CLEVELAND - With the announced retirement of Republican George Voinovich, Ohio Democrats have a real opportunity to gain a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Unfortunately Democrats are divided between Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, the leading contenders in the May 4 Democratic primary, with the winner to face Republican Rob Portman in November. Portman, a right-winger, is a former congressman and served as budget director in the cabinet of President George W. Bush.
Both Democrats have liberal credentials but Brunner has a more progressive program. She supports a single-payer health care system, has spoken at rallies on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act and calls for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fisher's views are more centrist. Brunner is credited with cleaning up the mess left by former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and stopping Republican efforts to disrupt voter participation in the 2008 presidential election in Ohio.
Polls give Brunner a better chance to defeat Portman, but they give Fisher the edge in the primary. Brunner has very little money, while Fisher has over $1 million. He also has endorsements from many more elected officials, including Gov. Ted Strickland.
To make up for these problems Brunner is running a vigorous grassroots campaign. Ohio has never had a female U.S. senator and women's groups are particularly active throughout the state on her behalf. A series of "Cupcakes, Coffee and Conversation" fundraisers have been organized by Democratic women activists around the state. Women make up 60 percent of voters in Democratic primaries and it appears that Fisher is seeking to dilute their vote. In addition to the frontrunners, two women, one of whom has clear ties to Fisher, filed for the primary.
The Ohio AFL-CIO and most of its affiliates are staying out of the race until after the primary. According to the Brunner campaign many union officials support the secretary of state but are reluctant to confront Gov. Strickland and the state administration.
Unions remember that when Fisher was head of the Centers for Families and Children he increased his salary to over $300,000. He also championed a drive in last year's election to "reform" the Cuyahoga County government by eliminating most elected positions and concentrating power in the hands of a single executive. This was strongly opposed by the labor movement, which saw it as an effort to open the door to broad-scale privatization of county jobs.
Brunner has the support of the Food and Commercial Workers, the Electrical Workers (IBEW) and a key Cleveland Laborers local. Fisher has support from the Teamsters, Auto Workers and Sheet Metal Workers.
Fisher also faces resentment in the African American community for failure to hire Black staff when he was state attorney general in the 1990s. He also promised to fight "reverse discrimination," a code word for affirmative action, when he campaigned unsuccessfully for governor in 1998.
Corrected. An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Fisher's role regarding collective bargaining at the Centers for Families and Children. The agency was unionized before he got there and remains so.
Photo: Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, one of two Democrats vying for the Senate seat, speaks at a "Health Care Finish Reform Right" rally last month. http://www.flickr.com/photos/progressohio/ / CC BY 2.0