Summit County Democrats are fighting three of their own incumbents in Akron.
Letters from the Summit County Democratic Party (SCDP) are hitting Akron mailboxes in Wards 2, 6 and 10 this week, telling primary voters that re-electing Councilmen Bruce Kilby in Ward 2 (North Hill and Chapel Hill), Bob Hoch in Ward 6 (Ellet) and Zack Milkovich in Ward 10 (Goodyear Heights and Middlebury) would be no better than letting a Republican win.
The Democratic Party grabs the spotlight in Akron primaries because Republicans have lost every general election — except clerk of courts — in city races for the past two decades. With dwindling competition from the GOP, Democrats have turned their attention to challenges from within their ranks, including upstart candidates with no official roots in the party.
The party used to only call for endorsements in nonpartisan races for judges, school boards and most municipal governments outside of Akron in Summit County. But 10 years ago, a rule change permitted the county party to officially sway voters in primaries between two or more Democrats.
Since the rule change, there have been three attempts to endorse in Democratic primaries: in Akron's Ward 4 in 2015, in a packed County Council race and in 2014 to help Greta Johnson knock Milkovich out of the Ohio House.
On April 9, two days after early voting began in the upcoming May 7 primary, the county party held its fourth primary endorsement meeting. Again, the party backed Milkovich's opposition by endorsing both his challengers: community activist Sharon Connor and United Steelworkers local President Jack Hefner.
Other endorsements included retired Akron firefighter and union leader Brad McKitrick over Hoch, a self-described “conservative Democrat" and retail union member for 27 years; and FirstEnergy accountant Phil Lombardo over Kilby, a retired special education teacher with a flair for confrontation.
Mayor Dan Horrigan has endorsed Connor and Lombardo while staying out of the three-way race in Ward 6, which features Hoch, McKitrick and retired city engineer Michael Madonio.
Summit County Democratic Party Chair Tom Bevan said it was solely his decision to call for the endorsements, which excluded at-large council and the mayoral primary races because of a “feeling” that there are “a lot of good candidates” and it may be “too divisive” to take sides.
Unopposed incumbents in Wards 1, 3 and 9 were automatically endorsed. No vote was taken on the Ward 4 race because not enough precinct officials attended. The party endorsed incumbents in Wards 5 and 7 and both Democrats vying for the open seat in Ward 8.
Hoch, Kilby and Milkovich were the only incumbents to receive zero votes from county party executives, who weighed in on all the Akron ward races, or local leaders, who voted only in their respective districts.
Bevan said the three unendorsed incumbents are “Democrats in name only.”
In the mailer he and six party-elected officials co-authored, the three men are accused of giving no time or money to support Democratic values, candidates, judges or the party. “Basically, we should be no worse off with a Republican in these offices,” the party leaders wrote.
“These are party bosses. I’m a Democrat. I don’t think they’re real Democrats,” responded Kilby, who called his critics “corporate Democrats” who behave more like moderate Republicans in deep red states.
“The only endorsements I care about are the votes of the people in Ward 2,” Kilby said. “I think it’s wrong that they’re making endorsements. And it makes the Democratic Party look stupid. I mean, is this a game or the people’s business?”
“I think the whole process is a sham,” Hoch said. “This was orchestrated and put together to get the endorsements of whom certain people want.”
Some members at the endorsement meeting criticized county party bosses for meddling in neighborhood-level elections.
“I can tell you that it’s not that often that we have this many contested primaries, at least in my experience,” said Bevan, who reached out to candidates to make sure they wouldn’t mind being endorsed before calling the meeting. “I’ve been the chair for two years. So I felt that this year was an appropriate time to call for endorsements.”
Democratic primaries for Akron ward races have become increasingly contested. In 2011, six wards had only one Democrat running, then five in 2013, four in 2015 and only three this year.
Milkovich could not be reached for comment. Kilby, who's been a councilman for most of the past 25 years, said he expected nothing less from the local "Democratic Party machine."
“I’m not a party guy," he said. "If this party stood for anything around here, I might consider it."
Hoch said he got no help from the party when he first ran for City Council in 2011. He only got involved in party politics after his election by campaigning for Democrats running in primaries against Milkovich in 2014 and Mayor Don Plusquellic in 2015.
“It means more to me that my constituents respect me and they want me as their councilman,” Hoch said. “The endorsement from the SCDP or endorsements from other organizations, I don’t think voters look at them. I think it’s a matter of how you’re doing and what you’re doing. And I think I’ve done my constituents well over the past 7½ years.”
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.