Election 2020: This eastern Hamilton County House race just got competitive

Written by:Jessie Balmert, Cincinnati Enquirer
Originally published on Cincinnati.com

Before Republican Rep. Tom Brinkman and his Democratic challenger Sara Bitter faced off in a competitive – and increasingly contentious – election, they were on the same side.

Bitter, an attorney from Symmes Township, is a passionate advocate for mental health and those with developmental disabilities. During her unsuccessful Ohio Senate bid against Republican Steve Wilson, she pushed for statewide standards on teaching children about mental health.

That passion isn’t academic for Bitter; it’s personal. Her two sons live with a developmental disability.

“If you have legislators who are personally affected, you’ll be able to make a bigger difference to help people,” said Bitter, who also wants to create a disability, mental health and addiction caucus in the Ohio Legislature.

Brinkman reached out to Bitter following her 2018 loss. Brinkman, Bitter, Wilson and Democratic Rep. Brigid Kelly all met to talk about Bitter’s plans to improve mental health in light of the state’s increasing number of suicide deaths.

Soon after, Brinkman and Kelly introduced House Bill 532, which would require the State Board of Education to adopt standards for mental health education.

“It was her big piece of legislation, and I did it,” Brinkman told The Enquirer.

The bill has received one hearing to date. Brinkman said he hopes it will move after the election but Bitter is less sure.

“At this time, it’s probably not going to go anywhere,” Bitter said. “If I get in there, I’m going to work on it until it gets passed.”

A competitive fight turns nasty

Bitter is hoping to unseat Brinkman, who has represented the 27th House district in eastern Hamilton County since 2015. Including his first stint, Brinkman has served in the Ohio House of Representatives for 14 years.

And this could be his most competitive race yet.

The district, which Brinkman has easily won in past elections, is a prime example of how Hamilton County has shifted toward Democrats in recent years. The number of registered Democrats and Republicans in the district is nearly even, 16.5% and 15.6% respectively. The majority, 67.8%, are not registered with a party, according to Hamilton County voter rolls.

If former Vice President Joe Biden performs well in these Cincinnati suburbs, it could spell trouble for Brinkman’s re-election bid.

The competition has already started to turn nasty. When Bitter lost her Cincinnati police union endorsement over her support of Black Lives Matters, the Hamilton County Republican Party said she was running a “dishonest campaign” and had “lost the public trust.”

An extreme Second Amendment group, Ohio Gun Owners, recently released an ad saying Bitter wasn’t standing against rioting, looting and vandalizing by “violent thugs” pushing communism for America. At the end, the ad lists Bitter’s personal cell phone number,

Hamilton County Democratic Party leader Gwen McFarlin called on Brinkman to denounce the ad. She said the attack ad was “downright reckless,” especially in light of the recently foiled attack on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.

Where do they stand on the issues?

Question: How should lawmakers address COVID-19?

Bitter largely supports how Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has handled the crisis by relying on health experts. She worried about DeWine’s recent health director pick declining the job because of concerns about threats and her long-ago work for Planned Parenthood.

“I was not happy to see a medical doctor and an expert in public health be basically forced out of her job because people didn’t believe in her politically,” Bitter said. “That just shouldn’t have happened.”

Brinkman has supported efforts to limit DeWine’s authority during the novel coronavirus pandemic. He supported a proposal to give lawmakers – not DeWine – authority over requiring masks. Brinkman also voted for legislation that would have reduced the penalty for violating a public health order. However, DeWine vetoed the bill.

Brinkman said it didn’t make sense that schools were making different decisions about what’s safe for students, creating inequities. But he supports principles like washing hands and wearing masks in some circumstances.

“It’s just a shame,” Brinkman said. “People are just worn out by it. That’s the problem.”

Q: Do you support the $1.3 billion bailout of two nuclear plants in northern Ohio?

Brinkman voted for House Bill 6, which approved a $1.3 billion bailout for two nuclear plants in northern Ohio, because he says it saved Ohioans money on their electric bills. But he would support repealing the legislation to eliminate all subsidies for any energy company.

That legislation is now at the center of a federal investigation alleging former Speaker Larry Householder and others took nearly $61 million in bribes to pass the law and defend it. Brinkman did not vote for Householder to lead the Ohio House and points out that a majority of GOP lawmakers didn’t either.

Bitter, who supports repealing House Bill 6, hasn’t made the Householder scandal a central piece of her campaign. She would rather focus on responding to COVID-19, ensuring schools are safe and making sure Ohioans keep their health insurance amid the pandemic.

“I’ll let others worry about Larry Householder,” she said.

Q: What is your stance on taxes?

Brinkman founded the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes or COAST in 1999 to oppose levies in Hamilton County. Brinkman has opposed most tax hikes during his career at the Ohio Statehouse but recently supported an increase to the gas tax, which he calls a “user fee.”

He points out that the legislation also eliminated the front license plate, banned red light cameras and added a fee on electric and hybrid vehicles so those drivers also shared in the cost.

“I’d love a world where there are no taxes,” Brinkman said. “We can have a world where at least there are fair taxes. I think that’s important too.”

Q: What is your stance on abortion?

Brinkman opposes both abortion and the death penalty.

“I’m consistently pro-life from conception to natural death,” Brinkman told a Cincinnati NAACP panel.

Bitter, on the other hand, was endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio.

Q: What is your position on Black Lives Matter?

On that same panel, both candidates were asked whether they support Black Lives Matter.

“I say all lives matter,” said Brinkman, after detailing his support for a resolution to declare a state of emergency on childhood trauma in Ohio. (The only Republican to do so.)

Bitter had a different response: “My understanding of Black Lives Matter is that Black lives have been disregarded, have been treated unequally in so many areas of our American history and society and we have reached a point in time where we need our community members to stand up and to say the words: ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

She later lost her Cincinnati police union endorsement.

“If they want to pull my endorsement because I can say the words ‘Black lives matter,’ it says more about them than me,” Bitter said. “I think they’re just being political.”

Just the facts: House District 27

Where is this district? The eastern Hamilton County district includes Indian Hill, Mariemont, Newtown, Terrace Park, Anderson Township and of portions of Cincinnati, Loveland and Symmes Township

Who is running? Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Mount Lookout, versus attorney and disability rights advocate Sara Bitter, a Symmes Township Democrat

How competitive is this seat? Brinkman has held the seat since his 2014 election, but his margin of victory is narrowing. In 2014, he defeated his Democratic challenger by nearly 14,700 votes. In 2018, his margin of victory was just under 4,000 votes.

Who has the money? As of early June, Brinkman had $82,328 on hand and Bitter had $41,626 on hand. The next campaign finance filing is Oct. 22.

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