Energizing the Democratic Party

By Andrew J. Tobias, cleveland.com


CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Progressive activists, along with a suburban mayor who lost last year's party leadership fight, say they have filed hundreds of candidates in their insurgent bid to seize control of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party's central committee.

It's not clear how viable the takeover effort is. But the internal fight has raised tensions and could disrupt the party in an election year when Democrats otherwise have the potential to make big gains in Ohio. Cuyahoga County is of key political importance to Democrats statewide, and a functioning party organization helps raise money and organize voters.

Trevor Elkins, mayor of tiny Newburgh Heights, said he personally has submitted petitions for about 100 candidates. Activists with the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, an off-shoot of Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, say their members have filed for more than 150 committee seats themselves.

County elections officials say nearly 1,000 candidates have filed to runfor about 730 committee seats. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 120 had withdrawn, many of whom may attempt to run as write-in candidates, and another 80 have been recommended for rejection, based on technical problems with their petitions, said Pat McDonald, the county elections director. 

County party committee seats will appear on the May ballot, alongside elections for local state and federal candidates. In June, committee members will choose whether to re-elect still-new Party Chairwoman Shontel Brown. Around 115 committee members cast votes at the party meeting last summer that saw Brown elected as the party's first black and first female leader in its history.

In an interview, Elkins said his campaign isn't about installing himself as party chairman, but he didn't rule it out. He also said his coalition will strengthen, not harm, Democratic electoral chances, since one of his group's stated goals is to recruit committee members who will commit to helping increase voter turnout. It reflects activists' frustration with party stalwarts, and a desire to push the party in a more progressive direction, he said.

"The slate of candidates that I'm running tend to be party activists, they tend to be younger folks," Elkins said. "They tend to be people who are more energized and more active in doing things like getting out the vote, and working in their neighborhoods and their communities, whereas whoever else ... [are] some of the same names that have been there for years."

Brown, meanwhile, said she is focused on doing her job. She said she has met with Steve Holecko, a leader of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, to try to build bridges with the roiling grassroots movement. 

"I'm willing to work with people who are willing to work with me," Brown said. "And I'm focused on raising money and getting Democrats elected. That is my task, and that is what I will continue to do. I don't really have a lot of time to focus on those little things."

County Democratic Party leaders are reluctant to publicly comment on Elkins' effort, but believe he is opportunistically exploiting the intraparty discord lingering from the 2016 presidential campaign to advance his own long-held political ambitions. Before Elkins styled himself as a political outsider, he sought support from and hosted at his fundraisers some of the same influential party leaders he's now railing against -- such as U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge and former Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason. In recent years, Elkins has run in and lost races for the state legislature and County Council, and he repeatedly sought a seat on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority Board before he was appointed to one in 2016.