Inner View: Ohio Democratic Party Chair Elizabeth (Liz) Walters
By John O’Brien, Jr. @Jobjr
This interview has been edited for brevity; the full interview is available at www.iirish.us
You are known nationally as a groundbreaker, the first woman to lead; has being the first woman to do something a plan or a byproduct of your career success?
I appreciate that question. I’m humbled by the trust that folks have put in me for this role, and to be the first woman in this role, I have to say that for me, the leadership of women is not anything out of the norm.
I grew up with that. My mom is the oldest of seven girls, so women being in charge is just in my life, that’s the family I grew up in. My grandmother Nancy was the first female manager of a department store while my mom and all her sisters were growing up, so they always had a strong female leader in their household. I was very active in Girl Scouts.
I am truly honored and humbled by it; it has always been the norm for me. I think growing up in a family like that, being involved with Girl Scouts, in an organization where the leadership of women is the norm, you don’t question it or observe it in the same way that other folks may.
I will say though, that this this process and this job in this time period of life has given me a renewed appreciation for just how much women have on their plates.
Whether they work in the workplace and then balance how they’re teaching their kids at home through remote learning, or caring for aging parents, I’ve talked to and think often about women in leadership, and everyday leadership, or in big professional jobs, and all the different challenges on their plate. I am blown away by the many other things that women across Ohio are balancing through the pandemic.
I think this role is a lot different in that it’s far more public. You are very much expected to have a presence on social media and interviews like this, with things that didn’t often fall on the desk of the executive director [Liz’s former position before being selected as Chair]. There is definitely more responsibility as chair and much more accountability to our stakeholders.
I do think that public persona, in public presence, which I’m still getting used to, there is not as much of a comfort level for me, but it’s a learning experience, and it’s been really exciting to connect with people on new platforms that I hadn’t previously, and grow that, for that exposure.
The chair is elected by the sixty-six-member Central Committee. Those folks are elected by primary voters in Senate districts all across Ohio every four years. We have them and the Republican Party has them, so we are structured the same way. That is set forth in the Ohio Revised Code.
So, the chair is elected to lead the party and is essentially the chief executive officer. They are accountable for all the fund raising, all the hiring, all the strategy that we lead forward.
I think strong leaders do that in collaboration with all our stakeholders; I’m not doing it by myself, I’m doing it with the input of all our elected officials from Senator Brown to our city council members. We are also making sure that we are focused on what we need to build, to help all our candidates succeed.
The Executive Director really is where the action happens; they manage the staff, manage the budget, more day-to-day tactical things. I spend a lot of my time talking to our leadership, talking to donors, talking to the media, and then doing more high-level strategy planning with the team. There is always the hope that you get to that perfectly run organization where you are dividing up work that way.
With any transition there are always surprises. When you are taking over an organization from a predecessor, there are good things and bad things; I think there are things that I thought would be hard [that weren’t] and there are definitely things that I didn’t expect to be that difficult, which have been more challenging, but all in all, it has been a really fabulous experience.
I have been wildly energized by our activists, by our folks running for local office, all of those things that really feed into making it an incredible experience.
What can you offer as advice for people who want to get involved in politics?
At the risk of being a little bit cliché, I really believe in the adage that decisions are made by the people who show up, whether that is showing up in the voting booth every November [or get involved].
Particularly in a presidential election, you turn on the TV in Ohio and you wouldn’t know that there was anything else happening, except for an election. So, it is easy to let ourselves get sick of it, and tune it out, but there are important elections that happen every year in Ohio; every November is an election year in Ohio.
There are important local community members that are running for school board, city councils, for Township councils. Those are some [of the instances] where government really meets people, where local races are critical, so making sure that you are participating by voting every November is a huge step; it makes a huge difference.
Most Ohio communities have really good organizations, like The League of Women Voters, who put together voter guides; people get overwhelmed, [people say] I don’t even know how to find information. I don’t want to make a bad choice, so I just choose not to participate.
Go to the League of Women Voters’ website, or another third party who is politically neutral; you’ll get good information to help you make an informed decision.
I think that is number one, but number two is to actually show up and participate in a government meeting. I often share with folks outside of my role as party chair, I serve as the council president in county government in Summit County; it is rare to have members of the public come to our meetings.
We are there to serve the public, so I would encourage folks to come in person. Most of us are broadcasting our meetings on Facebook now, so you could tune in from the comfort of your home and watch, come to those places and ask questions, because it is really an important way to engage with what’s happening with your elected officials.
In Cleveland we have worked with getting out the vote and getting the importance of the census out. Proponents emphasized how their city can get significant dollar funding; how every person counted means $X amount for their city. Time after time, I saw the light go on for people as they realized it has local benefit: “there is government in Washington, government in Columbus, wherever it might be, but this is local.” It resonated with people.
We have some big pieces of legislation moving through the federal government now, those census numbers are really important, people’s involvement is really important. You are looking at the Build Back Better Act that is moving forward, the infrastructure bill that came through Congress. In in Summit County, we’re going to see $190 million come into the county to help with things like broadband access; making sure that the pipes that bring drinking water into our homes are safe and lead free; making sure that our bridges and our roads are getting the necessary repairs. All of that is rooted to census data, so you can tell a positive story with numbers.
But there are also other things that are important to tell the story of too, when numbers or when government falls short. For example, the House Bill 6 scandal in the state legislature that is still costing Ohio voters $232,000 every month because that bill is still in place.
The Republican leadership in the statehouse sold us down the river to get bailouts for these corporations; they are not looking out for voters.
I think the important thing to remember is that there is real cost to everything government does or fails to do, so when we’re telling those stories for Ohio voters, when we’re talking about who is on their side, we talk about the dollars and cents of what good investment looks like. [There are] also ways that we have to get better at holding our government accountable for when they are failing to do, to invest wisely with Ohio’s money.
I think that is something that you could change from local to national – federal accountability aspect has faded. There is a level of frustration, a feeling that we really don’t matter; they are going to do what they want to do?
I think that it’s understandable why a lot of Ohio voters just tune it out; they think it doesn’t matter. It’s kind of a pox on both their houses. The reality is, there are clear, concrete ways we, as a Democratic Party, can show voters that we are on their side.
That is ultimately the question any voter asks when they are walking into the voting booth; who’s on my side, who’s got my back, who’s got the back of my family and the people I care about? With the investment that we are seeing through the infrastructure bill; electing bright new energetic leaders in places like Cleveland who have a strong vision and strong priorities for leading their communities forward, we have a really good story to tell.
How is the party funded for the kind of things that you have to do?
Parties are complex beasts. As an entity we are overseen by several different regulatory bodies, from the Federal Elections Commission to the Secretary of State to the judicial canons. So how we fund ourselves depends not raising dollars, but from the collaboration of donors; our candidates raise funds into the party; organized labor; individual donors; national partners like the DNC, The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, etc.
We have grassroots donors, we have people who chip in $2 a month or $5 a month. We have a lot of different streams from which we raise the funds we need to be functional, and it’s never enough. You could always do more.
Nationally, are the Democratic Party and the Ohio Democratic Party on the same wavelength?
I think that we as a state party, our job is to build the apparatus that our candidates can use to set priorities. So, for us, working with our candidates to focus on what is the message that the Ohio voter needs to hear that responds to the needs in their community? While there is definitely a clear track record, whether it’s Senator Sherrod Brown, who is focused on the dignity of work and making sure that we are a working families party who’s focused on supporting all the folks out there who need a little extra fight in their representatives, our federal folks are focused in that space.
But also, all the candidates running statewide here in Ohio are very aligned with that messaging; we value and support the dignity of work in Ohio. There is alignment with that in the national party; there is certainly overlap, but we are really on an Ohio families focused message.
How do you keep that honest? How do you contrast David Brinkley, Peter Jennings, who really just gave the news, vs. today’s newscasters? Are we ever able to go back to that, where the truth is the truth?
You are asking me some deep questions, John. I think that first and foremost for us, the conversation that is the most important and the most impactful is the one that we have with voters at their door. For us, nothing compares to the impact that having someone who lives in your community come knock on your door and talk about why they are voting for a certain candidate or why they support a specific party [cannot be minimized].
I think it’s really important for us to recognize and acknowledge as we do this work just how much the media landscape has changed. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about that. We have gone from a place of state where it was common for all the communities in our state to have a daily newspaper and have local broadcast television that covered news in their community, but that doesn’t really happen as much in Ohio anymore.
I live in Akron; we don’t have our own broadcast news. We are covered in the Cleveland market, sometimes they tell some Akron stories, but most of the time it’s Cleveland stories. We still have a daily paper which is great, but it’s owned by a company that also owns seven other newspapers in Ohio; they have a shared newsroom.
The reality that, for most folks, they are consuming their news online, mostly through social media platforms, is something that as a party we have to be cognizant of and start to build in that space so that we can deliver our message straight to voters in that way.
Do you still feel the grass roots route is a strong way to get messaging out? Justin Bibb masterfully used grassroots and social media. How do we keep reaching people when the world is turning to twenty second attention spans?
You are highlighting perfectly the power of a well-run grassroots campaign. There is no single thing that a campaign does. It is usually many things. But I think for Mayor Bibb and for his team, they made two important investments.
One was in a robust, grassroots organizing apparatus: you take your message straight to voters and have that conversation in their neighborhoods, but you also make a big investment in telling your message to voters online. I think that with those two pathways, they showed us a lot.
We have a lot of ground we can gain in getting out what we think are the facts, and we believe from a science perspective are the facts, into the hands of voters. So, it pays off. Even short-term work can make a big impact.
The voter turnout in the city of Cleveland was 13% previously. In the Bibb race they got it up to 26%. 26% is not where we want to stop. We want to keep going. A 13% increase in turn out? That’s a huge number. That’s a huge change.
How do we get more people involved?
I think you’re hitting the nail on the head here about why this moment in Ohio politics is so important. In 2015 and 2018, Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional reform to ensure that we had fair districts.
Why do fair districts matter? What does that mean? It means that people have representation that is reflective of their geographic identity, of where they live. It keeps communities compact.
It also makes sure that there is a balance of voices in the statehouse, and having fair districts, having competitive districts, also ensures that voters get the really important opportunity to hear from both sides, to have a reasoned discussion.
Have each candidate put their ideas forward and be judged by the voters. When districts are overwhelmingly drawn to favor one candidate, you don’t really get that debate; you don’t get the opportunity to hear from both sides and make an informed judgment about what your community needs.
Inner View: CuyCo Republican Party Chair Lisa Stickan
By John O’Brien, Jr. @Jobjr
This interview has been edited for brevity; the full interview is available at www.iirish.us
You have a record of being a groundbreaker, agree?
That’s very complimentary, I’ll take it!
Was there a conscious choice, “I wanted to be the first to do something,” or just the doors that opened along the way?
I think that it is also where my passion and interest is, in in terms of just growing and leading the party, and also serving the community. Through my other roles, I enjoy community involvement. I’m just very proud to be a Clevelander, so I think this is just a great way to do it. I enjoy politics, I enjoy our local community and in working through the party to make sure we have good candidates and we’re offering good choices to our community.
Were you aware that you were the first or would be the first or was that just something that kind of came along the way with it?
No, I was aware, I am very aware that I was following in the footsteps of past chairman; it is just an honor. Bob Hughes, Chairman Bennett, from Cleveland Ohio as well, who went on to be State Chair, Jim Trakas and Rob Frost, who served the party for fifteen years before me, so it’s an honor to continue the service.
Who else is in leadership or in politics either/or do you admire or kind of try to model yourself after?
That’s a great question. I would say I looked to, I think most recently: Kellyanne Conway gave a speech where she talked about being the first woman to run a presidential campaign and the difficulties and challenges of that, the significance of it. She was just proud to do that.
That struck a chord with me when I began my run for this position, in terms of trying to break a ceiling and start that conversation within the party. But additionally, I look to quality people in Ohio, George Voinovich, longtime Cleveland figure, is someone who was a mentor to me; I ran our local Young Republican Club. Individuals like that who are proud of our city and did everything they could to advocate for Cuyahoga County.
What are your feelings or your direction on some of the topics that we’re seeing a lot of discussion of? We just mentioned the gerrymandering, so why don’t we just start with that.
OK. So, you mean the redistricting process in general or specifically? So, what’s interesting to me about redistricting is that it is funny; gerrymandering is this word I believe is overused or thrown around as if it’s so negative, but it’s funny, it seems to be who’s doing the map drawing. If you look to other states, or Democrats are in charge of the process for a Supreme Court, they are drawing maps that favor the Democrats, because they are in charge.
But the reality in Ohio is, if you look at the last presidential cycle, it used to be what they called the backward C of counties. It was just this row of counties that would go for Democrat presidential candidates, and you just don’t see that anymore. You saw great areas that have transitioned into I would call Republican friendly or leaning, or even republican strongholds now.
It takes away opportunities to have [equal] districts. So, in drawing these districts, to try to create more Democratic districts on this most recent map for example, that was submitted to the Supreme Court, they created very odd, shaped districts, wigglies you know, drawing around communities to try to create districts that would lean Democrat, to satisfy the recent [Supreme Court] decision.
We joke about what was called “the snake on the lake,” which is Marcy Kaptur’s district, which was like a little squiggle that came all the way over to Lorain County, to get her the numbers she needs. You have to draw an odd-shaped district like that.
So, I think when we talk about redistricting, we have to keep in mind that there are elected offices that do sit on the Commission; that is part of the discussion when these people or positions are up for election. They are elected by the people they serve. They draw pretty balanced maps.
I thought for example, that second map that came through that was struck down was pretty reasonable. So, we’re not drawing every district overwhelmingly Republican; they are actually within the Democrat index.
I think redistricting is a complicated process. I think people get sound bites. If you truly want districts where communities have shared interest, or if you want districts where they’re not so obviously drawn, you know it’s kind of interesting because Democrats tend to cluster in certain counties or areas, and that is what makes it difficult to try to draw more districts for a certain party.
So, I guess, my short answer is, it’s a complicated process, but I think the sound bites are giving the wrong idea of the challenges the mapmakers are facing.
Is there a better way to do it?
No. I think we have had no issues in the past really. People come to agreements. They have agreed on ten-year maps. Right now, is a polarizing time. I think there is a resistance to agree, unfortunately. You have a situation where courts are weighing in. Each state has different laws on the books.
Is there a way to get around it, to get things done, when a lot of things are voted down, or not even heard, solely because they were proposed by a Republican or proposed by a Democrat, which shouldn’t be relevant – either the idea has merit, or it does not?
We’ve had no issues in the past really. I mean people come to agreements. They’ve agreed on ten-year maps. I just think right now is a bit of a polarizing time, so I think there is perhaps a resistance to agree unfortunately. Also, you do have a situation where you have courts weighing in as opposed to, in some states, drawing the maps, which I don’t think that necessarily makes sense either, but each state has different laws on the books.
Where there may be issues that the public doesn’t know about, how do we make sure that the education is coming through, factual education, but have an equal balance of opinion, so that things are getting done at a faster pace?
Well, I also think it’s a bit of different agendas too, perhaps; unfortunately, less agreement on some sort of middle of the road issues. We’re seeing differences in philosophy and ideology. Maybe we’re seeing splits, but also too I would say, listening to the State of the Union, some of the things that President Biden was saying were different than the response of the progressive caucus, where they disagreed with some of the things he even said in the state of the union.
I think it shows some splits within, not just within the parties, in terms of different wings, if you will, but additionally too, I think there are just these big issues that seem to want to be tackled, where there is a split within the parties of how it should be handled. Those are the focus issues being touted in the press.
I think federally you’re witnessing that. I don’t think it’s really anything new. If you go back to when President Trump was in, the Democrats, when they took the Chamber of the Senate and the House, there [was] similar gridlock.
They didn’t approve many of his appointees for a few years. So, it’s unfortunate, but this isn’t anything new we’re experiencing now; it’s part of the state of politics, part of the state of where people are at on the issues.
Sure, it is tricky ground; you are trying to push through the agenda; you’re never going to get 100% but try at least to get progress. Do you feel that there is there is loyalty to party over country, voting party over people or party over ideas, no matter who it is presented by?
No, I don’t know that; I don’t know that I 100% agree with that. I think in some instances within the party, people obviously have a platform that we support, so in terms of our platform, if there’s an issue, we will be loyal to those platform points.
When you see people, Republicans, that might not support an issue that is important to the party, you see people feel like that person isn’t having a backbone or representing the party or their constituents properly. So, you’ll have those discussions. That is in both parties. But what I would say too, is there’s a great chunk of unaffiliated voters as well out there, and I think those voters will also swing to the issues too.
You mentioned that you really like to dig down when you are researching, both an issue and going out among voters and talking, in a door-to-door type thing. How do you find what’s most important for someone else within your party? How do you work together?
We do have ward leaders who are our go to people in different communities or cities. We also have local elected officials. So in terms of personalizing it on a Cuyahoga County level, having a discussion, that’s why I love our county so much, because there are different issues or hot button things going on in different cities.
It’s good to dial down into that and know what’s going on, [to] just plug into our local groups. We have political groups around the county, as well as city groups that need addressing those [issues] and getting the candidates in those areas out to talk about and address those specific issues.
I am going to restate your view and make sure I have it correct. You are saying that things are always going to change, but on a long-term basis, it moves back and forth from parties and moves back and forth between the issues; overall, there is an agenda for the Republican Party; there is an agenda for the Independent Party; there is an agenda for the Democratic Party, and that doesn’t change as much in the long term, it’s just how you frame it?
Well, I would say there’s some truth to that, but I also think we are experiencing an interesting time, perhaps the shift or realignment of the parties right now in terms of some interesting trends. You do see some communities that were traditionally very Democratic, for example locally, that have started to elect local Republicans, or have started, for example, in the presidential election, they went for President Trump.
[There are) areas in the county that we ran out of Republican slate cards on Election Day, multiple times. Historically you wouldn’t have seen that. So, I do think we do have some realignment.
When you have different groups who are interested in realigning politically or shifting, or interested in the party that previously weren’t, that does start a new conversation; over time, it tends to balance out, there may be spikes or drops, but you feel that it does balance out, over a long time?
I think it could be balanced out. I think as you get different groups that that may look to vote Republican for example, or be interested in a Republican candidate, I guess it’s always an evolving conversation. As we move forward on different issues, it becomes more important than now, even nationally.
Do you think the door to door, grassroots type thing is seeing a bit of a resurgence in the last couple of elections?
Oh yes. I will say the Ohio Republican Party traditionally runs operations, victory operations, we call it, for the state. We’ve always had a really good ground game, particularly the last few cycles. Stores, phones, you name it. [It is] very labor intensive but would keep in touch with people; they may tell you more at their door than they would at a big meeting of thirty or fifty people.
What can tell me about the model, the mantra, for the Cuyahoga County Republican Party going forward under your leadership?
When I ran, it was Cuyahoga first, so that was just to say we want to really dig down and focus on our county and how we could grow the party. In a state like Ohio, you are in what I would call an urban or blue county. Sometimes there’s this thought, well this isn’t part of the Republican stronghold, but we have one of the largest groups of registered Republicans in the state here in Cuyahoga County, just because of our size.
We have some great candidates that are elected here, like State Rep Tom Patton; we have State Senator Matt Dolan. So, we have people that we’re sending to Columbus from our area.
You mention Reps. Patton and Dolan, longtime servants; how do you balance that want for the experience – nobody knows it like somebody who’s been through it – with trying to find young leaders, up and coming people that haven’t been involved before; they want to make a difference; how do you recruit them to take office?
My background was Young Republican politics, so I that is something near and dear to my heart. I was the local chair for Cleveland Young Republicans back in the day, and in the state chair, then I ended up being the national chair about 2013, so this is something I’m very particularly interested in. It’s always important to look to the future, but also to have people empowered and create a good diverse group of people who have different backgrounds they can bring to the table to really facilitate a full discussion.
You are going out there and meeting the voters, but additionally you always have to look to the future, so it’s about making sure we have a strong Young Republicans Club; it’s making sure we are engaged with College Republicans, that we’re a resource for them.
That is your next wave of leaders and local leadership. They can move up the ladder and advance to Columbus; that’s important to us to make sure we provide people with resources and mentorship. Mentorship is the key word here.
I imagine that Tom Patton is a fantastic mentor to help people?
Yes, he is. To have our candidates [match with] our current elected with mentorship, we have a number of Senate candidates from Cuyahoga County, so we’re very much [able to do that]. We have congressional candidates from here that are battling it out too in the primary, there’s a lot of excitement around the county with these different candidates that are offered mentorship and discussion, but also creating interest from people to get involved in some way.
You’ve been a member of the Board of Elections for exactly one year. Happy Anniversary! What is working, and what is broken, from your view now that you’ve been in place there for a year?
Well, I think Ohio has some good laws on the books. Also, the way we do things in Cuyahoga County by having a paper ballot, we have the voter scan; I think it is a great system. I think it creates an ultimate record and back up, and I think it creates less problems or speculation. So, I do feel strongly about that. I am pleased where we’re at as a state with the laws.