This month’s Cincy lists our town’s Power 100, a carefully curated collection of local movers and shakers. German sociologist Max Weber defined power (or “Macht” as Max called it), as “the probability within a social relationship of being able to secure one’s own ends, even against opposition.” In more contemporary lingo, those with power “get ‘er done.”

Some of the local usual suspects still have that good old-fashioned “you shall do as I say” power. But November’s elections delivered a monumental shift in who exercises power and how it will be used (or abused) in Hamilton County for decades to come.

Since the Civil War, Hamilton County has been a Republican bastion. We sent one local Republican to the White House (William H. Taft). Big Bill’s son and grandson went to the U.S. Senate. His great grandson became Ohio governor. Local Republicans Salmon P. Chase and Potter Stewart sat on the U.S. Supreme Court, Rob Portman now has the Cincinnati seat in the U.S. Senate, and Nicholas Longworth and John Boehner served as speaker of the U.S. House.

The GOP lost control of Cincinnati city hall in the late 1970s. But it dominated the three-member Hamilton County Commission for more than a century, with only an occasional outlier Democrat like Vince Beckman, elected in 1964 (the LBJ landslide year) serving a single term. The county commission plays an important role in development and tax policy, and sets budgets for county services and officeholders like the sheriff. That’s a whole lot of macht and provided a launch pad for all those Republicans moving up to state and national office.

The GOP’s monopoly began to erode in 2000, when Democrat Todd Portune ousted Republican Bob Bedinghaus, exploiting voter outrage over the lavish stadium lease the GOP commission gifted the Bengals. Todd’s been there ever since. There were four years of Democratic control after David Pepper defeated then Commissioner Phil Heimlich in 2006. But in 2010, Pepper moved on and the GOP re-gained its majority.

Democrats regained a majority on the commission in 2016, when state representative Denise Driehaus joined Portune on the commission, as the county turned deep blue for Hillary Clinton.

But the 2018 mid-term elections consigned the age of GOP power in Hamilton County to the history books for the foreseeable future. On election night, both parties’ poo-bahs were dumbfounded as former Forest Park Mayor Stephanie Dumas grabbed an early lead over veteran GOP Commissioner Chris Monzel and never let go. Remarkably, she spent only $12,000 to defeat an incumbent with a $390,000 bankroll. Ms. Dumas is the first African American ever elected to any county administrative office. For the first in county history three Democrats—two of them women—will decide how the county’s $240 million budget will be spent.

Dumas’ unexpected victory was not a one upset wonder. Democratic judicial candidates unseated two incumbent GOP Common Pleas Court judges, and won three of four contested seats on the Ohio Court of Appeals.

While this can be seen as possible reaction to President Trump, demographic changes seem likely to lock in Democrats’ advantage for the next generation. And as the GOP’s long-but-now-gone county reign demonstrated, the acquisition of power can provide advantages in fundraising and bench development that makes it easier to expand that power. 

Don Mooney is an attorney, a past member of the Cincinnati Planning Commission and is active in local politics.


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