Trumbull County Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Polivka is unopposed in his bid for a second four-year term, which is surprising, given the losses he has racked up.
Indeed, Polivka’s obituary as the party leader should have been written after the 2016 presidential election. That’s when Trumbull County made national news after Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in that Democratic stronghold.
Trump, the billionaire real estate developer from the New York City, had never run for office before, but his populist message – “Make America Great Again” – resonated in blue-collar regions like the Mahoning Valley.
Trump, who carried Ohio on his way to an Electoral College victory – Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes – came close to winning in Mahoning County, another Democratic stronghold.
But it was the vote count in Trumbull County that had Polivka, a county commissioner and former Warren city councilman, grasping for excuses.
His detractors pounced. They accused him of fomenting dissension and of mismanaging the presidential election.
The fact that Trump was able to corral a significant number of General Motors Lordstown workers who owed their jobs to former Democratic President Barack Obama was salt in the county’s political wounds.
Even Polivka’s explanation for Trump’s victory triggered a backlash from his detractors.
“There was a groundswell from the get-go from when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination,” the chairman said. That prompted his critics to ask why the party wasn’t better prepared to counter the groundswell.
But the presidential election was just one of the party chairman’s political miscues.
Polivka’s very public battles with fellow Commissioner Frank Fuda, also a long-time Democratic Party insider, manifested itself in last month’s primary election.
Fuda, a former member of Niles City Council, failed to win the party’s endorsement, and he pointed the finger of blame at the chairman.
Fuda accused Polivka of conspiring to deprive him of the endorsement by appointing 52 new precinct committee members who were willing to do his bidding.
Polivka denied the charge and made note of the fact that 173 committee members were elected.
Nonetheless, when the votes were counted, Hubbard Councilwoman Lisha Pompili-Baumiller emerged as the party’s endorsed candidate, with 91 votes to 84 for Fuda.
With the Democratic Party machine behind her, Pompili-Baumiller was expected to give the incumbent a run for his money in the May 8 primary election. She failed spectacularly.
Fuda gave Pompili-Baumiller – and by extension Chairman Polivka – a good old political stomping. He garnered more than 15,000 votes to 6,000 or so for his opponent.
The 72-28 percent win was a clear repudiation of Polivka’s leadership.
And yet, he will win another four-year term Tuesday.
Also serving as a backdrop to the party’s reorganization meeting was the flap over the permanent appointment of the county coroner.
Dr. Thomas James, who was serving as interim coroner after the death of Coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk on April 20, talked to the party chairman about wanting to serve out the term, which expires at the end of 2020.
James informed supporters, including some prominent Democratic Party insiders, that Polivka told him the job had been promised to Dr. Philip Malvasi.
Malvasi has a month-to-month contract with the county to oversee the medical unit at the Trumbull County Jail.
Polivka denied making any promises, but given that the decision was in the hands of the party’s central committee, James and his supporters were not confident of victory.
Indeed, James was in Dallas, Texas, attending a Boy Scouts gathering when the party leaders met May 24 to vote on the appointment of interim coroner.
Despite the fact that he didn’t make a pitch for his candidacy, and that Malvasi talked about being a lifelong Democrat, the outcome was another shocker.
James received 64 votes to 31 for Malvasi.
A couple of Democrats closely aligned with James make it clear the outcome was another repudiation of the party chairman.
“Think about it. Dr. James wasn’t even in town, and he still won,” said a long-time Democrat who has been involved in many political battles in Trumbull County.
Thus the question – again: Why didn’t anyone file to run against Polivka?
Here’s a theory put forth by the party insider:
“There’s so much turmoil within the Trumbull County Democratic Party that whoever took over from Polivka would be doomed to fail.”
So how does the chairman go about rebuilding confidence in the party? First, he should hold out an olive branch to his critics and detractors.
He took a step in that direction a day after the primary election when he congratulated fellow county Commissioner Fuda on his decisive victory.
“I know it was a rough campaign, but I’ve been here 12 years with him,” Polivka said of Fuda’s tenure as a commissioner. “We used to play basketball together. When you win, you congratulate the other side. If you lose, you congratulate the other side.”
The second way the chairman can rebuild confidence among Democrats is by articulating a clear strategy for the November general election.
The Ohio Democratic Party is pulling out all the stops this year because it believes Republicans are vulnerable in statewide races.
But for Richard Cordray, the Democratic nominee for governor, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and other contenders for state offices to be successful, Democratic strongholds like Trumbull and Mahoning counties must deliver a significant vote.
To do that, Polivka and Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras, who was unopposed in his re-election bid last week, must persuade the blue-collar Trump voters to return to the fold.