Ron Rothenbuhler took over as chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party in August, 2007. Some believe he has taken neutrality in primary contests, such as last year’s Toledo mayor’s race, to an extreme.
After the Lucas County Democratic Party’s embarrassing performance in the 2013 Toledo mayoral and council elections, a movement is under way among some frustrated Democrats to rouse the party’s central committee — and potentially cause a challenge to the chairman.
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken is heading an informal effort to drum up candidates for the party’s central committee, the body that elects the chairman.
Mr. Gerken said the effort is aimed at building a more active committee, not necessarily overthrowing Chairman Ron Rothenbuhler.
“We do have an election for party chair in May. The only way to get good leadership — whoever it is, whether Ron wants it, I don’t know — is to have an active, engaged central committee,” Mr. Gerken said.
“Nobody’s satisfied with the Democratic Party’s performance in the last election cycle. It’s not a record we want to maintain going forward.”
Mr. Gerken acknowledged that there was some talk about calling for an immediate vote after the Nov. 5 election for replacing Mr. Rothenbuhler, but he said it would be counterproductive at a time when the party needs to be unified for the 2014 elections.
“If we really are going to restart this thing, we didn’t want to create any more chaos around the system,” Mr. Gerken said.
Mr. Rothenbuhler said he’s working on filling central committee seats and welcomed the help, even if it does result in the first challenge to his position as chairman.
“If there’s other people doing it [recruiting candidates for central committee] I’m glad they’re finally doing it, regardless of what their reason is,” Mr. Rothenbuhler said.
He said that he heard talk that Mr. Gerken was considering mounting a challenge against him and told him that he would not quit the party leadership.
“I’m just going to keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing until they don’t want me to or I don’t want them,” Mr. Rothenbuhler said.
Mr. Gerken said some 30 or 40 people are participating in what he called “the grass-roots team.”
They include Alexandra Huguelet, a member of the Democratic Party State Central Committee from Toledo; Karen Poore, the party treasurer; Megan Vahey Casiere, Lucas County chief of planning and development; David Fleetwood, business manager of Laborers Local 500; and David Mann, president of the Lucas County Land Bank.
Ms. Huguelet, chief deputy of Toledo Municipal Court, said the effort is to promote a more active committee, and said she wasn’t aware of any potential rivals for Mr. Rothenbuhler.
“We’ve lost a lot of elections. We’re reaching out to people who want to be involved to help out on campaigns. We need people who are dedicated who care about the issues, who want to elect Democrats,” Ms. Huguelet said.
Competition for control of the central committee is a classic way that political chairmen get elected — and ousted — in Lucas County.
The deadline to file the necessary petition with five signatures is Feb. 5.
The central committee is elected on the county ballot in every even-year primary and is made up of one person per precinct. In reality, neither the Democratic nor Republican party succeeds in filling every seat. As of March, 2013, the Democratic Party had precinct representatives in 162 of the county’s 354 precincts.
In the Democratic Party, some wards have little representation. For example, Ward 18, the lower third of East Toledo, and Ward 11, an area northwest of Sylvania and Detroit avenues, had no precincts represented. Also unrepresented on the Democratic central committee were Swanton and Washington townships.
Precinct representatives and ward chairmen are supposed to help do the party’s menial labor — posting candidate signs, volunteering for candidates, collecting candidate signatures, walking door-to-door with candidates. They elect the chairman.
Mr. Rothenbuhler, 66, of Oregon, the retired executive regional director of the Ohio & Vicinity Council of Carpenters, became chairman in August, 2007. He succeeded John Irish, who resigned in an uproar over some strippers who worked at a party golf outing two months earlier.
Mr. Rothenbuhler’s tenure followed the highly contentious A-team/B-team rivalry of the early 2000s, and he has aimed at charting as neutral a course as possible.
Some believe that Mr. Rothenbuhler has taken neutrality to an extreme.
In the Toledo mayor’s race, Mr. Rothenbuhler stuck determinedly to the party bylaw of not endorsing candidates before the primary.
The two Democratic candidates, Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez and Toledo Councilman Joe McNamara, ended up canceling out each other’s vote in the low-turnout Sept. 10 primary. That resulted in no Democratic candidate on the general election ballot for mayor for the first time that anyone can remember.
Independent Councilman D. Michael Collins and incumbent Mayor Mike Bell, also an independent, won the two nominations to move on to the Nov. 5 general election.
Furious labor unions that had plunged tens of thousands of dollars into Ms. Lopez’s primary campaign were forced to start over with Mr. Collins in their quest to defeat Mr. Bell because of his anti-union positions.
Mr. Collins went on to win the election. He is the second independent mayor after a string of Democratic mayors going back to 1990.
For Toledo City Council, the party failed to put up a full six-candidate slate for the six at-large positions and had no female candidates. Only one of the three endorsed incumbents was re-elected.
Union leaders were angry with Mr. Rothenbuhler, and many refused to support the annual fall fund-raiser, leading Mr. Rothenbuhler to cancel that event.
Mr. Rothenbuhler said he hopes to have a meeting of the central committee in February and said the party’s bylaws committee has been working on a proposed bylaw to allow the party to endorse before the primary. But he said he believes the party is still split 50-50 on whether having the party endorse before a primary is a good idea.
Labor unions, especially the Northwest Ohio Building & Construction Trades Council, have been criticized for wielding too much power in the party. The union group got electrician union organizer Shaun Enright appointed to a vacancy in 2013 only to see him lose in November.
The union appears to be headed down the same path with the party’s endorsement of Matthew Cherry, a business agent with Sheet Metal Workers Local 33, for the vacant seat in council District 2. Mr. Cherry will have to face the voters on May 6 to hold the seat for the two years remaining.
Privately, Democrats say the relatively unknown Mr. Cherry faces an uphill climb in the Republican-leaning District 2 against Marcia Helman, an independent business owner who is backed by Republican Councilman Rob Ludeman.
Members grumble that the party’s executive director, Yvonne Harper, does little to organize or reach out. Her office, they say, should be more active in supplying lists of voters, training and recruiting candidates, and having a social media presence.
Mr. Rothenbuhler said the party offers walking lists and provides space in the headquarters at 1817 Madison Ave. for candidates to use. He said he doesn’t believe a high-profile social media presence would be helpful.
“Facebook opens up the opportunity for people without identifying themselves to say things that many times aren’t helpful, are not a part of the solution,” Mr. Rothenbuhler said.
Ms. Harper declined to comment.
A possible leader
One possible candidate for chairman is Carty Finkbeiner, former Toledo mayor. Mr. Finkbeiner could not be reached, but party fund-raiser Jerry Chabler of Sylvania said Mr. Finkbeiner would inject the energy the party needs.
“I think he could be a very good chairman,” Mr. Chabler said. “They need someone who would crack the whip in the Lucas County Democratic Party.”
Steve Fought, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), said there’s some sentiment to replace Mr. Rothenbuhler, but no movement in that direction.
“Lucas County still performs at the presidential level, the gubernatorial level. Lucas County can still be counted on for a certain percentage, so it’s not perceived as a crisis,” Mr. Fought said.