Democrats Make Package Deal, Including Berding
Voices were raised and tempers flared tonight as local Democrats debated whether incumbent Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding should receive the party’s endorsement in this fall’s election.
By meeting’s end, a motion to hold individual votes on each candidate failed by a close 64-59 margin, possibly indicating that Berding is losing the support of his party’s base and could face trouble at the polls.
The Cincinnati Democratic Committee (CDC) met in Evanston to decide whether to support a nominating committee’s recommended nine-member slate.
A visibly nervous Berding scanned the room during the vote and had a campaign worker — Miles Lindahl — count along with party leaders to ensure the tally was accurate.
After the motion to hold individual votes failed, the CDC voted 75-43 to endorse the full slate. It includes Berding and fellow incumbents Laketa Cole, John Cranley, David Crowley and Cecil Thomas; former Councilwoman Minette Cooper; and challengers Brian Garry, Greg Harris and Wendell Young.
Asked by CityBeat to comment after the meeting, Berding said, “Why? You’re just going to write whatever you want to write.” Pressed to clarify if that was a “no comment,” Berding replied, “That’s a ‘no comment’ to you, yes.”
During a private meeting two weeks ago, Berding also barely received the nominating committee’s recommendation. When the committee voted on Berding’s endorsement, the tally was 9-8 in favor, with some members abstaining. Among those voting then to support Berding was Lindahl, who Berding plans on hiring as his campaign manager and who previously worked for Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper. Lindahl said he hadn’t yet spoke with Berding about working for his campaign when the vote was cast.
“I was very moved by what Jeff said in the nominating committee and submitted my resume,” Lindahl said. “David Pepper recommended me after I did that.”
Lindahl emphasized that he hasn’t yet signed a contract with the Berding campaign or received any payment for his services. He did, however, issue a press release to the media on Berding’s behalf within minutes of tonight’s vote.
Some critics allege that Berding’s supporters — who include Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke — stacked the deck in Berding’s favor. The county party recently approved the appointment of about 30 new precinct executives, many of whom are Berding supporters.
Also, some Berding opponents questioned the way the votes were tallied tonight, with party leaders making a quick count of people standing in the crowded room.
Earlier in the meeting, former Congressman Tom Luken — a Berding critic — proposed splitting the decision into votes on individual candidates, igniting a bitter debate about whether Berding has supported his fellow Democrats on city council and has remained true to core Democratic principles. Tom Schuermann, a nominating committee member, said the CDC should support voting on each candidate individually.
“What I’m trying to figure out is if everybody here is a Democrat, why are we afraid if these people cannot survive this room by being voted on individually? What is the point?” Schuermann said.
Many rank-and-file are upset at Berding because of his extensive ties to Republican candidates and campaign contributors, his proposal last winter to cut $3 million from the city’s health department, a tendency to cut deals outside public meetings and his frequent clashes with some Democrats on council.
Chandra Yungbluth, formerly the party’s executive director, opposed individual votes.
“Every person in this room was afforded the opportunity to sit on that committee … and most of us declined,” she said.
The group’s work should be respected and the full slate should be endorsed, Yungbluth said.
At least three members in the audience, however, said they applied to be on the nominating committee but were rejected and never given an explanation why, despite requests.
“I asked how people were chosen and was never given a straightforward answer,” said Chris Seelbach.
In fact, committee co-chair Areyh Alex said about 50 people applied. Only 20 were selected, including Burke and former Mayor Dwight Tillery.
“We tried to pick a balanced slate of committee members because we didn’t think a 50-member committee would be functional, so we narrowed it down,” Alex said.
Responding to complaints from Luken and others, Alex said all committee members were Cincinnati residents but added that Tillery and another member weren’t precinct executives. Under the CDC’s by-laws, not all members have to be precinct executives; and if members don’t like that provision, they can always work to change it, Alex said.
As the crowd spilled in the parking lot after the meeting, some precinct executives vowed to create a group called “Democrats Against Berding” and actively oppose his candidacy this fall.
Burke downplayed the discord, describing it as characteristic of the party’s transparent endorsement process.
“Welcome to the Democratic Party,” he said. “Greg Harris referred to us as a family (in his speech). We are sometimes a dysfunctional family. I’m satisfied we have a strong slate. In the Democratic Party, there will always be people who object to something. Some people will object to certain members on this slate. I believe this slate will succeed in retaining a majority of Democrats on city council.”
Berding’s supporters noted that many of his actions were taken to demand greater accountability about how city funds are spent. Opponents, however, have countered that Berding and the Fiscal Five included funding in the municipal budget for several questionable items, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Closing the Health Gap in Greater Cincinnati. The latter group is headed by Tillery — who, critics say, has no healthcare experience and got the lucrative job based solely on his political connections.
Berding, 40, is sales director for the Cincinnati Bengals. He managed the successful campaign in 1996 to increase Hamilton County’s sales tax by a half-cent to build new stadiums for the Bengals and Reds. He later was hired by the team. Berding is seeking re-election to a second city council term this November.
— Kevin Osborne