Ohio Democratic Party faces rocky road to find unity

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Ohio Democratic Party elected a new chairman last week with the two challengers joining the victor onstage, their hands clasped in unity and the party faithful cheering.

That scene, however, capped an hour-long shouting match more commonly found on trash TV.

Chris Redfern, the Ohio House minority leader, easily defeated Dennis Lieberman, chairman of the Montgomery County party, and will serve the last seven months of the term of Denny White, who resigned Nov. 23.

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In 2002, when David Leland resigned as chairman, Lieberman was locked in a fight with White to succeed him but walked into the committee meeting and handed the job to White.

Not this time.

A major fight took place on how the votes would be counted. Interim chairwoman Rhine McLin, Dayton’s mayor, had ordered the vote be taken by open ballot, on which the member’s name appears, a process adapted from the Democratic National Committee.

Backers of Lieberman, who also challenged Leland in 1995, lobbied for a secret ballot — no name attached. That was met by a chorus of boos from Redfern supporters in the packed meeting room.

After about an hour of haggling and shouting among members of the party’s executive committee, which McLin observed as ‘‘a true Democratic free-for-all,’’ it was settled that the vote would be taken requiring committee members to stand when the name of their candidate was read.

Leland, the former state chairman, said the open voting rule is like voting in a legislative body. Committee members are accountable to the party members who sent them there, he said.

‘‘It’s not like going into a voting booth. These people are representatives,’’ said Leland, now in charge of fundraising for U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor.

The build-up to the election was unusually testy as well. Lieberman wasn’t happy about what he called pressure on committee members to elect Redfern, who was backed by Strickland.

‘‘I want to elect a chair. Not a governor, a chair,’’ Lieberman said in his speech to the committee. ‘‘The Democratic Party is supposed to stand for inclusion, not intimidation.’’

Later, Lieberman offered no specific examples.

Redfern’s backers acknowledged that his defeat would leave Strickland’s candidacy weakened but said their lobbying did not include strong-arm tactics.

‘‘That’s just hooey. It was a very strongly contested race,’’ Leland said. ‘‘All these people are adults. Most if not all are seasoned, experienced political veterans. These people have been through a number of these kinds of issues before.’’

Susan Gwinn, the Athens County chairwoman and a candidate for the state post herself before supporting Lieberman, said committee members had concerns about their positions in county parties or on county boards of elections, which are party appointments. Those appointments come up in February.

Republicans rarely encounter such squabbling at their committee meetings but it happens, Ohio GOP chairman Bob Bennett said.

In 2004, Republican committee members began grumbling when it came time to vote on an endorsement for Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer. Some committee members say the Bucyrus Republican votes like a Democrat on school funding cases and in workers’ compensation and insurance fights.

Bennett called the meeting into executive session to discuss Pfeifer as a ‘‘personnel’’ issue. That means reporters were asked to leave and the doors were locked. About 45 minutes later, the doors opened and a voice vote was taken. The ‘‘nays’’ were more spirited than the ‘‘yeas,’’ so Bennett, undeterred, asked for a raise of hands. Pfeifer won the endorsement 35-11 in a count that may not have been exact.

‘‘Pfeifer ended up prevailing because he was an incumbent and even if you oppose him philosophically, he didn’t do anything wrong as a justice,’’ Bennett said.

The Democrats’ spat had some longtime party members seeing it as a needed sign of life for a party that hasn’t won a statewide executive office since 1990.

‘‘I don’t think I ever had a meeting quite as exciting as we saw (last) Monday. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,’’ Leland said.

Redfern was happy to get through it.

‘‘It was an interesting time for all of us, including me,’’ he said.

John McCarthy is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press’ Columbus bureau.