Has gratitude gone out of style? Where is the love?

If common courtesy hasn’t become altogether obsolete, Republican and Democratic headquarters in Hamilton County should be waist-deep in cards and messages from grateful citizens.

After generations of burdening them with the responsibility of electing commissioners to run the third-largest county in Ohio, the two major political parties have made life much simpler for some 575,000 registered voters.

In a backroom deal that might have made legendary Cincinnati political fixer Boss Cox a bit squeamish, Republicans and Democrats decided to dispose of a couple of 2008 races with a mutual non-aggression pact.

Last December, the chairs of Hamilton County’s Democratic and Republican parties at that time, Timothy Burke and George Vincent, hatched “The Deal.” Two of the three county commissioner seats would be up for grabs come November 2008. Their agreement: Vincent’s GOP wouldn’t endorse an opponent to incumbent Democrat Todd Portune. Burke’s Democrats wouldn’t back a challenger against Greg Hartmann, whom the Republicans were putting in place of incumbent Pat DeWine.

Portune gets a free ride to a third term as county commissioner, allowing him and David Pepper to maintain the Democrats’ 2-1 majority on the county’s governing board and control of its $271 million budget. In return, Hartmann, the county’s clerk of courts, was handed a well-greased chute to succeed DeWine, who had opted for running for Common Pleas Court judge.

Closed-door political deals aren’t new here or anywhere else. But in the past this kind of negotiating — at least in Hamilton County — rarely surfaced outside of partisan judicial races, where recruiting candidates can be difficult for a variety of reasons, including the loser’s prospect of practicing law in a courtroom where the sitting judge was a political opponent a few weeks earlier.

As might be expected, beneficiaries of The Deal believe it’s the kind of agreement that the Founding Fathers had in mind when they struggled with every syllable of the Constitution. Those who were excluded view things differently.

“There has been a decision at the highest levels in this community — from the media to the business community to the political leaders — that we’re going to not have an open and robust debate about the issues facing our community,” argues Chris Finney, a Republican attorney and a prominent figure in COAST (Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes). “We’re not going to have a loyal opposition. We’re just going to cut deals, and the favored insiders are the ones who will survive and the other ones won’t.”



STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Which is stranger: Democrats controlling the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Tim Burke and George Vincent striking The Deal, or the odd political couples now seeing eye-to-eye?

Thomas A. Luken, a Democratic stalwart who’s been in more smoke-filled back rooms than Keith Richards, is as appalled by The Deal as Finney — his political polar opposite. And Luken insists this was not business as usual.

“This stands far apart,” he insists. “This is an outright deprivation of the public’s right to vote. You’d have to pull out my fingernails to get me to do this,” says Luken, who held elective office for 35 years, including stints as Cincinnati mayor and as a city councilman, and nine terms in U.S. Congress.

Another odd twist in this drama is Republican Simon Leis Jr., county sheriff, endorsing Democrat Portune. The sheriff backed Portune because the commissioner decided he and Pepper could push through a sales tax increase to fund a new county jail, over DeWine’s objections and without voter approval.

COAST and other activists formed WeDemandAVote.com to get the jail tax shot down in a voter referendum last November. But DeWine didn’t enjoy a popularity bounce. Indeed, GOP leaders fretted over the prospect of a 3-0 Democratic majority on the commission.

Vincent adamantly denies, as some have alleged, that The Deal originated in a tradeoff with Portune: Get the new jail funded and cruise to re-election. Instead, both he and Burke insist the pact was in the “best interests” of both parties.

Vincent, who’s been active in the party for 26 years but stepped down as party chair this year, says there have always been uncontested county races “and there always will be.”

He echoes a point everyone seems to agree on: It’s getting harder and harder to find qualified people willing to set their professional and personal lives aside, and try to raise money for increasingly expensive campaigns — especially against entrenched incumbents.

“Tim Burke and I were surprised this was even news,” Vincent says, adding he would do it again, given a second chance. Securing that one Republican commissioner was like an insurance policy against a Democratic win.

The key ingredients in The Deal were how party operatives read their political tea leafs — and judged each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Sources say the GOP was concerned with how Hartmann would fare if the Democrats recruited a decent opponent. He was appointed county clerk of courts in 2003 and won election in 2004. But in 2006, Hartmann ran for Ohio Secretary of State and lost, even in his own Hamilton County.

Local GOP leaders feared another big Democratic year in 2008, with either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton energizing their voter base. And many Republican activists grudgingly concede that Todd Portune is a talented politician who has built voter appeal across party lines.

But Tim Burke wasn’t feeling so confident.

As his party’s county chairman for 15 years, Burke carries a lot of political history — and wounds. He notes that for only the third time in 100 years, Democrats now control the majority on the county commission, and in the previous two instances kept that power for only two years. “This was an excellent opportunity for the Democratic Party to hold the majority for the longest time it’s ever had it. My job is to help Democrats get elected and re-elected.

“I can’t say Todd wouldn’t have won anyway” without The Deal, Burke adds, explaining his reasoning. “I hope he would’ve been able to prevail, but I was concerned.” The jail controversy “took some of his luster off.”

Plus, the name “Winkler” gave Burke the jitters. Tracy Winkler, who recently became chair of the Green Township Board of Trustees, was ready to challenge Portune. She’s the wife of Common Pleas Court Judge Ralph E. “Ted” Winkler. Burke recalls how Ted’s father, Ralph Winkler, upset Democrat Marianna Bettman in 1998 to grab her seat on the Court of Appeals.

“I was certain Marianna would be re-elected, but she was beaten by the same family that threatened to put up a candidate against Todd,” Burke says. “I just thought dammit, I don’t want to go into another one of these elections thinking our candidate’s going to win and he gets knocked off in the end. Hamilton County is not yet a safe county for Democrats.”

Burke didn’t foresee what his Republican counterparts saw in their crystal balls: a huge Democratic turnout in the March primary. Even though Clinton carried Ohio, Obama beat her here. More stunning, the number of registered Democrats in the county exploded from around 60,000 to almost 167,000 — jumping far ahead of about 95,000 registered Republicans.

Now Burke is buzzing with excitement about the potential turnout for Obama, and how that could boost Democrats such as state Rep. Steve Driehaus, who’s challenging Steve Chabot for his seat in Congress.

But some observers say Burke blew it.

“Tim Burke squandered a chance to run the table,” says Republican state Rep. Tom Brinkman of Mount Lookout, who predicts “a Big D year” from the November election results. “Even the Republicans see the writing on the wall. Yet Tim Burke didn’t. Boy, George Vincent sure played Burke.”

Brinkman, who co-founded COAST with Chris Finney, cannot seek re-election because of term limits. A maverick who often irks his party’s establishment, Brinkman unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Republican Jean Schmidt for her seat in Congress in a party primary this spring.

“What the press doesn’t get is that they’ve been cutting these deals for years, mostly on judges and other county offices where they give people a pass,” he says. He agrees with Tom Luken that this pact stands apart. “This year it went to a new level, for positions that typically haven’t gotten those kinds of deals cut.”



‘CONTEMPT FOR VOTERS’

Portune says the media have made “a mountain out of a molehill,” and stresses that he has a challenger in Ed Rothenberg.

“The fact is the Republicans had no candidate who wanted to run against me,” Portune says, “and on the Democratic side we didn’t have any candidate who had surfaced who wanted to run in the other race, and the party chairs are the ones who put this together. And I think both party chairs decided that it would be in the best interest of the parties, given that, to stay out of the race,” he concludes, adding “there’s going to be a guy running in the fall who’s going to have an ‘R’ next to his name,” referring to the unendorsed Ed Rothenberg, a Republican Realtor and anti-tax crusader.

“This whole business that somehow I worked to deny people a choice is preposterous,” Portune adds. “I haven’t done anything of the kind. There’s sort of this belief that I have an obligation to make sure that I have an opponent who’s well funded and endorsed, and that’s a preposterous thing in itself.”

Portune says one reason The Deal came about is his support among Republicans. “I’m not ashamed about that. I’m frankly pretty proud,” he remarks.

While Portune steadfastly denies any role in crafting The Deal, Finney believes otherwise, saying the commissioner “showed his contempt for the voters” by sanctioning the agreement.

“He’s an absolute liar,” Finney proclaims. “Do I have any evidence that he did? No, but that’s not the way the system works,” Finney says. “Todd was one of the chief architects of this deal. In any event, this would not have been done without his consent and active participation in it.”

Tom Luken also doesn’t buy such excuses. He lashed out at the Democratic Executive Committee, which met in May to seal The Deal with a vote against endorsing newcomer Chris Dole of Harrison against Hartmann.

Luken says the order of the day was a call for everyone to be “faithful” to Portune by giving him this shield against potential Republican opposition, sparing him and his family the rigor of a tough contest.

“Todd and Tim (Burke) have pulled off this pernicious — and I use that word in a calculating way — deal, and they did this with plenty of forethought,” Luken asserts. “How they can live with it, I don’t know. I don’t think you’ve ever heard me say that about a fellow Democrat. But I am because it’s just wrong.”

Burke insists otherwise. “We didn’t play any games. It was an up or down vote on endorsing an independent. ... It was overwhelmingly rejected.” He admits the session wasn’t harmonious. “Some folks didn’t like it, even ones who voted for it.”

Chris Dole — a registered Democrat, union electrician and president of the Crosby Township Board of Trustees — is more restrained about The Deal, but wasn’t happy with the way he was treated after he got enough petition signatures to get on the ballot as an independent, then sought his party’s endorsement.

“I just couldn’t sit by idly and watch this abuse of our electoral system,” Dole says. “Finding ways for the marginalization of the electorate is beyond comprehension, and I’m just really surprised that more people aren’t up in arms about it.”

Ed Rothenberg says he first thought about running for commissioner when Portune and Pepper tried to push the jail tax through, which he describes as “traitorous.” Without his party’s support, Rothenberg sees himself as a “symbolic” candidate.

As for Greg Hartmann, he says he learned about The Deal after the fact. “I was prepared to run against the best Democrat they could put forward, and I was surprised to see that something had been worked out. ... I don’t like unopposed races.”



THE FALLOUT

The fallout from The Deal continues. Without criticizing his fellow commissioner, David Pepper is keeping his distance. “I told the party chair after I heard about this that I don’t generally believe this is a good thing, and I’ve been pretty clear about that,” says Pepper, who has two more years in his term. “I think people understandably want — and should want — a choice. From my standpoint, elections have a broader importance and are the best way to have the issues of the day debated ... (and it’s) also the time to hold government accountable.”

Tom Brinkman asserts that it’s Pepper and Portune who should be on the firing line. The county is on the verge of a fiscal crisis, he charges. But without strongly contested elections, these critical issues will escape attention. “From the public’s standpoint, I think we’re worse off. With competition, maybe we would’ve gotten a better deal.”

Alex Triantafilou, the county Republican Party chair, is quick to point out he wasn’t in charge when The Deal was struck, but insists he supports his predecessor, George Vincent. “There’s been a fair amount of negative feedback from constituents — no question,” he admits.

Future agreements would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, Triantafilou says, but he’s already certain about this: David Pepper won’t get a pass in 2010 if he seeks re-election. “I’m already looking for candidates.”

The GOP leader may see writing on the wall he doesn’t like. For if anything’s constant in Hamilton County politics, it’s that incumbents — Republican or Democrat — tend to hold their seats until they seek higher office, retire or become vulnerable because of scandal. As Brinkman points out, it’s not just Republicans getting a pass on strong re-election challenges, such as county Prosecutor Joseph Deters. Democratic incumbents are now enjoying the same ride, such as Democratic county Auditor Dusty Rhodes and county Coroner O’Dell Owens.

Brinkman suggests his party is willing to give up some of those county posts in exchange for its stranglehold on county judicial seats — and he asserts that it’s ultimately about money. “See who’s donating money to the Republican Party,” Brinkman says, talking about major law firms. “It’s a tremendous boon to those guys.”

When Rhodes was elected in 1990, helped by “The Friends of Joe DeCourcy” scandal, Republicans held every elected position in county government. Like Brinkman, he’s critical of county spending. But most county citizens don’t know or care, Rhodes says, and their apathy is fueled by dwindling media attention. “The enemy is us,” Rhodes concludes. “You try to bring important issues up, and nobody pays attention — unless someone gets caught with his hand in the till.”