Saturday, September 04, 1999

Rumors spur sparring in Butler Co. race


Prosecutor, GOP opponent clash

BY STEVE KEMME
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — The Butler County prosecutor's election is more than a year away, but already the race is generating sparks.

        Reported rumors about the health of longtime Democratic Prosecutor John F. Holcomb in recent weeks have touched off a verbal battle between him and Robin Piper, his likely Republican opponent in next year's November general election.

        Mr. Holcomb, who has been prosecutor for 26 years, said Friday that his health is good, and he blamed Mr. Piper and his supporters for spreading the rumors that he's in declining health.

        “It's all political,” he said.

        Mr. Piper, who worked for Mr. Holcomb as an assistant prosecutor for 14 years until early last year, denied that he or his campaign staff started the rumors.

        “We have never made John Holcomb's health an issue, and we don't intend ever to make his health an issue,” said Mr. Piper. “I'm glad he's doing well.”

        Mr. Holcomb suffered a near-fatal abdominal aortal aneurysm in July 1996, spent five months in the hospital and then returned to work near the end of the year. He was re-elected to his current four-year term in November 1996, while still recovering.

        “I've been here in the office nearly every day for the last two years,” Mr. Holcomb said.

        The prime exception occurred in July, when he was hospitalized for three days for a thyroid problem that was not related to the aneurysm. Medication has corrected the thyroid problem, Mr. Holcomb said.

        He said the main lingering effect from his 1996 hospitalization is a problem with balance.

        “The strength in my legs has come back through a lot of physical therapy,” Mr. Holcomb said. “I just have trouble keeping my balance. That's why I walk with a cane. But that's improving.”

        He said he works eight to 10 hours a day.

        Mr. Piper, who is seeking the Republican nomination for prosecutor, said the rumors about Mr. Holcomb's health stemmed from his hospitalization for the thyroid problem. A neighbor of Mr. Holcomb saw an ambulance take him to the hospital and told co-workers in Hamilton about it, Mr. Piper said.

        “That started the rumor mill,” he said.

        A letter to a local newspaper by Michael McNamara, Mr. Piper's campaign manager, especially angered Mr. Holcomb.

        In response to the rumors, Mr. Holcomb's son, assistant Butler County prosecuting attorney John M. Holcomb, publicly stated in early August that his father was home recovering from an adverse reaction to medication, but was in good health. He accused Republicans of starting the rumors.

        After reading John M. Holcomb's comments, Mr. McNamara wrote a letter to a local paper questioning Mr. Holcomb's health and denying that Republicans instigated the rumors.

        That drew a pointed letter to the editor from Mr. Holcomb, calling Mr. McNamara's letter “mean-spirited” and “classless.”

        Letters from Mr. Holcomb's supporters and detractors followed.

        Mr. Holcomb, 61, is the only Democratic countywide office-holder in Butler County. The county was dominated by Democrats when Mr. Holcomb became prosecutor in 1973, but it has turned into a Republican stronghold over the past 20 years.

        Mr. Piper, 46, has operated his own law practice in Hamilton since he left his job as assistant prosecutor early last year under tense circumstances.

        Mr. Holcomb said he fired Mr. Piper because he was soliciting funds for the Butler County Republican Party. The Republicans planned to use some of that money against Dan Ei chel, assistant county prosecutor, in his unsuccessful campaign for a Common Pleas Court judgeship won by Patricia Oney, he said.

        “He was being very disloyal to our team,” Mr. Holcomb said. “I wasn't going to put up with that.”

        Mr. Piper said Mr. Holcomb didn't object when he told him two years ago that he planned to become involved with the Republican Party. He said Mr. Holcomb became concerned about him because he knew he had political aspirations.

        Despite their strained relationship, Mr. Piper said he doesn't want to get into a name-calling fight with Mr. Holcomb.

        “That's not my style and it's not going to be my style,” he said. “I want to discuss the issues concerning the prosecutor's office.”

       



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