JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS — The chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party on Wednesday handily beat back a challenge to unseat him in a party squabble with implications for this fall’s presidential election in a critical swing state.
A majority of a 66-member central committee voted for current chairman Chris Redfern over challenger Tony Giardini, the party chair in Lorain County, in a contest that was also tinted with shades of the 2014 race for Ohio governor.
Besides controlling the estimated $60 million likely to flow through the party this year, Redfern will now lead Democrats’ effort to win back the governorship from Republican John Kasich in two years.
In a statement, Redfern said he was “honored” that committee members “put their faith in my continuing ability to effectively fight for our Democratic values.” He said the state’s Democrats can now rally around the “unifying goal” of re-electing President Barack Obama and Ohio’s top Democratic officials.
The Ohio Republican Party will settle an even more pointed and public feud of its own Friday, when its central committee chooses a replacement to a party chair who resigned under pressure from Kasich and his allies.
Redfern, a former state lawmaker from Port Clinton, was hand-picked in 2005 to lead the Ohio Democratic Party by soon-to-be Gov. Ted Strickland. Strickland lost a re-election bid in 2010 but has not ruled out running again in 2014. Redfern was backed by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the state’s highest ranking Democratic elected official, and House Democratic Leader Armond Budish.
Giardini’s candidacy, meanwhile, was orchestrated by political strategist and fundraiser Melissa Barnhart, an ally of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.
Cordray — who, like Strickland, lost a re-election bid in 2010 — is serving as President Obama’s consumer protection director. But he has not ruled out a run for governor in 2014. Barnhart has worked for Cordray’s campaigns since 1998, including his races for state treasurer and attorney general.
A message left with Cordray seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Former Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who was supporting Giardini in the fight, said she had no evidence Cordray’s political aspirations played any role in the contest. She said Barnhart has other clients besides Cordray — she’s also done work for Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, for example.
Brunner said her main reason for supporting Giardini was that she believes Redfern’s campaign to retake a seat in the Ohio House this fall will divide his attention at a critical time.
It’s a seat Redfern previously held. He said he was approached by Budish to run again because of a “timing issue.” Incumbent state Rep. Dennis Murray’s law partner died and Murray needed to devote more time to his practice.
“They were afraid we (Democrats) would lose the seat, and I run very well there. It’s my home,” Redfern said. “I literally gathered the signatures the night before the filing deadline.”
Redfern said he consulted with Brown and others before making the decision and no one raised concerns about him running. He was a sitting lawmaker when he first ran for chairman in 2005 and served simultaneously in both jobs for about three years.
At least one of the labor unions that lined up behind Giardini pointed to another reason for wanting to replace Redfern: the Democrats’ sweeping losses in 2010.
Kenny Holland, secretary treasurer of the Laborers’ District Council of Ohio, wrote in a letter of support for Giardini that the Democrats’ “devastating” 2010 defeat has shaken his confidence in the chairman. The party headed into that election with control of all but one statewide office, and wound up losing every seat in a Republican sweep.
Redfern backers pointed to labor’s subsequent resounding victory in 2011 turning back Kasich’s collective bargaining law, Senate Bill 5.
Brunner said some central committee members were under pressure — real or perceived — to support Redfern.