When Jim Ruvolo became the Chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, Ohio Democrats had long held the majority in the Ohio House and a monopoly in all the Statewide offices, except Governor, since the early 1970s. Dick Celeste had already defeated Jim Rhodes’ attempt to seek a third consecutive term in the midst of a recession that sent Ohio’s unemployment rate skyrocketing (he was elected while Paul Tipps was Chair, not Ruvolo). Ohio had two well-established Democratic incumbents in the U.S Senate. Celeste would win re-election in 1986 and the party was well situated with statewide officers to hold the seat, and all statewide offices, in 1990.
The party coalesced around Attorney General “Tony” Celebreeze, Jr., who faced a nominal primary challenge from a minister/businessman named Michael Hugh Lord. Celebreeze easily won the primary, no doubt due to not having any of his fellow statewide incumbents deciding to jump into the race and primary him, which I’m sure Chair Ruvolo played absolutely no part in. Under Ruvolo, Ohio went for the Republicans both in the disastrous 1984 Mondale campaign and the 1998 Dukakis campaign (where Bush’s margin in Ohio was well above the national average.)
Celebreeze lost the 1990 election to former Cleveland Mayor/Rhodes Lt. Governor/former Senate candidate George Voinovich and Mike DeWine in a double-digit landslide (56%-44%). As a result of the poor performance of the top of the ticket, incumbent Democratic Secretary of State Sherrod Brown lost to Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Taft as well. Lee Fisher barely won re-election by a margin of 1,234 votes. As a result of the loss, the Democrats lost control of the Apportionment Board, allowing the Republicans to control the drawing of the state’s legislative districts that continues to this day, thus ending the party’s hold on the Ohio House of Representative under Speaker Vern Riffe as well.
Ruvolo was forced out as the Ohio Democratic Party Chair. Two years later, the Ohio Republican Party convinced voters to adopt a constitutional amendment to limit the terms of legislators and all statewide, nonjudicial officers (there was already term limits for Governor/Lt. Governor). As a result of terms limits, the GOP control of the Governor’s Mansion and Apportionment Board, the Republicans had all the tools to hand the Ohio Democratic Party a historic defeat in 1994. Still hobbled by the 1990 defeat, the Democratic Party could not field a competitive candidate for Governor, instead going for a complete unknown State Senator named Rob Burch, who would go on to lose to Voinovich by a 47% margin. A drumming so bad that Lee Fisher, the only Democratic statewide incumbent still in office, lost as well and Burch almost cost the Democratic Party its legal status as a major party under Ohio election law.
We’ve been walking in the wilderness in statewide politics except for one term after the 2006 elections since then. And it can all be traced back to that 1990 election. In 2012, Ruvolo resigned from the Lucas County Board of Elections at a time in which the board had become so partisan and dysfunctional, Secretary of State Jon Husted took it over and appointed “special masters” to oversee the Board’s functions in absence of a functioning, bipartisan board before the 2012 elections.
I bring this up because many of you may not have been involved in Ohio Democratic politics in the 1980s and early 1990s and are unfamiliar with Mr. Ruvolo, and therefore may not realize that on his watch, a young upstart State Senator named John Kasich was able to defeat an incumbent Democratic Congressman in 1982 and go on to be the Gingrich revolution budget czar, Ohio Governor, and now presidential candidate he is today.
And yet, despite this history, today Mr. Ruvolo is using his status as state party chair emeritus to attack current Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper in emails and a telephone conference over what he calls “the direction of the Ohio Democratic Party” under Pepper’s not even seven-month long tenure with zero election results in which to judge him.
And what was Pepper’s unpardonable sin?
According to Ruvolo, Pepper “attacked” P.G. Sittenfeld in a recent interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s editorial board in a bid, Ruvolo suggests, to get Sittenfeld to drop out of the race. But here’s what Pepper actually said when talking generally about a recent spike in violent crime in Cincinnati, where Pepper lives:
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, a former Cincinnati city councilman, characterized the city’s recent spike in crime as a “crisis” and said current council members should focus on a solution.
There should be no casualness” in the city’s response to violence, Pepper said. “A 6-year-old was shot in the eye. That is a crisis. A mother was between an officer and her son, who shot the officer. That is a crisis.”
“I think when you are in local office the best thing you can do is actually put in the time,” Pepper said in response to questions about Sittenfeld. “If you do that, you will always have that record of accomplishment.
Sittenfeld has faced criticism for seeking a U.S. Senate seat after serving just three years as a councilman.
“It’s a missed opportunity to make a difference in a community that needs it,” Pepper said. “In hindsight, people will say this is a case study of moving too quickly.”
Nowhere does Pepper say or even suggests that Sittenfeld drop out of the race. In fact, all he said is that Sittenfeld is failing to take advantage to demonstrate his style of leadership in not focusing on it. Sittenfeld defensively retorts that he is planning on attending a community block watch meeting as evidence of his leadership. At worse, Pepper suggest Sittenfeld’s bid to run for the Senate is premature, but even that reflects pretty much a widely accepted view of Sittenfeld.
All Pepper said was that by focusing on your elected job, you can demonstrate why you merit a higher office. That’s it. Most of his comments weren’t even directed to Sittenfeld particularly. As Chairman Pepper told the Columbus Dispatch, ODP still gives Sittenfeld access to their voter file database and he’s permitted to attend state and county party events. That is far more accommodating than ODP has been to any primary challenger in a major race in the past, ever. Again, the tenure of Ruvolo is hardly one marked with an embracing attitude towards contested primaries. The so-called “snub” of Sittenfeld at the State Party was hardly unprecedented. In fact, Sittenfeld’s expectation of being handed a speaking slot at the State dinner (when he was already given one at the Party’s Legacy dinner three months prior) is what is wholly without precedent.
I challenge anyone to name a statewide candidate in Sittenfeld’s position that was given a speaking role at an ODP State Dinner a year before they were on the ballot. Yes, Ted Strickland was given time to speak, but not only is he the endorsed ODP candidate, but he’s also the last Democratic governor we’ve had. It’s not shocking that the State Party would give him speaking time. In fact, it asked him in the past, but he was unable to make it. (If anyone can show where Jim Ruvolo allowed Dennis Kucinich to speak at the 1985 ODP State Dinner during his flirtation with a primary challenge to Celeste, I’ll give you a free Plunderbund T-shirt.)
Over the weekend, another Sittenfeld consultant, Jerry Austin (who’s last noteworthy campaign was for a Republican candidate for Cuyahoga County Executive) joined on a Facebook thread to tear into Pepper over his remarks as well.
It is obvious that this criticism has nothing to do with Sittenfeld or even really Pepper. They are just proxies in a political struggle that has been going on for decades since the Ruvolo/Austin faction has been out of power since they lead the Ohio Democratic Party into oblivion in the 1990s. And yet they rest on their laurels based on the earlier successes that were the result of successes they inherited.
If PG Sittenfeld was a true progressive leader who cared about the Ohio Democratic Party and its future, he’d stop being used by his consultants for their intraparty proxy wars right now. It’s not doing anything to help his struggling campaign, and it’s only helping cause unnecessary and unwarranted division in our party that only helps Rob Portman.
Sittenfeld’s campaign manager walked out on him four months ago with no replacement to date. His campaign fundraising has dried up to roughly a quarter of million raised in the last report (barely twice what he spent in the same period) and will more likely drop than improve. He has zero endorsements. 85% of Ohio voters have never heard of him. If the election were held today, he’d be crushed by both Strickland and Portman. None of these things are expected to substantially change less than a year from now.
Sittenfeld himself has repeatedly attacked Ted Strickland several times as has his campaign and consultants. If all Sittenfeld is going to do is complain over every perceived slight given his way due to his obvious underdog status, then he’s clearly not ready for prime time. He and his aging band of consultants cannot get the vapors every time someone dares to say anything that isn’t purely complimentary to PG Sittenfeld. If he cannot handle one minor criticism from David Pepper, how is he going to deal with $10 million in attack ads from Rob Portman?
It’s time for Sittenfeld and his camp to stop playing the victim card. It doesn’t help his struggling campaign (which, apparently, is currently wrestling with settling on what hashtag to use), and it only helps Rob Portman.