CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Cuyahoga County Democratic Party recently opted not to endorse a local incumbent state senator for re-election, in the latest example of ongoing fractures within the progressive movement in Ohio's most populous county.
State Sen. Kenny Yuko fell just one vote short of getting an endorsement in a county party meeting late last month. His primary opponent, State Rep. John Barnes, didn't get the endorsement, but managed to pull just enough support to keep Yuko from reaching the 60 percent threshold Yuko needed.
The move surprised political observers not only in Cuyahoga County, but in Columbus too. Yuko, a former union organizer, is popular with progressive activists, and recently was chosen as the top Democrat in the Ohio Senate.
Like other top Democratic elected officials, a picture of Yuko hangs at Ohio Democratic Party headquarters. Barnes, in contrast, is not well-regarded by statewide Democrats, and occasionally has voted with Republicans on key issues. He sued the state party in 2014 after it endorsed his primary opponent. The state party's then-chairman said at the time Barnes didn't even seek the endorsement.
In a Wednesday interview, Yuko blamed, in part, County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, the county party's recently elected chairwoman. Brown abstained from voting in Yuko's and other state senate contests, and committee members from her city, Warrensville Heights, voted unanimously for Barnes.
A different county party group previously had recommended that Yuko get the endorsement.
"It's politics at its ugliest, when it comes down to it," Yuko said. "I don't plan to expound upon that any further."
Similarly, Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins suggested the non-endorsement is an outgrowth of last year's contentious party chair race, in which Brown was elected. Elkins ran against Brown, with Yuko's backing. Elkins, along with remnants of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, now is trying to organize a slate of candidates to take spots on the county party's central committee.
"When we have a narrow group of people looking to consolidate power for themselves, we create a climate where the minority leader [Yuko] can't get what in any other county should be a rubber-stamp endorsement," Elkins said.
But Brown and other Democrats said Yuko simply took the vote for granted, and failed to either mobilize his own supporters on the party committee, or to win over those who were inclined to support Barnes, who did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
"I think Mr. Yuko failed to do his due diligence when it comes to whipping and getting his tally for his votes," Brown said. "But I have great respect for him and his body of work. I'm disappointed he's making it personal, but it's not personal."
Sandra Williams, another state senator with an established primary opponent, managed to get the party's endorsement by working for it, said Warrensville Heights Mayor Brad Sellers, who led a delegation of 10 votes from his city for Barnes. Like Yuko, Williams opposed Brown for party chair last year.
Sellers said Barnes impressed his city's committee members by helping to bring $500,000 in state funding to pay for senior-citizen health programs at Warrensville's civic center last year.
"I like Kenny, and my whole group likes Kenny. But this is also a platform of people remembering 'What have you done lately?'" Sellers said.
Another key bloc for Barnes were committee members in Cleveland's Ward 1, where Barnes' father used to be a city councilman, Sellers said.
Of note, Brown and Sellers both are close to U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, a former Warrensville mayor who was a key backer of Brown's party chair candidacy. But Sellers said the reason Yuko didn't get the endorsement isn't complicated.
"It's very easy to default to 'someone's pulling strings,'" Sellers said. "First of all, I don't think anybody around here is anybody's puppet of any sort. Everyone's got a brain here. But I can tell you... I don't think Kenny called one person who had a vote in Warrensville. I know he didn't call me."
Elkins, the suburban mayor organizing a progressive slate of party committee candidates, said "a small handful of people" with sway in the county party pursue their own political self-interest over the greater good of the county and the state party.
"Some very powerful elected officials put their fingers on the scales in a lot of races, including Kenny Yuko's," Elkins said.