Portune Says He’s Strongest Dem To Beat Kasich, Blasts Party Chair For Making Early Endorsement In Primary

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UPDATED: Wednesday January 15, 2014 9:13 PM

As he embarks on a four-day campaign tour of Ohio, Hamilton County commissioner Todd Portune says he's talking to three perspective running mates about joining his ticket while blaming Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern for hindering his efforts.

"The Democratic Party machinery has reacted in a fairly negative way to what I'm doing," said Portune in a one-on-one interview with 10TVs Jim Heath.  "In an election as important and big as this, where there is an appetite for another candidate, it really should be an open process."

Portune faces a February 5 deadline to submit a minimum of 1,000 valid signatures to qualify for the race.  Before he can begin circulating petitions, he must name a running mate.

"I'm now talking to three perspective candidates and those talks are getting more serious," said Portune.  "For whoever would sign on to be my lieutenant governor, they have to think about not just can we win the primary or in the fall, but because of the reaction of the Party, and the comments about my effort, they have to think about what this could do to them.  We have to protect the confidentiality of our conversations so they can weigh all that through.  It is a complicating feature in my ability to identify my lieutenant governor."

Portune, who has been a fixture in Democratic Party politics in Hamilton County for nearly two decades, says he is skeptical that FitzGerald, who has never sought statewide office, is the strongest candidate to lead the ticket this fall.

"There are signs that there are problems with his campaign," said Portune.  "The Cleveland Plain Dealer is doing an on-line poll right now.  Admittedly that's not scientific at all and I don't look to it that way.  But in fact it shows me beating Mr. FitzGerald in Cuyahoga County 75 percent to 23 percent.  Truthfully, I don't think 75 percent of the people in Cuyahoga County know who I am but what that tells me is the high level of dissatisfaction either with the Party or Mr. FitzGerald."

In 2000 Portune won a race for Hamilton County commissioner in one of the most heavily Republican counties in the country.  He was the first Democrat to win the seat in 36 years.

"To win Ohio as a Democrat you've got to win southwest Ohio," said Portune.  "President Obama won Hamilton County and that was one of his linchpins to winning the state and becoming president.  I certainly am a much better choice as a Democrat to win in southwest Ohio.  I don't know if Ed can win here or not but I certainly can."

Portune says he started taking a serious look at the governors race last month after state senator Eric Kearny withdrew as FitzGerald's running mate.  Kearney and his wife are paying over $800,000 in back taxes for small businesses they own.

"I won't deny that played a role," said Portune.  "It's something that you hear.  Everywhere I go people raise the question so it's certainly on people's minds.  The worst part is the message it sent which is, 'Ohioans who are in that kind of a pickle, what are we doing for them?  Are we going to embrace them or are we going to discard them?  What are we bringing to the table to help Ohioans struggling to make ends meet?'"

After Kearney exited the race, Portune said he reached out to Redfern to discuss his concerns about the governors race.

"I didn't get through to him at first, he called me back 11 days later and I was actually wondering if I had the right number," said Portune.  "When he did call back he said in a somewhat theatric voice 'never let it be said that Chris Redfern of the Ohio Democratic Party strong-armed Todd Portune into not running for the office of governor.'  But he made it very clear the Party was going to support Ed, that he was the endorsed candidate, he was who they were getting behind and the Party was going to spend resources on his behalf and do what they needed to do to elect him and not me."

The state Democratic Party executive committee officially endorsed FitzGerald, the current Cuyahoga County executive, last September.  Portune says the endorsement has hampered his ability to reach out to Ohio Democrats.

"I've tried to get to county Democratic committees to speak and those doors have been shut," said Portune.  "I've tried to get resources from the Party and those doors have been shut.  The Party has really cut me off.  I'm a registered Democrat, I'm an elected Democratic official and I can't get information to reach the county chairs.  I've been told I can't have that information.  Does that mean the Party is encouraging me to run and really wants me to run?  You be the judge on that."

Portune believes Redfern made a mistake in pushing for the early endorsement of FitzGerald that he says could put the entire Democratic ticket at risk.

"I think that you always run the risk of creating problems if you endorse before the filing date," said Portune.  "You don't know if their campaign is going full tilt or whether the wheels are falling off the jalopy or whether somebody else surfaces who provides a better choice.  Right now you've got two potential candidates for the office of governor, the top of the ticket, and we bring our perspective strengths.  I believe I bring far greater strength and choice to the ticket, and reason to lead the ticket, than the current endorsed candidate."

While his social media accounts have changed in recent days to reflect a possible bid for governor, Portune said his final decision is likely to be announced on Tuesday.

He plans four days of campaigning starting tomorrow with stops in northwest Ohio, including Toledo.  He then will travel to Athens and southeast Ohio before participating in a Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade in Cleveland on Sunday and one in Cincinnati on Monday.

"I'm running very hard to be the Democratic candidate for governor in the state of Ohio," said Portune.  "But whether I file petitions before the deadline will depend on a number of objective factors.  At the end of the day this is not about whether I can win the primary or not.  On that I feel very good where I am.  But the real question is whether I can beat John Kasich in the fall.  Can I put together the infrastructure together that is necessary?  Can I put together the volunteer support, raise the funds, all the things you've got to do?"

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