Democrats must decide how to fill party#039;s top job

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Democrats hoping to turn around their also-ran status in Ohio must decide how soon they need to fill the party's top job.

Denny White resigned last week as chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party after three years spent trying unsuccessfully to end Democrats' long exile out of power.

Democrats have just one statewide officeholder - Justice Alice Robie Resnick of the Ohio Supreme Court - and have not controlled the Legislature in more than a decade.

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One candidate for governor, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, says the party should not let much time lapse before choosing a successor, given the importance of the 2006 elections.

Another candidate, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, disagrees and says the new full-time director should be elected after the party's gubernatorial nominee is determined. The primary is May 2.

Generally, a party organization suffers if the job is left open for too long, said Ohio State political scientist Paul Beck.

At the same time, the decision is a tricky one involving internal party politics and the behind-the-scenes role the chairman would play on backing a nominee for governor, Beck said.

‘‘A party leader who is able to build a good sense of legitimacy within his own party organization can sometimes tip the balance one way or the other for the gubernatorial nomination,'' Beck said.

‘‘Publicly, they will stay out of it, but privately they usually don't.''

Vice-chairwoman Rhine McLin, the mayor of Dayton, assumes the party chairmanship on an interim basis. It will be up to her to call for the election of the next chairman, but she has not set a date.

Democrats have stars in their eyes over next year's election, thanks to a government scandal this year that led to Gov. Bob Taft's conviction in August on charges he was treated to golf outings and other gifts he didn't report.

The scandal has also raised questions about the influence of political contributions after prominent GOP activist and fundraiser Tom Noe was indicted on allegations of skirting campaign limits to funnel $45,000 to President Bush.

Noe, who managed a $50 million investment in rare coins for the state insurance fund for injured workers, also contributed more than $100,000 to GOP politicians, many of whom have since returned the money.

As a result, the party's next leader should be someone who can be in charge at least six months, or until the state executive committee would normally elect a replacement, said veteran Democratic strategist Jerry Austin.

Even if that person is a temporary director on paper, he or she should be in the running for the full-time job, he said.

‘‘If you're going to pick somebody, you're going to have to pick somebody who has the ability to lead the party through May and possibly beyond,'' Austin said.

As long as the party moves forward deliberately it has time to make a selection, said Michael Colley, a former state GOP chairman and former longtime GOP chair of Franklin County.

‘‘They've got to have their playbook set by next year, not this year,'' he said.

Political observers point to the success of 18-year GOP party chairman Bob Bennett, who skillfully maneuvered his party through several internal power struggles while overseeing the Republicans' rise to statewide dominance.

If it takes a while to find that person, so be it, said California University political scientist Melanie Blumberg, a Youngstown resident and scholar of Ohio politics.

‘‘The challenge for the Democrats is it has to be someone who's really going to be strong and really be able to lead the party,'' she said.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press Columbus bureau.