When the Summit County Democratic Party’s precinct committeemen and women meet sometime after the May 6 primary to elect a new chairman, Jeff Fusco won’t exactly be a long shot.
Wayne Jones, the former state legislator who has led the party since 2008, is stepping down, clearing the way, although he will keep his seat on the Summit County Board of Elections.
With Jones backing Fusco, no other candidates for chairman have surfaced. But if one does, Fusco, an Akron City councilman and former deputy service director, can also count on support from Mayor Don Plusquellic.
What lies ahead, in a two-year term and beyond, promises to be a lot more difficult.
In a word, Fusco must be all about sustainability, concentrating on the not so glamorous work of fundraising and candidate recruitment. It’s a commitment to the future that must be made now, even though the party has enjoyed a string of successes in recent years, especially in countywide races.
Although Summit County Republicans under their chairman, Alex Arshinkoff, have a strong presence on the common pleas bench and control the local legislative delegation (the latter with the help of gerrymandered districts), local Democrats have steadily picked off key, patronage-rich offices from the GOP.
Among the prizes once held by Republicans: probate court, juvenile court, the county engineer’s office, sheriff’s office and prosecutor’s office. Last year, Democrats took out Don Robart, the longtime Republican mayor of Cuyahoga Falls, who was defeated by Don Walters, a ward councilman.
Democrats, with the edge in voter registration, now control all countywide executive offices and all but two seats on the County Council.
Still, there are very few fresh faces in the Democratic field of candidates this year. In some cases (Pete Crossland, John Donofrio and Daniel Congrove come to mind), those who have been out of office are attempting a comeback.
In other cases, County Council veterans (Paula Prentice and Tim Crawford) are running for the Ohio House, as is former legislative candidate David Worhatch. It will be important in coming years for Fusco to make sure the local party reaches out to recruit young, diverse candidates.
Then, there is fundraising. True, Democrats have rallied to win big countrywide offices. But the Summit County Democratic Party spent only about $53,000 last year, with an ending balance of about $4,600. Most of the Democrats’ money is held by individual officeholders.
Republicans have long made the party the main conduit for campaign funds, which gives Arshinkoff control and masks the connection between donor and recipient. The party spent over $290,000 last year, with more than $58,000 left over.
Fusco’s other challenge is one of perception. He will keep his seat on the City Council, where he has worked closely with Plusquellic. In his new role as county party chairman, he will be vulnerable to criticism that he is using that role, too, to deliver for the mayor at the expense of other officeholders. Fusco notes that the mayor does not have a history of heavy involvement in the county party and that becoming county chairman “was not his [Plusquellic’s] idea.”
On the plus side, Fusco has long been involved in campaigns, from planting yard signs to managing countywide races. More, his experience in city government has demonstrated an ability to do heavy lifting on a number of difficult issues, from clamping down on texting while driving to cleaning up meth labs. He has also gained valuable perspective from chairing the city’s Planning Commission.
Fusco’s style in those offices fits well the needs of a nuts-and-bolts county chairman. It is one marked by attention to detail, collaboration and follow-through, all of which will be needed to keep local Democrats in the powerful position they enjoy today.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.