Sunday, December 03, 2000

Boone Co. Democrats ponder fate

New leader must rebuild

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FLORENCE — Phyllis Jones has just taken over what is probably the toughest political job in Northern Kentucky: head of the Boone County Democratic Party.

        The Democrats, which just a generation ago dominated politics in the once rural but now fast-growing county, suffered through another dismal Election Day on Nov. 7.

        With the exception of U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, the Boone County Democrat and former county judge-executive who carried his home county Election Day, the Democrats lost every contested race on the ballot.

        And at the top of the ticket, GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush garnered nearly 70 percent of the vote.

        Asked last week whether the Boone County Democratic Party was dead, county Republican Party Chairman Ed Moore demurred.

        “I don't think they are dead,” Mr. Moore said with a smile. “I think they are in search of some new leadership.”

        The new leader is Ms. Jones, 56, a Pendleton County native and recruiter for a technical firm who is under no illusions about the difficulty of heading a party that may not be down but is certainly out.

        “It's almost like we're starting over,” Ms. Jones said last week. “For years this county was all Democratic, but now new people are moving in and a lot of our older party members are dying out.

        “What we need to concentrate on more than anything is attracting new people into the party and recruiting good candidates.”

        Democrats never fail to point out that Boone County's growth has contributed to the Republican voter registration rolls.

        Boone County is now the largest county in Kentucky where Republicans outnumber Democrats, 21,694 to 20,118 with 5,894 independents, according to the Kentucky secretary of state's office.

        According to the latest U.S. Census data, Boone County grew by 38.3 percent from 1990 to 1998, growing from 57,589 residents to 79,671.

        In the mid-1960s, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by as much as 6-1 when it came to voter registration. Through the 1970s and into the '80s, it was rare for a Republican to run for office, let alone win a seat.

        In 1998 the GOP took over the county fiscal court and most of the courthouse offices and recently picked up high-profile defectors from the Democratic Party, among them Sheriff Mike Helmig, former Commonwealth Attorney Willie Mathis and Jailer John Schickel.

        But with new residents the Republican Party found a fertile source of registrations. Many of those coming into the county were already registered Republicans, or were Reagan Democrats who didn't have old-line ties to the once dominant Democratic Party in Kentucky.

        Many new residents are also affluent and moving to the region to take white collar jobs that historically have been held by Republicans.

        Mr. Moore acknowledges that the GOP has been boosted by some of the new residents.

        “It's more than that, though,” Mr. Moore said. “Boone County has always been conservative. Even the Democrats will tell you that.

        “But what really happened was the Republican Party became viable and active, and that gave conservative Democrats, Republicans and new people moving in a place to come,” he said.

        Ms. Jones said she does respect one aspect of the Republican strategy, the party's ability and eagerness to work.

        It is not uncommon for GOP gatherings, rallies, meetings and events to draw dozens if not hundreds of people. The Boone County Republican Party's Christmas Party, to be held later this month, is one of the largest political events of the year in Northern Kentucky.

        “They do work, I'll give them that,” Ms. Jones said. “We have to get out there and get at it like the Republicans do. That's the example I want to set.”

        Ms. Jones and others in the party are already talking about a rebirth of the party. They are planning events to attract Democrats and others.

        “Things that will be political, but also things like parties and events that will be exciting as well,” she said.

        Ms. Jones replaces Kristi Nelson, the former party chair who recently stepped down to spend more time with the baby she and her husband, Jeff, have adopted.

        “I do plan to stay active, and I think Phyllis is on the right track,” Mrs. Nelson said. “The days are pretty much gone when we can go after a lot of seats at once. I think in the future we'll have to pick one or two races and then really work those, gradually winning back some of the seats we have lost in the county.”

        Ms. Jones has been involved in Boone County politics for about 15 years. She has worked on statehouse campaigns, has been a member of the Democratic Executive Committee and served as vice president of the Democratic Women's Club.

        Union resident Diane Brumback, a schoolteacher mulling a run for the statehouse in 2002, said she likes what she sees from Ms. Jones.

        “There needs to be some new excitement and new energy in the party, and I think (Ms. Jones) can bring that,” Ms. Brumback said.


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