Democracy in Ohio is Hard Enough Already

Democracy in America is such that, after its citizens have participated in national elections, and all of their votes have been counted, with each state's combined number of U.S. House Representatives and Senators determining an allotment of Electoral College votes, added together with due diligence reveal -- reliably -- that it all comes down to whichever way Ohio goes, every time. The rest of the country is at a disadvantage during national elections; Ohio has become our de facto kingmaker.

In 2006 I set out to understand the state and its quirks for a documentary, which turned into two: FREE FOR ALL! about voter suppression in Ohio, and PAY 2 PLAY, about outsiders running for office in Ohio amidst rampant corruption. Three statewide elections later, I have seen how not only is Ohio a prognosticator for the rest of the country, but in order for our democracy to work, we need a fair political process in this state more than anywhere else. Achieving this is like the entire country working to thread a needle.

In FREE FOR ALL, I searched for how we can make sure our votes are counted. In making PAY 2 PLAY, I came to recognize how running for office seems rigged to favor insiders, diminishing our chances for real representation. If we could learn the rules of the game, I figured, maybe we could find a way outsiders can win.

I was looking at the costs of running for office, but observed how there can be considerably bigger barriers to running for office -- your own party members. A former statewide candidate describes in PAY 2 PLAY how he learned that his campaign materials, paid for by good Democratic donors, were destroyed routinely at the behest of the Democratic Party Chair, who was pushing his own guy in the primary. That this was the candidate of color whose campaign was sabotaged by his own party makes it all the more disquieting.

Such bare-knuckled tactics should be revolting to those who believe in a democratic process, who cherish the American dream of open and fair elections. Thwarting candidates in the primary undermines building a party, by only offering the Good Old Boy Network approved choice, when primary participation is already so low for the most pivotal voting. By limiting or derailing their own candidates for office, the Ohio Democratic Party prevents participation and discourages new interest. Instead of clearing the field for minimal opposition, a party leader might be better off building a stable of popular contenders, like a professional wrestling franchise.

And today, in 2014, we have the same Chair of the Ohio Democratic Party openlydisparaging his own party's nominee for governor just a month before the election. Not mocking your own candidate at the top of the ticket is a tip they teach in law school. Just kidding, nobody teaches that, because it is so fucking obvious.

In a new poll, the current Democratic candidate for Ohio Governor, Ed FitzGerald, netted 35 percent of the expected vote. He was not the first choice for Democrats, as the previous governor Ted Strickland was expected to run again against John Kasich. But when Ted Strickland abruptly decided he wasn't going to run in 2014, suddenly there was an opening at the top of the ticket. Chris Redfern, the Ohio Democratic Party Chair, told The New York Times that no other major Democrats stepped up to run for governor.

Yet when another potential contender sent his chief of staff around Ohio to solicit support from Democratic leaders for a possible gubernatorial bid, the party leadershipswatted away the overtures of one who would dare run against Ted Strickland. Such defiance leads to threats against others to disavow the persona non grata, and future leaders are outcast. Participation in the democratic process should not be a scorched-earth process.

Looking at the current Democratic gubernatorial candidate distracted by the curious revelation that he hasn't had a drivers license in a decade, wouldn't Ohioans prefer to be able to vote for the head of Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Protection Bureau, who also happens to be a Jeopardy champion?

Instead, Republican Governor John Kasich, who was humbled just a few years ago in a two-thirds statewide vote smacking down his anti-union legislation -- brought to you by ALEC -- Kasich is now setting his sights on the White House.

Moreover, the effects on the the rest of the down-ticket Ohio Democratic candidates is disastrous. Important candidates like State Senator Nina Turner, campaigning hard for secretary of state, will lose the turnout they need to win their races. In the battleground state of Ohio, where the current secretary of state's efforts to reduce early voting was just supported by the Supreme Court, this is the kind of race that determines future presidential elections. Did Hillary Clinton plan on winning Ohio?

Over the years of making these documentaries, a number of would-be candidates have told me that they cannot run while Chris Redfern is chairman, because he has ostracized them and put others on notice that they are disloyal to the party if they dare side against him. It's like potential candidates are getting mugged before stepping out the door to run for office, already a thankless undertaking. These kinds of rivalries, how-dare-you-question-me-I-banish-thee, these are the kinds of feuds propagated by a Palin.

Perhaps it is incumbent on me to raise these issues because as an Angeleno, I don't fear retribution from a vindictive party boss. And yet, if I am aware of these long-simmering problems from three timezones over, this discontent is probably no secret.

All of this makes more sense when you consider that Redfern did not enter politics with lofty ideals of empowering the common man or the gratification of public service, but rather, as he bluntly put it to me in an interview, he joined the College Democrats to impress girls. Whose party is this in Ohio?

If Redfern's behavior only mattered for colorful documentary material, that would be one thing. But the reality is, this is a vindictive individual suppressing candidates and their potential supporters. If we are to weave a new era reflecting the interests of people instead of corporations, we can't even thread the needle if citizens are bullied away from participating in our democratic process in the most pivotal state of the union.

How can you have democracy in Ohio when you can't even have democracy in the Ohio Democratic Party?

PAY 2 PLAY: Democracy's High Stakes is now showing in Columbus and Cincinnati.

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