Love him or hate him – and there are plenty of people on both sides – Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras is among the most fascinating and colorful politicians in not only our area but in the state.
Betras surprised many with his recent announcement that he was resigning after a decade on the job, effective next Wednesday.
Betras garnered national attention for being outspoken, outrageous and often politically astute.
He was among the few Demo-cratic officials who saw the Donald Trump phenomenon before the 2016 presidential election and tried to warn the Hillary Clinton campaign that it was campaigning in a way that wasn’t appealing to blue-collar, Midwestern voters.
He’s been blunt in his assessment of the Ohio Democratic Party leadership.
It’s caused hard feelings between Betras and the state party, particularly because he’s called for the removal of leadership, accused them of “sheer political malfeasance and negligence” and said there was no reason to believe 2020 was going to be any different in Ohio than 2016 or 2018.
It wasn’t always that way. Betras and then-state Rep. Robert F. Hagan helped put the final touches on David Pepper first getting elected to Ohio Democratic Party chairman in December 2014.
Hagan was a candidate for the position. Though he had no chance of winning, Hagan had the backing of about 20 of the party’s 148-member executive committee. Hagan, with Betras, threw his support behind Pepper, who had a majority without their assistance. But the decision clinched it for Pepper.
Things have changed considerably since with Betras’ repeated criticism of Pepper.
In his resignation letter, Betras wrote: “I’ve spent many hours thinking about the upcoming campaign and the immense amount of work that will need to be done between now and [the 2020 presidential election]. This week, after months of reflection, I concluded that I will not be able to devote the time, effort, and energy required to ensure that our party’s nominees for federal, state, and local office will prevail in what will be the most important election in my lifetime.”
[To politicians, every election is the most important in their lifetime.]
Betras said he was resigning to devote more time to his family and his business.
A reason that struck me as odd was Betras saying that with one of his sons, Joseph, in the U.S. Army, he couldn’t “in good conscience be the aggressive, highly-partisan advocate the [party] chair should and must be.” That’s because, he said, “I simply believe it is disrespectful for me to publicly chastise the nation’s commander-in-chief while Joseph is serving his country.”
That hasn’t stopped Betras before from criticizing Trump, referring to the Republican a year ago as “the first pathological liar ever elected to the presidency” and that Trump’s “divisive, racist rhetoric is tearing us apart.”
Betras has sharply criticized Trump since then.
Over the years, Betras mentioned to me numerous times that he was ready to walk away from being chairman. But he was concerned about a successor. Also, being chairman fed Betras’ enormous ego.
Betras had groomed Christopher Anderson, the party’s political director, to succeed him as chairman. But Anderson has a newborn and doesn’t want to seek the position now.
That didn’t stop Betras though from calling it a day.
So who’s going to replace him?
The party will meet no later than June 15 to elect a successor. Those interested in the chairmanship position should contact Kenneth Carano, the party’s election chairman, in writing. His address is 1906 Countryside Drive, Austintown 44515, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hagan announced plans Tuesday on Facebook to run for the position.
Hagan is a well-seasoned politician, who spent 28 years in the state Legislature.
He’s been the director of political and legislative affairs for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen since July 2015. In that position, Hagan is based in Washington, D.C., though he still lives in Youngstown.
As a lobbyist, Hagan comes in regular contact with members of Congress, which can help the county party. But how much time can he devote to being chairman, a position that doesn’t pay a salary, when he’s in D.C. on a regular basis?
Joyce Kale-Pesta, the party’s first vice chairwoman/secretary and director of the county board of elections, told me she is interested in running the party on a temporary basis through the 2020 presidential election.
“I’d step up if need be,” she said.
Kale-Pesta will be acting chairman when Betras’ resignation takes effect until a new leader is chosen.
While Betras has received criticism for a few high-profile Democratic losses, the reality is all but one of the county’s executive branch is held by Democrats.
Mahoning County is going through political changes and is no longer the reliable Democratic stronghold it was for decades.
Betras was blamed for the close 2016 presidential race in the county that saw Clinton beat Trump by just 3 percent. But Mahoning was among only eight of Ohio’s 88 counties to back the failed Democratic nominee.
There have been some cracks over the past five years in the county Democratic Party with Betras in charge, but he’s raised a lot of money for candidates and has seen the party through some challenging times.