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Redfern urged to quit as Dem leader

Note from '94 Ohio party chief echoes what current head wrote him

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Chris Redfern

The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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In 1995, after the Democrats suffered crushing defeats in the races for governor and other state offices, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Harry Meshel resigned as the head of the party.

Among those who had urged him to step down was Chris Redfern, then an Ottawa County commissioner, now chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

Now Mr. Meshel is returning the blow.

In a stinging written message that he sent off to Mr. Redfern on Jan. 30, Mr. Meshel urged him to take responsibility for the 2010 political debacle that cost Ohio Democrats every statewide seat as well as five seats in Congress.

"You had a great governor, a full slate of Dem officeholders, a ton of money. I had none of these. You failed miserably! You have earned the requirement to 'take the pipe!' Get lost!" Mr. Meshel said in his handwritten note, a copy of which he provided last week to The Blade.

Attached to the message under Mr. Meshel's letterhead was a copy of the phone message left by Mr. Redfern on Nov. 9, 1994, saying Mr. Meshel should resign.

"Thought you might like this reminder of your 'warmth' toward me after I suffered the defeats of '94," Mr. Meshel said in his memo.

So far, Mr. Meshel's call hasn't triggered any kind of stampede to run Mr. Redfern out of office. But there are Democrats who want to know why, with one of the best-financed party operations in the country, the Democrats weren't able to hold off at least some of the Republican onslaught.

Mr. Redfern of Catawba Island, who went on to serve five terms as a state representative, became party chairman in 2005, just before the start of two highly successful Democratic election cycles. In 2006, Ohio Democrats captured the governorship, most statewide offices, and a U.S. Senate seat, and in 2008 helped Barack Obama win the key swing state of Ohio in the presidential election.

It was a different story in 2010. Republicans came back to sweep the statewide offices, regain a majority in the state House, hold on to a Republican U.S. Senate seat, and convert five Democratic congressional seats to the R column. The victories put Republicans solidly in control of congressional redistricting as well as state policy leading up to the 2012 presidential elections.

Democrats are now paying for those elections losses as Republicans in Columbus advance legislation that reduces local government funding while retaining tax cuts, repeals the education reforms enacted under former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, and aims to restrict collective bargaining rights that have been in place since 1984 when Mr. Meshel, now 86, was president of the state Senate.

Mr. Strickland, who lost to Republican John Kasich by 77,127 votes, said he could not fault Mr. Redfern. In fact, he said the Ohio Democratic Party is rightly regarded as one of the best organized state Democratic organizations in the country.

"I think the turnout was not as robust as we had hoped. No question about that. It's not the fault of the party. In fact, our turnout efforts were totally unprecedented," Mr. Strickland said. "I think what we had in Ohio was a very difficult economic set of circumstances, and it's not unusual for the party in power to suffer the electoral consequences of that."

"The election that we went through in November was largely affected by economic circumstances that were beyond the control of Chris Redfern or anyone else, to deal with," Mr. Strickland said.

Jerry Chabler, a Democratic party fund-raiser and operative, said Mr. Redfern raised more money than any other chairman he's ever known. But a promised "get-out-the-vote" effort on Election Day in Cuyahoga County never materialized and he wants to know why.

"There have been some folks who were disappointed in the failure of the vaunted get-out-the-vote effort. There's no question about it. If we got 100,000 more votes out of Cuyahoga County, Ted Strickland would be the governor today. What exactly happened in Cuyahoga County I don't know, but myself and other Democrats were led to believe there'd be this great get-out-the-vote program," Mr. Chabler said.

Teresa Fedor, a former state senator and now state representative, said she and fellow Democrats questioned, in the days and weeks immediately after the election, why the party didn't have more success in 2010.

"I've moved on with the thought of what do we do to prepare for the future," Ms. Fedor said. "I think he did the best that he could. I know what happened here in Lucas County. I thought we did pretty well. There are other areas around the state of Ohio where they didn't get the strong support they wanted to have."

Mr. Redfern declined to respond directly to Mr. Meshel or say whether he could recall seeking Mr. Meshel's resignation. He said the party's 2010 strategy was to identify base voters statewide and communicate with them to get them out. He said the party made more than 20 million mail, phone, and door-knocking contacts with voters statewide.

"The rap is that we didn't, quote, turn out the base. If you look at the numbers, that's not true. Our base, as a percentage of the vote, did in fact hit our numbers. We in fact did communicate with our base over and over and over," Mr. Redfern said.

He noted that turnout in 2010 in Cuyahoga County was about the same as in 2006, at 44 percent. However, there were fewer voters because of a decline in the number of registered voters in Cuyahoga County, to 978,267 in 2010 from 1,054,670 in 2006, a difference of 76,403.

In 2006, Mr. Strickland won easily in Cuyahoga County over Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell, 335,382 to 107,258. In 2010, Mr. Strickland carried Cuyahoga County by a much narrower margin -- 251,251 to 148,611 -- but it was not enough to overcome disappointing returns in other traditional Democratic areas of northeast Ohio that were battered by the failing economy.

Mr. Redfern warned against comparisons with 2006 and 2008, saying noted Democrats in 2010 were battling a Republican tide that was propelled by the Tea Party movement and opposition to health care reform.

Doug Kelly, the Ohio Democratic Party's executive director, said there were some things he would have done differently in 2010, with the benefit of hindsight.

He said it was a mistake not to have responded to Mr. Kasich's three weeks of ads in August that attacked Mr. Strickland over the loss of some 400,000 jobs during his tenure. Mr. Kelly said the party was conserving cash for its get-out-the-vote effort in the final week of the campaign. He said if he had to do it over, he would spend the money to respond to Mr. Kasich's ads and trust that the party would be able to raise the money later in the campaign.

Jon Stainbrook, Lucas County Republican chairman, said it was obvious from a poor turnout for a Strickland rally in Cleveland with President Obama the Sunday before the election that Cuyahoga County Democrats were not motivated for the election and that the promised Democratic voter mobilization program was an empty threat.

"The Democrats boasted that there was this huge get-out-the-vote effort that would appear mysteriously in the last week of the election, and it just did not happen," Mr. Stainbrook said. "The situation was very evident when President Obama spoke in Cleveland and it looked like it was half-empty on television. The writing was on the wall that the enthusiasm was not there for the get-out-the-vote."

Contract Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.

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