When Tim Burke Retires, Who Will Lead the Hamilton County Democratic Party?

For those following Cincinnati politics from both sides of the aisle, it is hard to imagine: very soon, Tim Burke will no longer hold the title of chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

Burke has been in the job for 24 years, and I’m old enough to remember when he was one of the “young Turks” trying to beat the gruff, crispy Democratic Party leader, the late John “Socko” Wiethe oust legendary figure in Cincinnati politics.

Burke, who recently turned 70, goes back even further. He was part of the Young Democrats at Xavier University in the late 1960s who grouped around a young newcomer named Jerry Springer and elected him to the city council.

But Burke is fed up with what is, without question, the most ungrateful job in politics – trying to keep the peace and vote for candidates in a political party where the favorite sport seems to be fighting among the various factions.

And, oh yeah, did we mention it’s a job that pays nothing? No nickel.

Yes, he’s been on the electoral board for a while and this job pays off, but not enough to make you quit an active law firm. In fact, he looks forward to spending more time in this practice.

So you’re wondering who’s next to lead the Hamilton County Democratic Party?

Here are the four names to watch out for:

  • Former Congressman Steve Driehauswho had returned from his service in the Peace Corps last year and carried out anti-HIV programs in African countries
  • Gwen McFarlin, the longtime trustee of Springfield Township
  • Former state representative Connie Pillichwho ran a brief campaign for the governor but quit in February and endorsed Richard Cordray, the eventual winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary
  • And former district court Judge Cheryl Grantwho was the only one to publicly announce that she was a candidate. Grant is withdrawn from the bank because Ohio law does not allow those over 70 to serve.

That’s the Democratic Party, right?

The party at which they seem to enjoy having dejected fights every now and then just to stay in practice.

The potential candidates are, of course, about to bleed each other, right?

Well no

Actually, they are very well behaved.

You have four people here who are smart, serious people who have been chosen into some pretty important jobs in the past.

You can expect them to act like adults.

You can also ask how this decision is made. Good question.

In the May 8 primary, the Democrats elected a new group of district executives who will all become (or remain) members of the Hamilton County’s Democratic Party’s Central Committee.

On the morning of June 9th, the Central Committee will meet in a United Auto Workers hall in Evendale to elect new officers. Then the decision is made.

Pillich told WVXU she was seriously considering becoming a candidate. Driehaus and McFarlin too. Grant couldn’t be reached for comment, but Burke says she made it clear that she is a candidate.

How will that end?

I can’t say for sure, but I have reason to believe that the following is a scenario that could very well play out on June 9th. So so:

The two largest (and most loyal) of the Democratic Party’s many constituencies are Afro-American voters.

Steve Driehaus does not fall into any of these categories. But he is highly regarded in the party and has a reputation for being a good organizer.

Gwen McFarlin, on the other hand, is both a woman and an African American. She is a seasoned public official who understands suburban politics and places great emphasis on getting young Democrats into leadership positions.

The party also has a first vice-chairman and four vice-chairmen who are elected – an opportunity to involve other democratic constituencies in the party leadership.

The two Democrats McFarlin and Driehaus respect and like each other.

In the past few decades there have been two cases in which the party elected co-chairs – one white and one black.

First there was Steve Driehaus’ father, the late Don Driehaus, who had teamed up with the late William Mallory Sr., the former Ohio House majority leader.

Burke himself had an African-American co-chair for a while – former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who was in state at the time.

There were discussions between the two of them about working together. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but the fact that they are speaking matters in and of itself.

It would surely avoid any significant resentment among African Americans in the party, many of whom believe have been excluded from any significant role in the party leadership.

What are the chances that such a scenario will work on June 9th?

Probably about as good as Justify to win the Triple Crown.

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