By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LEBANON - For the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, a Democrat is giving a Republican a serious run for his Warren County commissioner's seat.
Carolyn Tepe, a 33-year-old mother of two from Deerfield Township, is challenging Mike Kilburn, 48, of Salem Township. Mr. Kilburn has been commissioner since defeating Democrat Bob Turner in 1982 - one of the last significant Democratic challenges in a county that virtually always votes Republican these days.
Ms. Tepe's attempt to reverse the trend has drawn some support in the business community and even from some Republicans.
"I would like to see somebody new in there," says Cindy Garland, a Springboro school board member who considered running against Mr. Kilburn in the GOP primary. "I like Carolyn's ideas and what she represents."
Republican dominance is the rule in Greater Cincinnati's suburbs, but Democrats say there are still opportunities for them.
In Hamilton County, anger about Republicans' handling of stadium cost overruns gave Democrat Todd Portune an opening to oust Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus two years ago. Mr. Portune is the only Democratic commissioner in Hamilton, Clermont, Butler or Warren counties.
"If he can do it, that means maybe we should try out a couple of others," says Dave Schaff, Mr. Portune's campaign manager and Democratic candidate for eastern Hamilton County's 34th Ohio House District.
The party has candidates in every area commissioner race. Jean Siebenaler is running in Hamilton, Gregg Conrad in Clermont and Melvin Smith in Butler.
Mr. Kilburn, a funeral home operator, cites his experience over 20 years.
"Under my leadership, Warren County has been recognized as one of the most financially stable county governments in the country," he says. "I am the only candidate who has reduced property taxes for property owners for all Warren County citizens."
But Mr. Schaff, who helped Ms. Tepe early in her campaign, is optimistic about her chances.
"There's this stereotype out there that it's totally conservative and you can never win, but in Warren there's a lot of families, a lot of young couples," he says. The newcomers who have made the county the state's second-fastest-growing have more in common with Ms. Tepe, he says, than Mr. Kilburn, who has deep roots in rural Warren.
Republican leaders dismiss talk that the Democratic Party might be on the verge of a rebirth locally. One inexperienced candidate does not make a trend, Warren GOP Chairman Les Spaeth says, and Mr. Kilburn also notes that Ms. Tepe was not recruited by county Democrats to run.
Even Democrat Patrick Long - mayor of Carlisle - says of the county party that "organizationally, there's not much there."
Ms. Tepe has instead gotten advice from Hamilton County Democrats and money from the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati. The group upended the norm by supporting the Democrat after Mr. Kilburn sought the authority to charge $5,000 to $10,000 impact fees on every new home built in the county.
Ms. Tepe, on the other hand, says the county needs to plan for growth - by improving roads and other infrastructure - instead of fighting it. That view will win Ms. Tepe business votes, predicts Walt Davis, a self-described "raging Republican" and a member of the pro-business Area Progress Council.
"Her vision of Warren County in terms of preparing for the progress that is coming our way - I love that attitude," he says. "It just lines up with my personal philosophy of what we should be doing."
History remains on Mr. Kilburn's side. While 58 percent of Warren voters consider themselves independents, President Bush took 70 percent of the vote here in 2000, to Al Gore's 28 percent.
"Mike's going to win," Mr. Spaeth says.
Win or lose, Democrats aren't going away.
"One-party rule wasn't healthy in Russia, it wasn't healthy in Chicago and it's not healthy in Warren County," Mr. Long says.
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