Hamilton County Democratic leader a major force

Gwen McFarlin stood by her desk and leaned close to a photo hanging on the wall, squinting.  

“Here’s where the president was, and I was seated somewhere over here in that area,” she said, pointing to a spot in the photo just below the podium on which soon-to-be President Barack Obama stood. She doesn’t know which one she is of the estimated 27,000 people at Nippert Stadium who, on Nov. 2, 2008, heard Obama speak. 

She is somewhere in the middle near the president at the massive rally. 

“Oh my God. It was so awesome.”

Much like at Obama’s 2008 rally, McFarlin has also found herself in the middle of Hamilton County politics after decades working behind the scenes.

The nurse and health care administrator may be the biggest name in local politics you haven’t heard of.

You won’t see her name on campaign literature or her face in commercials. But McFarlin has taken the helm of the Hamilton County Democrats at a historic time when the party has a realistic shot at holding all the major countywide political offices in Hamilton County by the end of next year.

Whether they’re successful or not could depend on McFarlin’s ability to unify the party, get out the vote, raise money and recruit candidates.

She also vets your taxes

McFarlin’s influence goes beyond the Democratic Party.  She seems to be chairing just about everything these days.

She’s the chair of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. 

She helps vet the countywide taxes that appear on your ballot as the chair of the Tax Levy Review Committee.

A financial incentive to build the garage for FC Cincinnati’s stadium in the West End just came before the Hamilton County Convention Facilities Authority she leads.   

She also serves on the Hamilton County Public Health Advisory Board.

“Gwen is a busy lady,” said her Republican colleague and fellow Springfield Township Trustee Joseph Honerlaw

‘A worthy adversary’

A year ago in June, she became the first black woman to head the Hamilton County Democratic Party, when the Democrats elected her co-chair with former State Rep. Connie Pillich. Pillich left a few months later to take a job in Washington, D.C. In November, McFarlin became the sole head of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. 

She’s not in it for the pay: It’s a volunteer position.

Former U.S. Congressman Steve Driehaus rose at that June meeting to nominate McFarlin and Pillich.

“I’ve known Gwen for many years,” Driehaus said. “I thought it would benefit the party to have women at the helm. I liked the fact that there was not only gender diversity but racial diversity. That’s important for our party.” 

He doesn’t regret his decision and graded Gwen an “A” on her first year at the helm.

Republicans plan to put up a fight. Hamilton County GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou told The Enquirer he plans on fielding the local Republican Party’s most diverse slate of candidates ever in 2020. 

“I disagree with (Gwen) on a lot of issues, but so far, she seems like a worthy adversary,” Triantafilou said. “She’s coming in at a good period for the Democrats.”

Holding her own party accountable

She hasn’t hesitated to correct members of her own party.

After a texting scandal revealed rude behavior by progressive Democrats on Cincinnati City Council, McFarlin showed up to in the front row of a city council meeting to send a message: disrespectful conduct won’t be tolerated. 

“It is part of my role to hold them accountable for their actions and make sure they’re not making disrespectful comments during the public meeting,” McFarlin told The Enquirer in March.

And working with Republicans isn’t a problem for her. That’s what she’s done for the past 24 years as a trustee in Springfield Township.  

She’s the only Democrat on the three-member board of trustees in this northern suburb of Hamilton County. 

Her Republican colleague and fellow Springfield Township Trustee Joseph Honerlaw praised McFarlin. He’s served with McFarlin for 23 years on the board and can’t remember an issue he’s disagreed with McFarlin on.

“In 1996, we may have had a disagreement over the (teen) curfew,” Honerslaw said. He then paused. “No wait, I take that back, I voted with her. Gwen and I voted for it. I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with her.” 

Born in a tobacco field

McFarlin developed her work ethic in the 1950s in a tobacco field in Clermont County. 

Her mother, Katherine Garrison, went into labor while working in the fields, McFarlin said. Garrison didn’t make it to the hospital but did make it to the family’s one-story, white farmhouse in Felicity, Ohio. That’s where McFarlin was born sometime in the 1940s. McFarlin won’t say her age because “It’s nobody’s business, and I don’t want to be gauged and measured by my age.”

According to voting records, she was born in 1941, making her either 77 or 78.

As a young child, McFarlin woke up before the sunrise and worked until dark. 

“We had to get up early, do chores, then go to school, get off of school, do homework and go back to doing chores late at night,” McFarlin said. “So we had long days.”

A photo from the 1940s showing McFarlin's parents, Wendell and Katherine Garrison, and extended family on the tobacco farm where she grew up in Clermont County

She and her two brothers would feed the cows and pigs and gather eggs.

They didn’t complain.

“I guess I never thought about it,” McFarlin said with a laugh. “When you had leisure time, it was time to get ready for bed.”

Her family’s main income was tobacco. They’d dry the broad leaves from the rafters of the family’s large barn, put the product on the truck and sell it in Maysville, Kentucky to cigarette companies. 

Growing up as a black farmer in 1950s Clermont County wasn’t easy, she said. There weren’t many black people in Clermont County then. And even now, black people account for less than 2% of the county’s 205,000 people, according to 2018 U.S. Census estimates. White people make up 95 percent. 

‘We would all fight and beat them up’

Not until the family sold the farm when she was 12-years-old in the 1950s did she start to become aware of racism, she said.  

The family moved to Batavia where her father gave up farming for the more stable income of a union worker in a power plant. Her mother worked as a nurse’s aide.

Gwen McFarlin, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, poses for a portrait at the democratic headquarters in Pleasant Ridge on Friday, June 21, 2019.

McFarlin in Batavia noticed places she couldn’t go. There was a drug store in Batavia where she couldn’t sit at the counter. In school, she was a majorette in the band. Occasionally, people called her the “n” word but she had enough friends she could fight back.  “We would all fight and beat them up,” McFarlin said with her hearty laugh.

She credits that experience with making her a leader.  

“There weren’t many of us in Clermont County. There were two of us in high school,” McFarlin said. “You learn how to accomplish what trails you’re trying to blaze in a way that makes it a win-win. You learn how to partner and collaborate with different people and universes.”

Her mother made her a Democrat

Her parents never discussed politics.

McFarlin’s political awakening happened in the 1960s. She saw Martin Luther King, Jr. speak of having a dream. King sparked McFarlin to question the world around her.

Sitting in her office more than 50 years after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, McFarlin described herself as “a 60s person,” an “advocate and fighter” for civil rights. 

One day, as a senior in high school, she mentioned something political to her parents, she doesn’t remember what, and she learned her father was Republican and mother was a Democrat.

The first campaign McFarlin worked on was that of Marian Spencer, the first black woman to serve on Cincinnati City Council, in 1983.

She’s a Democrat because of her mother. 

“I always see my mother as being ahead of the curve when it came to women’s issues,” McFarlin said. “My dad was a person who believed a woman’s place was not political but in the kitchen.”

She was married for seven years in the 1970s and raised six children.

She studied nursing at Miami University in the 1970s and 1980s and became more immersed in politics. She did a research paper on Bobbie Sterne, the pioneering female politician in Cincinnati in the 1970s.

She graduated with two nursing degrees, and worked first as a nurse for Jewish Hospital and then later for non-profits with people that have developmental disabilities. 

For much of the 1970s, her interest in politics took a backseat to her career and family. 

A historic campaign

Then Marian Spencer came along. The longtime Cincinnati civil rights activist mounted a campaign for Cincinnati City Council in 1983. At the time, no black woman had ever served on city council.

McFarlin signed up for Spencer’s campaign. That’s when future mayor Roxanne Qualls first met McFarlin. Spencer’s campaign was also a first for Qualls. They were both on Spencer’s leadership team, knocking on doors, organizing rallies. 

She noted McFarlin’s calm enthusiasm as infectious. 

“She was able to rally the troops,” Qualls said. “Gwen is not a hyper person. She is someone that can talk to anybody and communicate the importance of a project.”

McFarlin continued to work on local campaigns, including that of Qualls, as well as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996. 

Then, in 1994, the bombastic, mustachioed attorney Leslie Isaiah Gaines suggested she run for office.

“He said you need to move into the city if you’re going to get elected,” McFarlin said. “It’s the only way you’ll get elected as a black woman.”

McFarlin took Gaines’ advice to run for office but not to move out of her suburban home in Springfield Township. She moved there two decades earlier to provide a safe neighborhood with good schools to raise her children. She didn’t intend to give that up.

Through rigorous door-knocking, McFarlin said she won over her conservative neighbors. She’s still the only Democrat on the three-member board of trustees. 

No longer in the background

Now, after decades in the background of local politics, McFarlin has stepped to the front. 

Democratic Party leaders wanted someone with McFarlin’s background to lead the party when longtime chairman Tim Burke decided to retire last year. 

Not only did she have deep ties in the African-American community, but she’s from the suburbs, an area Democrats want to make gains. They saw a leadership team of McFarlin and Pillich as having complementary strengths. Pillich could raise of money and McFarlin could recruit diverse candidates. 

As sole head of the Hamilton County Democrats, McFarlin has had to do both. 

She held a diversity workshop on a Saturday in February at a union hall in Evanston where 200 people attended. The summer fundraiser, normally a more modest gathering at Longworth Hall, was expanded into a sit-down dinner at the Westin Hotel with 400 people and keynote speaker Sen. Sherrod Brown. 

Gwen McFarlin, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, poses for a portrait at the democratic headquarters in Pleasant Ridge, Cincinnati, Ohio, on Friday, June 21, 2019.

“You walked into that room and all the tables were filled,” said Brewster Rhoads, a longtime Democrat from Mount Washington. He also worked with McFarlin on Spencer’s campaign. “People were impressed with that crowd.”

McFarlin sees her role as unifying the Democrats in the county. As Democrats assume more power, internal clashes among the party members are likely to arise.

Some conservative Democrats may see more progressive challengers. Sheriff Jim Neil, a conservative Democrat, has already drawn a primary challenge from a former top deputy, Charmaine McGuffey, who’s backed by many Democratic officeholders. 

This year has also seen clashes between Mayor John Cranley and the other Democrats on Cincinnati City Council and between new County Commissioner Stephanie Summerow Dumas and the other two Democratic county commissioners. 

When asked by The Enquirer how she’s dealing with these battles in her own party, McFarlin remained vague. She said she couldn’t comment on the situation on the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners due to a pending discrimination complaint filed by Dumas’  chief of staff against the other two commissioners.

“You have to learn to stay in your lane, and I will stay in my lane when there are legal issues pending,” McFarlin said. 

She also had this warning for Republicans.

“We’re not taking any race for granted,” McFarlin said. “I will not be outworked.”

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