MOUNT VERNON — Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is credited with coining the phrase “All politics is local,” and locally it all starts at the precinct level. Knox County’s municipalities and townships are divided into 58 precincts, and those precincts are the turf on which political battles are waged by the two major parties.
With an average of about 700 registered voters per precinct, and in contrast to national politics that tend to center around sound bites and media blitzes, precinct-level politics is conducted among friends and neighbors, face-to-face and handshake by handshake. Among other candidate elections and issues, Knox County voters will decide upon the membership of the two parties’ Central Committees in the upcoming March 6 primary election.
The Knox County Democratic and Republican parties are organized into Central Committees with one elected member per precinct. The Central Committees have a variety of duties, one of the most important of which is recruiting poll workers for recommendation to the Board of Elections. They also appoint central committee members from precincts where there is no elected member, organize door-to-door and telephone canvassing and support candidates in general elections. In the event of a vacancy in a countywide seat, the central committees also appoint replacements. Another key role of the Central Committees is naming two members each to the Knox County Board of Elections.
Serving as chairmen of the Knox County Democratic and Republican Central Committees, respectively, are Adam Gilson and Chip McConville. Gilson is a Democratic party activist who works in the Public Affairs Office of Kenyon College. McConville is Knox County’s Assistant Prosecutor.
“Our main goal is to reach out to the Democratic base of the party, create enthusiasm and turn out the vote for our candidates,” Gilson said. “In the coming primary, one of our jobs is to inform the people about what the Central Committee is all about.”
Under its by-laws, the Democratic Central Committee delegates most party operations to an executive committee which includes all members of the Central Committee plus as many as 15 appointed members. Gilson said that the executive committee structure allows the party to utilize the skills and enthusiasm of more than one person from a given precinct. The Democratic Executive Committee meets on a monthly basis.
The Republican Party in Knox County also has an executive committee, but its structure and functions are set up differently. The Central Committee is the party’s operational committee, while the executive committee is responsible for financial decisions and the allocation of funds.
The 20-member Republican Executive Committee includes a minimum of 15 Central Committee members.
“In addition to Central Committee members, we are able to include other members of the party who are very experienced and involved,” McConville said. “The Central Committee includes our most active people. They are the heart and soul of the party.” Both of the Republican committees meet about six times a year.
The leadership of both parties reserve the right to endorse candidates from their ranks in contested primary elections, but according to Gilson and McConville, they often take different approaches.
“We can endorse, but typically we do not,” Democrat Gilson said.
“We do tend to endorse, but we don’t take it lightly,” McConville said of the Republicans. “When we have a special endorsement meeting, it takes two-thirds of the vote for a candidate to be selected.”
The Republican Party historically dominates countywide elections in Knox County, while Democrats perform strongly in Mount Vernon.
“The county being largely rural, it’s a real challenge for us, just as urban areas are a challenge for the Republicans,” Gilson said. “We don’t have much luck getting candidates to run for county office.”
The only countywide race this fall in which the Democrats will take on the Republicans is the election for the County Commissioner term commencing Jan. 3, 2013. There will also be a contest over the State House of Representatives seat in District 68.
Despite the paucity of countywide contests, McConville expects 2012 to be an exciting and challenging year “looking higher up the ballot.”
With Barack Obama seeking a second term as President, Sherrod Brown ending his first term as a Democratic U.S. Senator, and Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs facing the electorate along with the entire House of Representatives, the parties will square off in November in an effort to better turn out their base and gain the support of vital independent voters. Ohio’s status as a so-called “battleground” state means that every county’s results will be crucial.
Before the anticipated matchup in the fall, however, there is the March 6 primary. And there are a number of contested primary races for Central Committee positions in both parties.
On the Democratic side of the slate in Mount Vernon, Anne H. Ellsworth and Mary M. Hayes are running in Precinct 1-B; Mary Rugola-Dye and Ann Hanrahan, Precinct 2-A; Melissa Dabakis and Greg Richey, Precinct 2-C; Richard Mavis and Reba Borchers, Precinct 3-C; and Andrea Hayes and James Arnott, Precinct 4-A. There is a three-way race in Gambier Precinct A, with Thomas Stamp, James Zak and John Ryerson on the ballot.
Contested Republican seats on the Central Committee match up Cole Burgett and Mary Jo Hawkins in Mount Vernon Precinct 1-B; Mark Tilmant and Kenneth Lane in Mount Vernon Precinct 2-C; Galen Smith and David Barber in Clinton Precinct B; Jeffrey Cline and Sandra Mizer in College Township; Rob Broeren Jr. and Douglas Givens in Gambier Precinct A; and William Lawhon Jr. and Eben Plank in Pleasant Precinct B.
Both parties are vitally interested in reaching out to their base to find more volunteers and develop candidates, and they welcome calls or inquiries via the Internet. The Knox County Democrats are on the web at www.knoxcountydems.org, and the Republican site is www.knoxcountyrepublicans.com.
The polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. on primary day, March 6.