Hamilton County Democrats on Thursday withdrew a request for clarification on campaign finance law that could cap the amount of money political parties spend in this year’s Cincinnati City Council race.
In the past, parties have been allowed to pay for mailings and get out the vote efforts for city elections without it counting as a contribution to the candidates’ campaigns. Meanwhile, the city’s charter says a political party may not contribute more than $10,500 to candidates.
The Cincinnati Elections Commission had been scheduled to discuss the matter at a special meeting scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday.
But after The Enquirer began asking questions Thursday afternoon, the party withdrew the request for an advisory opinion. Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairwoman Gwen McFarlin said Friday morning the party wanted to do more research and that The Enquirer’s questions did not prompt the withdrawal.
The question at hand matters when it comes to the upcoming Cincinnati City Council race. If the mailers are allowed, parties can spend unlimited money in the race. If not, those expenditures would be considered contributions and would be capped at $10,500 per endorsed candidate.
It’s a move that would have directly affected Liz Keating, the lone Republican candidate running for Cincinnati City Council.
If the donations are capped, the Hamilton County Republican Party can only send out $10,500 worth of mailers on behalf of Keating, while the Hamilton County Democratic Party can spend $94,500 − $10,500 for each of that party’s nine endorsed candidates, all who would appear on the same mailer.
Mailers, with postage, cost roughly $1 a mailer. In a city election, a party would want to reach out to 70,000 voters at a time so the Democratic Party could do one full mailing and urge people who requested absentee ballots to send them back.
Keating told The Enquirer on Thursday she was “interested in learning the motivation” for the Democrats’ request.
The letter to the Cincinnati Elections Commission seeking clarity is dated Aug. 18 and was sent by attorney Don McTigue, a prominent election lawyer who works on Democratic issues throughout the state. McTigue represented Mayor Aftab Pureval, a Democrat, in 2018 when he got in trouble for election violations in his unsuccessful bid for Congress. In this case, McTigue is representing the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
He did not return a call to his office seeking comment about the letter.
The letter specifically seeks an “opinion on the proper interpretation of the contribution limit in the Cincinnati City Charter applicable to political party contributions to candidates for Cincinnati municipal candidates.”
Twelve people have been certified to run for council, nine of them endorsed Democrats. The deadline to run for Cincinnati City Council was Thursday at 4 p.m.
Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Russ Mock said Thursday he had seen the letter but said didn’t know what was behind it.
“It’s very curious to me why Aftab’s high-priced Columbus campaign attorney is involved in this,” Mock said. “The law in Ohio says putting candidates on slate cards are not contributions, so any decision would not affect mailers. This is a First Amendment issue. Hopefully, this isn’t something where the Democrats are trying to suppress voters.”
The Cincinnati Elections Commission has five members. Members are nominated by their party. The mayor selects from the nominees, who also then must be approved by Cincinnati City Council.
The meeting, which the public cannot attend in person but instead watch remotely, is still set to take place.