October 26, 2014

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Possible governor candidate Todd Portune returns to alma mater

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune visited Presti's restaurant in Oberlin on his tour of Ohio on Thursday.  KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune visited Presti’s restaurant in Oberlin on his tour of Ohio on Thursday.
KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

OBERLIN — Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune hasn’t decided if he’ll run for governor, but he’s clear about Oberlin College’s new white squirrel mascot.

“Terrible,” said Portune, a former Oberlin football defensive back and 1980 graduate, during a Monday gathering with about 15 potential supporters at Presti’s of Oberlin.

Portune, a four-term commissioner who took office in 2001, said he’ll decide by the end of next week whether he’ll challenge Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald in the Democratic primary.

“I’ve got to see if I can pull this off,” he said to participants, who included Oberlin graduates and retired faculty. Among them was former Oberlin athletic director Don Hunsinger, Portune’s former football coach.

“You going to make me do up-and-downs again?” he asked Hunsinger. “No thanks.”

If he runs, Hunsinger said Portune could bring integrity to politics that is “sorely missing.” Hunsinger said Portune would have an interest in people, “not just an interest in the corporate world.”

In an interview before the event, Portune said adversity he’s overcome allows him to connect well with everyday Ohioans. Portune, 55, said his family struggled economically after his father died when Portune was 14.

Portune went on to earn a law degree and served as a Cincinnati City Council member from 1993 to 2000. Portune, who uses canes to walk, was paralyzed from the chest down in 2003 due to a spinal cord disease that left him in a wheelchair for three years. A father of three, his youngest daughter, now 13, has Down syndrome and nearly died at birth.

Politically, Portune said he is a “practical progressive” and fiscal conservative who has overseen balanced budgets without tax hikes. Portune said Hamilton County has seen almost $100 million less in state taxpayer funding since 2006, forcing 1,700 county employee layoffs.

Portune said Gov. John Kasich has balanced the budget on the backs of county and local governments but wouldn’t say if he would raise the business and personal taxes cut by Kasich and the Republican-majority Legislature if elected. Portune said he would pursue the $400 million federal high-speed rail project Kasich rejected in 2011. He also said he would work to lower Ohio’s infant mortality rate and support shared services among local governments while maintaining local control.

Portune said he received about 50,000 more votes than President Barack Obama, who won Hamilton County in 2012, and has more support than FitzGerald in southern Ohio, which he said is crucial to beating Kasich. Portune said he polls well with moderate Republicans and said FitzGerald hasn’t inspired Democrats.

“There are issues as to whether he has the ability to mobilize the party enthusiastically,” he said. “It’s going to take that.”

Anthony Giardini, Lorain County Democratic Party president, said Portune hasn’t contacted him and the party doesn’t usually endorse gubernatorial candidates in contested primaries. While a Democratic primary could mean the winner would have less money to spend against Kasich, Giardini, reached after the gathering, said the competition could make the winner a tougher and better candidate against an incumbent.

Matt McGrath, a FitzGerald campaign spokesman, said FitzGerald, 45, has campaigned in all of Ohio’s 88 counties and has statewide support. McGrath said FitzGerald’s focus is on what he believes are failed Kasich policies.

“Anything else is a distraction,” McGrath said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.