included longtime politicians losing their seats, newcomers faring well against establishment-backed candidates and issues that had seemed like long-shots prevailing at the polls.

Here are nine notable surprises in Tri-State politics for 2012.

1.    Jim Neil's upset victory for sheriff: No one saw it coming, maybe not even the candidate himself. When Jim Neil resigned as a deputy from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office in 2011, he did so with the intent to run for sheriff as a Democrat.

But Neil knew it would be a difficult task. After all, Hamilton County was a Republican stronghold and Simon Leis Jr., the man who held the job for the past 25 years, was the GOP's public face to area voters. After Leis was first appointed sheriff in 1987, he was elected to the post six times. His no-nonsense style was a hit with many people who liked to see him aggressively pursue obscenity cases against Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, or show off the sheriff's tank and submarine in the annual Harvest Home Parade.

To make matters worse for Neil, the Republican candidate for sheriff was Sean Donovan, Leis' chief deputy for 15 years and his preferred successor. Money and endorsements poured into Donovan's campaign, which ran a series of radio commercials touting him as "the new sheriff in town." Meanwhile, Neil mostly relied on knocking on doors and putting up yard signs.

Voters, however, apparently were ready for a change. Defying the odds, Neil defeated Donovan on Election Night, capturing almost 54 percent of the vote.

Neil has pledged to cut wasteful spending. "I would lay off the tank or submarine before I lay off another service provider," he said.

2.    No opponents run for county commission (again): Hamilton County voters could be excused if -- when they went to the polls in November -- they thought it was 2008 and not 2012.

That's because this year, just as it was back then, Democrat Todd Portune ran unopposed for one seat on the Hamilton County Commission, while Republican Greg Hartmann ran unopposed for the other commission seat up for grabs.

Four years ago, many political purists were angry when the local Democratic and Republican party chairmen cut a deal to have their candidates not face opposition in their respective races. Attorney Stan Chesley, a frequent contributor to both parties, brokered that deal.

This year, the same circumstance developed, although supposedly by coincidence and not design. Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke and Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou said they couldn't find anyone willing to put in the time and effort to challenge the incumbents. Some lesser-known members of both parties, however, privately said they offered to run but were rebuffed.

3.    Hamilton County lets down Karl Rove: Just as it has done in at least the previous two presidential election cycles, Ohio once again played a pivotal role in who would win the White House in 2012. And particular attention was paid to Southwest Ohio.

Nowhere was the region's influence more on display than shortly after 11 p.m. on Election Night, when Republican adviser Karl Rove cautioned Fox News against calling the election for President Obama.

By that time, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and the Associated Press had all declared Obama the victor based on exit polling, but Rove told Fox hosts that too many votes remained uncounted in suburban areas around Cincinnati. "The city of Cincinnati is mostly suburbs of Republicans," Rove said, and the tide could turn in Mitt Romney's favor.

It didn't. Although Romney won Butler and Warren counties, Obama won the more heavily populated Hamilton County with 52.5 percent of the vote, compared to Romney's 46.2 percent.

4.    Phil Trzop wins election, but is arrested: Less than two weeks after Phil Trzop won election as mayor of Walton. Ky., he was once again making headlines.

Trzop was arrested Nov. 16 for alleged wrongdoing connected to his day job as general manager of the Boone County Water District. The Sheriff's Office said Trzop claimed he used cash from the sales of scrap metal to give Christmas bonuses to employees, but an investigation revealed the cash was stored at his house.  Any proceeds from the sale should've gone into the county's general fund, deputies added.

Trzop was charged with abuse of public trust, a felony punishable by five-10 years in prison. He refused to resign as Walton's mayor but was fired from his water district job. Trzop pleaded not guilty earlier this month.

5.    Voters decide to give City Council more time: Led by Cincinnati City Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan (a former WCPO reporter), a wide-ranging group of activists successfully pushed to pass a charter amendment that extended council members' terms from two year to four years.

Quinlivan, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and others said the reform was a common-sense change that would allow city leaders to focus on their jobs more instead of campaigning every other year. Opponents — which included the Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party and ex-City Councilman Jeff Berding – said the switch essentially provides a pay raise for politicians as they're assured an additional two years in office. Further, they disliked that no recall provision was included.

Nevertheless, Cincinnati voters ultimately sided with Issue 4's backers and extended council terms.  In all, 51.4 percent favored the change, compared to 48.6 percent opposed.

Even with the change, council members are restricted to serving eight consecutive years on the group, just as before.

6.    Weekend voting causes a battle royale: When Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted acted to eliminate early voting during the last three days before the Nov. 6 election, critics cried foul.

Although weekend voting had existed in Ohio since 2005, Husted – a Republican -- said the practice was impractical because Ohio's 88 counties could establish different voting times and it caused a financial burden on local boards of election. Moreover, he said it was unnecessary because his office mailed absentee ballots to all 6.8 million registered voters in Ohio, which he said was a simpler solution.

Democrats said the change was partisan in nature, noting that nearly 93,000 voters had used weekend voting in 2008. Many of them were Democrats and African-Americans, who vote after Sunday church services in an effort known as "Souls to the Polls." Further, they noted that although Democrats on local boards of elections had voted to extend hours in predominantly GOP counties, Republicans had refused to return the favor in predominantly Democratic counties, creating an unfair situation.

Ultimately, a federal appeals court defied Husted and reinstated voting on the weekend before the election.  The U.S. Supreme Court then refused Husted's request to get involved in the dispute, letting the earlier ruling stand.

7.    Jean Schmidt loses the Republican primary: Say what you want about the Republican from Miami Township; Schmidt was never dull.

Since she was first elected to Ohio's 2nd Congressional District seat during a special election in June 2005 to replace Rob Portman, Schmidt made headlines. There was the time, just five months after joining the House, that she angered her colleagues by calling Congressman John Murtha -- a disabled, decorated former Marine -- a coward for supporting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

That was followed by various controversies including the Ohio Elections Commission reprimanding Schmidt for falsely claiming to have a second bachelor's degree that she didn't; and a finding by the House Ethics Committee that Schmidt violated rules when she accepted more than $400,000 in free legal assistance to fund a lawsuit against a political opponent.

The actions took their toll, over time. During her fifth congressional election this year, Schmidt was challenged in the GOP's March primary by Dr. Brad Wenstrup, a Cincinnati podiatrist and Iraq war veteran. Wenstrup defeated Schmidt, 49 percent-43 percent, and went on to win the general election in November.

8.    Mysterious backers for Butch: In the general election, Wenstrup faced off against Democrat William R. Smith, a 61-year-old truck driver from the small town of Waverly.

Smith, whose friends called him "Butch," was a bit of an enigma. He'd never ran for public office before and the Democratic Party chairmen in the 2nd District's most populous counties had never heard of him. Even more odd, the dark horse won the Democratic primary against perennial candidate David Krikorian by just 59 votes – even though Krikorian campaigned heavily and Smith pretty much stayed at home.

The outcome got more intriguing when it was revealed that a barrage of automated telephone calls stumping for Smith a few days before the primary were paid for by a group known as the "Victory Ohio Super PAC." But the group wasn't registered with the Federal Election Commission. PACs must file reports with the FEC if they spend more than $1,000 on activities that advocate for the election or defeat of a federal candidate. The U.S. Attorney's Office launched an investigation but, as of late December, no one has discovered who funded the calls.

9.    Thomas Massie bucks the political machine: Some pundits allege November's election results show the tea party's support is waning nationwide, but one place where it remains rock-solid is Kentucky.

Massie, an engineer and business owner who was Lewis County judge-executive, entered a crowded field to run for Kentucky's 4th Congressional District seat. It all began when five-term Republican congressman Geoff Davis abruptly announced in July that he was resigning due to an unspecified "family health issue."

Davis' departure ignited a scramble for the seat, with seven candidates jumping into the GOP primary. The field included such better-known names like State Rep. Alecia Webb-Edgington and Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore. After Massie nabbed the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite, he got 45 percent of the vote and scored the party's nomination.

Massie easily defeated Democrat Bill Adkins in the general election, winning 62 percent of the vote. The results show the Bluegrass State still is partial to the tea party's message of reducing federal spending and scaling back the size of government.

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