In Ohio, open Senate seat sparks debate on gender, diversity

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FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2020 file photo Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton speaks during a news conference at the MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. An open Senate seat in Ohio has set off a round of jockeying among ambitious Democrats and a spirited debate over who is best poised to lead a party comeback in a one-time battleground that has been trending Republican. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – An open Senate seat in Ohio has set off a round of jockeying among ambitious Democrats and a spirited debate over who is best poised to lead a party comeback in a one-time battleground that has been trending Republican.

At the core of the fight, triggered by the unexpected retirement of Sen. Rob Portman, is whether the party should prioritize gender or racial diversity in its nominee or again align behind a white man with the hope of winning back the white, working-class voters who have been leaving the party for years.

“As the Democratic Party, we have done the same thing over and over and over again, which is to run white men, and we haven’t been successful,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, among the Democrats considering jumping in the race. “I think we have to offer something different and I think that’s important; whether that’s people of color on the ticket in a meaningful way, and women, you know we are the base of the party, and we shouldn’t be an afterthought.”

The fight in Ohio is a replay of the one that consumed Democrats' presidential primary last year and suggests the ultimate victory of a white man — now President Joe Biden — did nothing to settle it. Biden lost Ohio by 8 percentage points.

Now some influential Democrats are urging Dr. Amy Acton, a white, former state health director who emerged to prominence during the pandemic, to jump in for what would be her first bid for public office. Meanwhile, veteran Congressman Tim Ryan, a white man who represents Ohio's blue-collar Steel Valley, also has said he's strongly considering a bid, encouraged by Democrats who tout his appeal to working-class voters.

While Acton and Ryan are believed to be the furthest along in their deliberations, several politicians who are Black are also eyeing the seat. They include Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce, a former state treasurer; U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, a five-term congresswoman from Columbus; and Ohio House Democratic Leader Emilia Sykes. Former Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman dropped out of the running Wednesday.

“Ohio does need to shake it up and this race will dictate where we go in the future,” said state Rep. Thomas West, chairman of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. The group is working to recruit a Black candidate for the Senate seat, he said.

Democrats have traditionally won the state on the strength of their support with voters in Ohio's many cities, including Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, all places with large Black populations. That base was augmented with support from a stretch of counties along the Ohio River. But Republicans have been cutting into that support for years, leading to two victories for Republican Donald Trump and a shutout for Democrats in statewide executive offices since 2006.