Local News
11:00 pm
Sat January 11, 2014

Decision day near for Portune

In or out?

The clock is ticking on Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune’s ambition to be the Democratic nominee for governor; and Portune probably has little more than a week to make up his mind.

Portune is saying that, by the end of the week, he should be ready to announce one way or the other about whether he will be a candidate for Ohio governor.

It’s a long shot; a 70-yard “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone for Portune to begin with.

First of all, the Ohio Democratic Party already has a candidate for governor – Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who has been running for nearly a year now and has wrapped up not only the endorsement of the state party, but most high-profile Democrats in the state and the even the party organization in Portune’s own county.

Portune has been traveling the state, meeting with groups and individual Democrats, trying to gauge whether there is enough support for him to (1) put together a campaign quickly that could beat FitzGerald in the May primary and (2) take out Republican governor John Kasich in the fall.

A tall order for a fellow who caught this gubernatorial bug only a month or so ago.

Portune, in a conversation with WVXU Thursday, said he is talking to all kinds of people – particularly African-American Democrats in FitzGerald’s Cuyahoga County, many of whom are said to be unhappy with their county executive and less than enthusiastic about him as their candidate is.

The problem is Portune won’t tell anybody which individuals he is talking to.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people out there who prefer not to have their names out there,’’ Portune told WVXU. “The (Ohio Democratic) party clearly disapproves of what I am doing and they are telling people that.”

He’s accusing the FitzGerald campaign and the Ohio Democratic Party – particularly its leader, chairman Chris Redfern – of throwing up every roadblock to his candidacy that they can find and making sure that Democratic party leaders from the smallest to the largest counties know that Portune is persona non grata.

And the fact is that not one single Democratic elected official in the state – not even in Hamilton County – has come out and said he or she would support Portune over FitzGerald in a primary contest.

Portune went on a live online interview Friday with Cincinnati.com and told the Enquirer’s editorial board that he contacted both Redfern and Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke in early December to tell them he was exploring the possibility of running for governor. He said both told him not to do it.

“I never told him not to run; I told him it is a free country,’’ Redfern said. “And I told him, if he does, he will lose.’’

Portune made his musings over running for governor public on Dec. 30, in a press conference at Bond Hill’s Integrity Hall, which is owned by long-time political activist Steve Reece. Reece, an African-American, is the only significant political figure in this part of the state who has come out publicly saying he would back Portune over FitzGerald.

At the time, Portune said he would take the month of January to travel the state and make his decision in time to meet the Feb. 5 filing deadline.

Now, he says, he is going to have to move more quickly.

“I’m close; I want to get a lieutenant governor candidate,’’ Portune told WVXU. “Next week is a big week. I am not going to unnecessarily drag this out, just for the dramatic effect of it.”

Or for the practical effect of it, either.

Portune needs to have a name of a lieutenant governor candidate on the petitions he will need to circulate. He needs only 1,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, but he needs to pick a running mate.

He told Cincinnati.com Friday there are two people he is “talking with very seriously about the position,’’ but wouldn’t name either one of them.

We’d bet a dollar to a donut that one or both are African-American Democrats from FitzGerald’s home turf in Cuyahoga County.

FitzGerald, though, is in the same boat as Portune. He has no running mate either.

He had one in State Sen. Eric Kearney of North Avondale, whom he named in November. But when the news stories began pouring out about the nearly $750,000 in federal and state taxes that Kearney’s publishing business owes, Kearney was forced to withdraw from the ticket. It was just too much of a distraction; and would have handed the Kasich campaign a freebie in terms of a campaign issue.

So FitzGerald has to move quickly too. For FitzGerald, getting the 1,000 signatures will be a snap – he has the entire Democratic party machinery of the state behind him.

Portune is clearly aiming for the support of African-American voters. An East Cleveland group of African-American political activists has asked him to be the grand marshal of its Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

State Rep. Alicia Reece – the daughter of Steve Reece – chairs the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, made up of the 17 African-Americans in the Ohio General Assembly.

She says that all statewide candidates – including Portune, if he jumps into the race – will be interviewed by the caucus for the purpose of endorsements.

Unlike her father, though, Alicia Reece is keeping Portune at arm’s length.

“I haven’t endorsed anybody,’’ Alicia Reece said. “I have not talked to Todd about this. I wasn’t at the Integrity Hall announcement. I would not make any endorsement until (the caucus) has had an endorsement process.”

Portune says there are certain “benchmarks” that he has to be convinced he can reach before he makes a final decision. One involves trying to figure out if he has enough support to win the primary and then wage a credible campaign against an incumbent governor.  Another is money – it will take a lot of it; easily $10 million in a general election campaign.

Redfern said that if Portune goes for it, he will be beating his head against the wall.

“If he wants to continue to embarrass himself with this, that’s up to him,’’ Redfern said.

But Portune, when he talks about being a “fiscal conservative” and being “a practical Democrat,” certainly sounds like someone who is already running.

By this time next week, we should know for certain.