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Walters expected to lead Ohio Dems

The Ohio Democratic Party’s executive committee will meet Thursday to select a new leader and will elect the first woman to the position.

It’s almost certain Liz Walters, Summit County Council president and former state party executive and political director, has the necessary votes.

While there are five other candidates in the race, the only serious challenger to Walters is Antoinette Wilson, a Columbus political consultant with a lot of wins under her belt.

The biggest shakeup in the race occurred when Lou Gentile, a former state legislator from Steubenville, withdrew as candidate.

His withdrawal letter didn’t provide details for his decision. But Gentile could see that the party’s key figures were backing Walters, and it was best to avoid a messy fight for the chairman’s position, especially because he was unlikely to win.

There is talk of Gentile possibly running on the statewide ticket next year. We’ll see what happens.

Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairwoman Joyce Kale-Pesta, a member of the executive committee, said she was backing Gentile until his withdrawal and is going to support Walters.

“She is a smart person,” Kale-Pesta said of Walters. “I support her as long as things change. The next chair will have to build a lot of bridges. We can’t afford to lose any more elections.”

Former state Sen. Sean O’Brien of Bazetta, an executive committee member, said he was “disappointed” Gentile withdrew because he understands our area and that smaller communities should be as much a priority as Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

O’Brien said he hasn’t decided who he’ll support, but has heard Walters has enough support to win.

“I’d like to hear her plan to win back this area,” he said. “We’ve had setbacks here, including my election.”

Other local executive committee members were noncommittal.

Youngstown Councilman Mike Ray said he’s received called from local Democrats urging him to back Wilson and he’s “heard positive things about (Walters) as well. I’ll continue to reach out to the party and get feedback before I vote.”

Kathy DeChristofaro of Niles gets a vote because she is chairwoman of the Ohio Democratic Women’s Caucus, and Chris Anderson of Boardman gets one because he’s president of the Ohio Young Democrats.

DeChristofaro said she’ll vote for whoever her caucus backs and right now it’s between Walters and Wilson.

“Everyone knows both candidates very well,” she said. “Both are highly qualified, and we’ve worked with both for years. We have a lot of heavy lifting to do (as a party). It will take someone who can take the time to do this. We need organizing in the rural and urban areas, and we need field organizers in the communities.”

Anderson also said he’s going to wait until his group determines who is the best candidate before making a decision.

The position opened when David Pepper resigned, effective Jan. 1, after five years as chairman. Rhine McLin, the vice chairwoman and a former Dayton mayor, took over the leadership spot on an acting basis until a new person is selected.

The state party’s rules call for members of the opposite sex to serve as chair and vice chair so with Walters getting the nod — or even if it’s Wilson — McLin has to be replaced by a man.

One key issue that Walters will face almost immediately is a possible endorsement process for the statewide candidates running in 2022.

Her biggest issue is at the top of the ticket and if the party will endorse. She is likely to get a lot of pressure to endorse with two candidates emerging as the leading contenders.

They are outgoing Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and Nan Whaley, who announced Wednesday she wasn’t seeking another term as Dayton mayor. Whaley was a candidate for governor in 2018, but got out before the primary when Richard Cordray, a former state attorney general and treasurer, declared his candidacy.

Both mayors are going to want the party’s support and one person who knows Cranley very well described him to me as “aggressive as hell” and a “bulldog.”

Whaley is close to Walters and has the backing of some major players in the party who want the Dayton mayor at the top of the ticket.

Cranley and Whaley are friendly and the latter may opt to run for another position so this might get ironed out early.

But the key questions for Walters as she becomes the party’s leader are: Can she unify a party that has struggled mightily over the past 30-plus years to be relevant and how?

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