The New Long Shot in Ohio
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
As Ohio goes, so goes the nation — which makes this race one to watch.
By Steven Butler
For P.G. Sittenfeld, it’s all about running. His 2013 re-election campaign ad for a Cincinnati City Council seat had him running — literally — across the city from place to place in oxfords and a tie, stopping here and there to boast of his accomplishments. He ran a real marathon that year, too. His time: 3:38. Now he’s entering the biggest race of his life — for U.S. Senate — just days after speaking with OZY in an exclusive interview.
It’s a huge, ridiculously ambitious sprint for a 30-year-old, second-term city councilman, but Sittenfeld has officially declared as a Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio. It’s a critical choice for Democrats in this big swing state, where a large turnout for the 2016 presidential race will affect every other contest, and where a strong Democratic candidate might also swing votes toward the presidential nominee. “If the strongest candidate they can put forward is a city councilman, it doesn’t speak strongly about their bench,” says Brian Walsh, a Washington-based Republican strategist.
Yet, in Ohio, no one’s quite willing to write off Sittenfeld. After all, hardly anyone wins a seat on the Cincinnati City Council, as he did, on the first try. On his second go, he blew away the competition, winning a record vote count — more than the mayor. Some say he’s a relentless, 24/7 city councilman, canvassing neighborhoods so everyone knows his name and face. And he parlayed family and school connections into a highly successful fundraising operation — around $300,000 in 2013 — making him the top fundraiser. “If he can show strength early, he can make everything easier for himself,” says David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati.
My plan A was to forgo going to college and go to the NBA.
— P. G. Sittenfeld
Sittenfeld is proud of his efforts at preventing foreclosures and compelling banks to maintain foreclosed properties to avoid blight. But he rose in prominence as assistant director of the Community Learning Center Institute, whose Town-Square Schools program has become his signature, award-winning initiative. The program opens school buildings before and after hours as community centers for educational, cultural and health services, like a dental clinic. The school system has gone from a state rating of “academic emergency watch” to “effective,” the highest rated of Ohio’s urban school districts, while its graduation rate rose from 51 percent in 2000 to 82 percent in 2010.
Running harder seems to be this Cincinnati native’s main strategy. “My plan A was to forgo going to college and go to the NBA,” he tells OZY. (He then realized he had neither height nor talent.) After attending private school in Cincinnati, he studied at Princeton and then Oxford, on a Marshall Scholarship. And he looks and dresses like the grown-up prep-school kid he is, with neatly trimmed hair, a runner’s lean physique, a high-energy smile and a sense of humor. If his answers to my questions sound fluent and well-practiced, it’s because they are, sometimes near word-for-word replicas from speeches, as he’s constantly putting himself in front of audiences.
“I don’t want to sound sappy,” Sittenfeld says, in one well-practiced line. “I love what I do.”
While Daniel Birdsong, a political scientist at the University of Dayton, says Sittenfeld seems to be “a no-nonsense, pragmatic kind of Democrat,” that’s occasionally gotten him in trouble. He took flak, for example, for proposing and backing a scheme to complete an expensive, unpopular streetcar project after he and many others had consistently opposed it, and the newly elected mayor had campaigned against it. Sittenfeld argued that given the sunken costs, it made more sense to complete it, even if it was a bad idea initially.
Sittenfeld traveled the state in the last election, stumping for Democratic candidates. His Saturday morning radio talk show, Talk of Ohio, is now airing in Cleveland, as well as in Cincinnati. But as his momentum builds, he still has a major obstacle to getting the Senate nomination: former Gov. Ted Strickland, should Strickland enter the race. Once you get past Strickland, says Caleb Faux, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, “the range of other potential candidates is thin.”
Even if he does get the nomination, well, then there’s Sen. Rob Portman, the popular, relatively centrist Republican who won the last election with 57 percent of the vote and has raised nearly $6 million for the next campaign. “No incumbent senator is better positioned or prepared than Sen. Portman,” says Walsh. In fact, the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report rates Ohio as “leaning Republican,” meaning this race is not in the bag for the young Democrat.
If Sittenfeld is worried, he doesn’t show it. “I absolutely think that Rob Portman can be beaten,” he says. Sittenfeld’s obvious weaknesses — youth and inexperience — could prove to be strengths, Niven says, by providing contrast as the energetic senator for tomorrow. And if he doesn’t prevail, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. “If he goes out and impresses people but still doesn’t win, he’s established himself as a statewide presence,” says Faux. Which could pave the way for his next big step.