Dems shopping, too
Party wants Qualls to take on Chabot

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you are still Christmas shopping for that hard-to-figure uncle, you are running out of clock.

The situation is getting grim; only four days remain. Grim, but not hopeless. After all, this is America, Consumer Heaven; we can proudly tell the world we have entire stores that sell nothing but neckties.

Now, if you are one of those political party sachems whose job it is to go out and find candidates, you have even less reason to worry. You have not four, but 61, shopping days left on the calendar until the filing deadline for the May 1998 Ohio primary election, more than enough time to root through the stock of potential candidates; and, if you play your cards right, you won't have to take something from the scratch-and-dent table.

Right now, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is busy shopping for a candidate in Ohio's 1st Congressional District, hunting for someone to take on U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, who has held it since the Republicans took over the House in the 1994 election.

Theoretically, at least, this is a winnable district for the Democrats, who hope, in 1998, to defy the conventional wisdom that says the party that controls the White House loses congressional seats in a mid-term election.

It is a fairly good district for the Democrats - it includes practically all of the city of Cincinnati; has a population that is 30 percent African-American, the most consistently Democratic voting bloc; it gave Bill Clinton a substantial margin in 1996; and the seat was held by Democrats for 20 years until Mr. Chabot came along.

But, then again, it is also home to large numbers of conservative, Republican-leaning voters on Cincinnati's west side and in suburban townships like Delhi and Green.

What the DCCC needs is a candidate who has proved he or she can cross over and pick up Republican and independent voters, someone who can cut into the base vote that has sent Mr. Chabot to Congress twice now.

They got it all wrong in 1996, when their candidate was Mark Longabaugh, a Cincinnatian who had spent much of his adult life in Washington and who promptly returned there after getting thumped by Mr. Chabot.

This time, though, they are looking longingly in the direction of Cincinnati City Hall, where resides the one Democratic politician in the city who has proved she can glide across party lines - Mayor Roxanne Qualls.

Ms. Qualls, who ran away with the top vote-getter's spot in the recent council election, is serving her last term on council, at least for now. Cincinnati's term limits law says she cannot run again in 1999, so she will be moving on.

On to what is the question.

She is getting calls from House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and others on Capitol Hill urging her to take on Mr. Chabot, but the mayor has other options.

Some of her supporters want to see her run for county commissioner in 1998, to take on Republican incumbent Tom Neyer Jr., who was appointed to the job earlier this year and is considered vulnerable.

Others are whispering another tune in her ear - that if a charter amendment for direct election of the mayor gets on the ballot next fall and passes, she could run for mayor in 1999 and probably be elected to another four years in that job.

Ms. Qualls says she has made no decision about anything, but if she does choose the 1st District, it will be a hard row to hoe, despite her popularity. There is one theory that says that if the Democrats couldn't beat Mr. Chabot in 1996, with Mr. Longabaugh hammering him at one end while the AFL-CIO beat on him at the other, he probably can't be beat. They tried to join him at the hip with the unpopular Newt Gingrich, but, to 1st District voters, he was still that nice young man from Westwood who played football at La Salle.

Still, by pursuing Ms. Qualls, the DCCC thinks they are doing their shopping at Tiffany's. Before it is over, though, they may have to make a midnight run to Wal-Mart.

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.

WILKINSON ARCHIVE