It’s just days after Christmas, and Denise Driehaus is back in a familiar scene. Corner booth, Clifton coffeehouse, political adviser at her side.
“I’m always here,” she jokes as a friend sweeps by to say hello.
You’ll sure be seeing a lot more of her locally, after the former four-term Ohio representative turned the tide for the Democrats on the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners this November. Her commute now shortened from Columbus to East Court Street Downtown.
From the onset, the race—billed as one of the biggest locally—was a tightly contested one, the other side of the ticket featuring another locally prominent political last name: Deters.
But Driehaus triumphed, the win a landmark in a lot of ways:
A) It broke up the boys’ club. She became only the second woman elected in Hamilton County Commission history (Sandra Beckwith, a Republican, was the first, in 1990). Driehaus is the only female Democrat.
B) It’s also a changing of the guard. Democrats now control the three-member board (Democrat Todd Portune easily won his race, while Republican Chris Monzel’s spot was not up for vote). It was an anomaly, really, for 2016. Party power shifted in 16 county commission races total statewide, the Driehaus team says. Hamilton was the only one to go blue.
“It was a weird year,” she admits.
“But to me, it’s a different posture. It’s a different way to approach the job.”
49 in 49
The commission has little executive authority over offices like the sheriff’s department, and passes no laws, but it does make decisions on how tax dollars are spent. A party shift could mean major change for the county’s roughly $1.2 billion operating budget.
Topics like transportation, heroin and economic development were all big on the trail. And many are hoping for an overhaul of the messy Metropolitan Sewer District.
Driehaus, barred from seeking another stint in the capital city due to term limits, plans to launch a “49 in 49” campaign, with a goal of visiting all 49 cities, villages and townships in Hamilton County in a 49-day span. She knows her transition into office will be key.
“I feel as though the county could be more engaged,” Driehaus says. “A lot of people don’t understand the connection between what they’re doing and the county, so that’s part of the agenda.”
By all accounts, Driehaus has Cincinnati in her blood. Her parents were lifelong residents. She grew up on the West Side, in Green Township, alongside seven brothers and sisters. She moved away only for college (she has a political science degree from Miami University) and now makes her home in Clifton.
Driehaus owned two small businesses in Price Hill before making her first political moves: the now defunct Front Porch Coffeehouse, which she opened in 2004 with five others, including her husband Zeek Childers, and Philipps Swim Club, a “landmark institution,” she says. Driehaus was involved in the latter for 13 years, “as a way to keep that facility up and open.” Philipps is now run as a not-for-profit.
“I think my experience as a business owner made me a very practical, straight-shooting kind of person,” she says. “There’s a real benefit to that because people want legislators to have some real-world experience.”
Before she ran for the statehouse she “shadowed” younger brother, Steve, who logged eight years in Columbus, too. Much has been made of the Driehaus name—Steve also served a single term as U.S. representative. Her father, the late Don Driehaus, made a political run for Congress, too, back in 1968. Denise was 5 at the time.
It was a race Don—a sales rep at Commerce Clearing House—knew he wouldn’t win “in a million years,” she says. He hit the trail hard anyway. He later co-chaired the Hamilton County Democratic Party alongside Bill Mallory Sr., an Ohio political legend.
“I do remember it [his Congressional race],” Driehaus says. “I remember driving around in a station wagon with a bullhorn on the top, singing songs, dressed in red, white and blue and campaigning for my dad.
“That did rub off on me,” she adds. “To me, politics is talking to people. It can be fun and lively. [During the county commission race] we knocked on 38,000 doors. We went to festivals and parades and community council meetings. We were everywhere, just trying to engage.”
The campaign, indeed, was a long haul, and the race, in the end, extremely close. Technically, she was the underdog; she was facing an incumbent, Republican Dennis Deters, another well-known political namesake. Dennis, younger brother to Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, had been sworn in just months prior as a replacement for Greg Hartmann, who decided not to run in 2016. And despite her time in the House, she’d only represented a small piece of the Hamilton County pie. Her district, District 31, has roughly 98,000 residents. There’s more than 800,000 countywide.
She knew it would be close. And when margins are tight—Driehaus, in the end, edged Deters by a mere 1.2 percent, or 4,700 votes—”everything makes the difference.”
“People who know Denise really like her,” says Alex Linser, campaign manager and now chief of staff. “She has this reputation for working with anybody, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, and this year, when it was so nasty on the top of the ticket, people are looking for leaders who are willing to put partisanship aside, work across the aisle and actually get stuff done. People on the West Side, where she’s lived, and people in the 31st House District, where she’s represented, know her to be that kind of person. Without the extra boost we got in those areas, this election goes the other way.”
Job One: MSD
Now the real work begins. Driehaus is the new Heroin Coalition chair and campaigned at length on other topics like transportation. “We need to take a serious look at SORTA and Metro,” she says. “We need to make sure the system is responding to change.” She’s big on economic inclusion—an arena in which “the county is lagging”—and vows to fund a position soon to work in that space.
“The city has grown leaps and bounds here. The county is nowhere to be found,” Driehaus adds. “I think that’s because we don’t have an individual dedicated to that work. We will be very intentional about this, to make sure everybody has an opportunity to thrive.”
But job one? That’s MSD. A 50-year operating agreement between the city, which runs the district’s day-to-day operations, and Hamilton County, which owns it as a legal entity, is set to expire in 2018. In recent years, sewer rates have tripled. Headlines allege mismanagement, poor oversight and more.
While a gag order now prevents Driehaus from discussing the issue, she stands by her campaign stump, which could involve the appointment of an independent board to manage MSD and the adoption of task force recommendations to lower rates.
“MSD will be job one,” Driehaus says. “We need a long-term structure that works for both [the city and county]. And rate affordability is a big deal, for residents and businesses.”
Coffeeshop chatter aside, ultimately, the tasks ahead are ones for all Hamilton Countians. Arguably, no other office plays such an important role in citizen’s day-to-day life. That’s not lost on her, she says.
“It’s a lot. It is a lot,” she says. “But it’s a great opportunity. The impacts are huge throughout the county, to so many people. There’s a lot to be done. I’m excited for the opportunity.”