If applause is an indication of the level of political support, here’s what can be said about the Mahoning County Democratic Party’s precinct committeemen and women:
1. They love county Treasurer Daniel Yemma.
2. They are lukewarm when it comes to Chairman David Betras, especially when he’s giving one of his rambling speeches.
3. They will not be beating the bushes for President Barack Obama in 2012.
When the party’s central committee met Monday at the Maronite Center to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Treasurer Lisa Antonini, who has pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge stemming from her conduct in office, no one was predicting a blowout, which is what the 142 votes that Yemma received represents. He had served as interim treasurer since Antonini’s departure and had been her chief deputy for several years. Kenneth A. Carano, a veteran politico, former state legislator and former regional representative for Gov. Ted Strickland, received 70 votes, and political novice Paul Canter, a certified public accountant, got five.
While Yemma’s supporters will argue that his victory was an endorsement of his qualifications and experience, there was something else at work last week that suggested an undercurrent of discontent. It seemed as though the precinct committeemen and women were delivering a stern message to Betras: We aren’t going to follow blindly.
That was evident in their reaction to the chairman’s speech, which came at the start of the meeting. It was designed to fire up the party faithful. It didn’t do that. Instead, reaction to the speech contrasted sharply with the standing ovation and cheers that greeted Yemma when he was declared the winner.
So, why the tepid response to Betras? The answer should worry the national Democratic Party, which is gearing up for the 2012 presidential election. The latest polls showing President Obama’s approval rating tanking, and a statistical dead heat between him and the leading Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, don’t seem so far-fetched when viewed in the context of the reaction of the Democratic Party faithful in one of the strongest Democratic counties in Ohio.
Betras’ speech was about making sure that Obama and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio are re-elected next year.
Even his attempt to show that the president and the senator are grateful for the support they have received in Mahoning County failed to impress the gathering. Betras played a tape recording of a telephone call he received from Brown, who was on Air Force One with the president.
The senator still has strong support in the predominantly Democratic Mahoning Valley, but Obama will have to do a lot of bridge-building if he is to win over disillusioned, disgruntled party members.
Obama has never really connected the way Bill Clinton did during his two terms as president, or Hillary Rodham Clinton did in 2008 when she carried the Valley and Ohio in the Democratic presidential primary.
Last year’s statewide election, in which Gov. Strickland sought another term, was a wake-up call. Democrats stayed home, as evidenced by the less than 50 percent turnout in November in Mahoning and Trumbull counties. That gave the Republicans the opportunity to sweep all the contests.
Republican Gov. John Kasich and the Republican controlled General Assembly have embarked on a divide-and-conquer legislative strategy that has caused private and public sector workers to lock horns over such issues as wages, benefits and pensions.
It’s a strategy that is resonating because the national economy is still in the doldrums and the Obama administration seems unable to put forth an effective job-creation program.
The American people are losing patience, and Democratic Party faithful in this area reflect that frustration.
There is still time for the president to turn things around, but if the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent by November of 2012, his re-election will be in trouble.
Betras and other Democratic Party chairmen in heavily Democratic counties in Ohio know that if they are unable to rally the troops next year, Brown will be fighting for his political life.
In the words of James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.”