Sharen Neuhardt wants an Ohio Democratic Party leadership and membership that represents the diversity of its various regions and constituencies.
Most recently a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Neuhardt has also run twice for U.S. Congress in 2008, and 2012. She lives in Yellow Springs and grew up in Dayton. She graduated from Northwestern University and earned her law degree from Georgetown University.
She has practiced business law in western Ohio with Smith & Schnacke, which became Thompson Hine. After serving for a period as general counsel at Lexis/Nexis, Neuhardt returned to Thompson Hine as head of the firm’s corporate group.
“I think that we have an opportunity here to take the party to the next level and that we need to do a much better job of involving everybody who has a stake in the party and is active in party politics,” she said. “We need to make sure they are in on the conversations and that they aren’t just a rubber stamp.”
Neuhardt said that as a corporate lawyer she finds many of the party’s bylaws incomprehensible.
“The best I can tell, the only thing the executive committee is supposed to do is elect the chair and the secretary and treasurer,” she said. “We have to put a leadership team in place so it’s not just the chair, and however many hundred underneath who never get consulted.”
The one consistent message she’s heard from all regions in Ohio is that people feel left out. They don’t think they get the respect they need, she said. People aren’t happy, Neuhardt added, with their relationships with the state party and the new leadership must do a better job of making people feel like they’ve been heard.
That involves listening, she said, and that she’s been doing, traveling around the state and spending countless hours on the phone, having conversations about what people want to see in the party and how to move forward.
“A couple things I would do,” she said. “I am very much about diversity and inclusivity. I think that we have to make sure the party leaders, from top to bottom, look like the base of the party. In January, I’m going to spend some time talking to folks all over the state about what kind of organization they think works best, and assemble a leadership team with responsibilities in different areas, and then empower them to get their work done.”
She pointed to Brad Sellers, mayor of Warrensville Heights, and a retired NBA player, who she said would be her vice-chair. She said that Sellers never had a lot of involvement in the state party in the past due to a lack of outreach.
“He’s the kind of leader I want to pull in and get their voices. I think we need to bring in more people like Brad Sellers,” she said.
Neuhardt also wants to hold a summit of county party chairs.
“I want people to come together and have conversations over a Saturday about how we (at the state party) can help the county parties succeed,” she said. “That would include lots of things, you hear people talk about regionalism, so could we organize things a little differently? How can we get the resources down into the counties? How can we change the relationships so counties feel more respected by the state party?”
Her goal is not a gripe-session, though.
“I want to come out of this with a list of specific recommendations we can implement, and I’m willing to put some party resources behind it,” she said.
Another major goal Neuhardt said she’d have is to, by early January, ask African-American leaders in the party to convene a meeting to talk about form a better relationship with the state party.
“I think that we hear time and time again that the state party structure doesn’t look like the base of the party, that there are too many last minute phone calls like, ‘We need to find an African-American field coordinator, anybody got any ideas?'” she said. “We’ve paid lip service in the party for far too long into this idea of diversity. Now we really need to have it embedded in our culture, as more than just an aspiration. We have to have metrics. We have to have discipline. We need to be focused on this.”
Neuhardt said she doesn’t want to impose this, but rather have African-American leaders in the party come to the table with ideas and recommendations that can be implemented. “And I’m going to implement them,” she said.
“I’ll tell you this. I don’t want to have these conversations year after year. I want to start working on this problem and I want to get it fixed,” she said. “We need the active participation of all Democrats.”
The Ohio Democratic Party needs a change agent, Neuhardt said, and she doesn’t want to tear it down but rather bring it to the next level.
This includes generating enough excitement among Democrats to win elections in non-presidential years.
“It is amazing to me, as a practical matter, where your leaders can have the most impact on everyday Ohioan’s lives is in state government. If we had a Democratic governor, we would see next year money restored to public education. We would see next year local government funds increased. We would see next year a governor who would not allow attacks on women’s health care rights,” she said.
She said that the party has to do a better job letting Ohioans know when Democratic candidates are the better choice.
“They agree with us on the issues, we just can’t get them to come out to vote for us unless it’s a presidential year,” she said. “That has to be fixed.”
According to Neuhardt, Democrats have an opportunity in 2016 to set up an infrastructure that can be built upon with an eye on the governor’s office and the General Assembly in 2018.
David DeWitt is a journalist and universal minister based out of Athens, Ohio. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He can be found on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.