COLUMBUS, Ohio — Former and current chairmen are clashing over the Ohio Democratic Party’s treatment of a young challenger who has refused to drop out of the 2016 race for a U.S. Senate seat also sought by former Gov. Ted Strickland.
Generations are reversed in the feud. A group of older Democrats from former Gov. Richard Celeste’s era are standing behind 30-year-old P.G. Sittenfeld, a Cincinnati councilman, while younger party insiders, including fledgling party chairman David Pepper, seek to promote Strickland, who is 73.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face incumbent Republican Rob Portman in what is expected to be another closely watched race nationally. Strickland has led Portman in several early polls, and Democrats see the race as one of their best prospects for picking up a GOP-held seat in their quest to regain control of the Senate.
The state party has taken the unusual step of endorsing a candidate, Strickland, in a competitive primary. And against its bylaws in the year before the election, it gave the former governor, and not Sittenfeld, a chance to talk at its annual dinner.
In a Thursday teleconference with reporters, James Ruvolo, the party chairman during much of the 1980s, called Pepper’s comments urging Sittenfeld to stay focused on his City Council job “the last straw.” Ruvolo said Pepper meant to intimidate Sittenfeld out of the race and that it was wrong.
“You don’t build a party by excluding and criticizing a young, aggressive candidate who we need,” Ruvolo said. “We’ve had a dearth of election wins in this state and it seems to me (that) getting exciting new young people to run for office ought to be what the role of the state party chair is.”
Pepper told the editorial board of the Cincinnati Enquirer that Sittenfeld should put in the time to make a difference in the community, particularly by reducing crime, telling the board: “It’s a missed opportunity to make a difference in a community that needs it. In hindsight, people will say this is a case study of moving too quickly.”
On Thursday, Pepper said his remarks were not meant to be intimidating.
“That’s absurd. I’m not someone who tries to intimate anybody. Anyone who knows me knows that’s not my style, that’s not how I operate,” he said. “My message was that, whatever office you’re running for, the most important job you have is the job you’re in.”
Ruvolo said he met with Pepper on Wednesday, after he sent an email to reporters saying he was “appalled” by Pepper’s comments to Sittenfeld’s hometown newspaper. Ruvolo said the two continue to disagree on the intent of Pepper’s comments, and that he hopes speaking out prompted Pepper to “go back to being chairman, building the party.”
Divisions aside, Ruvolo said, Democrats agree on the end goal.
“Portman is both of our goals here,” he said. “I mean, as a Democrat I want Portman beaten, and I’ll support the winner of this primary.”