Nice guys finish last
Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern (right) with then-Ohio Republican Party head Bob Bennett at a convention of the Ohio Realtors Political Action Committee in 2007. Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
This story appeared in the May 2007 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Chris Redfern isn’t exactly in friendly territory. The chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party is talking to members of the Ohio Realtors Political Action Committee, a Republican-leaning interest group that’s holding a convention at the Hyatt on Capitol Square. “Welcome back, some of you, to the Democratic Party,” Redfern deadpans into the microphone.
While the comment gets a laugh, there is some truth to it. The Realtors PAC and other business organizations gave a lot more money to Ohio Democrats in 2006 than they used to, and they’re likely to give even more now that Democrats have captured the governor’s office, three of the other four statewide offices and picked up seats in Congress and the state legislature. Winners tend to make all kinds of new friends.
Nevertheless, the real estate agents aren’t trying to conceal their ideological bias this morning. They pepper Redfern with pointed questions about Ted Strickland, the Democratic governor he helped elect last November, and they applaud when the other speaker, Bob Bennett, the head of the Ohio Republican Party, forcefully states his support for a GOP bill pending in the state legislature that would eliminate the Ohio estate tax. Redfern, though, seems to enjoy sparring with Bennett and the crowd, and he isn’t shy about touting the strides his party made in 2006.
Although Bennett dismisses last year’s election as a national anti-Republican “tsunami,” Redfern says Ohio Democrats—including, of course, himself—deserve the credit for their strategy. “You don’t win 72 counties by lighting candles at mass and hoping for the best,” he says.
If Redfern comes off as cocky, that’s fine with him. He isn’t shy about touting his own accomplishments, and he doesn’t mind if he offends anybody. Even in a setting where you’d expect him to be on his best behavior, his sense of humor can be jarring.
Redfern’s next event is at the Columbus Athletic Club, where he’s scheduled to speak to another Republican-leaning organization, the Ohio Insurance Institute.
He’s greeted with subdued applause after Grange Insurance CEO Phil Urban introduces him, and he doesn’t waste a moment before laying on the sarcasm. “Thank you for inviting me to this hotbed of liberalism,” he begins. He looks toward Urban, who theatrically shakes his head. “Oh,” Redfern says, “this isn’t the League of Conservation Voters?” There is polite laughter. As he compliments the Insurance Institute’s lobbyist, Dean Fadel, he inserts another joke at the organization’s expense: “Since I’ve gotten to know Dean, I’ve become increasingly bored with the topic of automobile insurance and whatever else it is you sell.”
When Redfern concludes his speech—similar to the one he gave to the Realtors PAC—Fadel, sitting in the back of the room, starts to applaud, but stops when he realizes no one else is joining in. “One clap,” Redfern observes dryly. “I just spoke to the Realtors. They carried me out on their shoulders.” Before leaving the podium, Redfern tells the audience, “Good luck to everyone, and we’ll be taking names in 2008.”
If you were making a movie about a political party boss, you wouldn’t cast Chris Redfern. You’d want somebody who looks older and heavier, with a jowly face instead of Redfern’s angular one. Maybe John Goodman or James Gandolfini. And Redfern doesn’t have that open, friendly smile you’d expect from a politician. His facial expressions often alternate between a smirk and a sneer, and at any moment he looks as if he might succumb to giddy laughter—or pop you in the jaw. It’s not easy to tell if he’s upset or just joking.
“Whether he’s kidding or not, I always think he’s kidding,” says Republican Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted. “Even when he’s mad, he doesn’t usually carry a grudge.”
Redfern says he doesn’t edit himself to avoid making a bad impression. “I should care more about what other people think about my manners,” he says. That he doesn’t is a “weakness,” he says, though
he doesn’t sound as if it’s one he intends to remedy. In fact, in the next breath, he dismisses anyone who would criticize him. “Primarily, the people who are going to feel negative thoughts about a humble kid from Port Clinton,” he says, “those people are going to feel that way, whether I care or not.”
His personal style has not held him back in the world of politics. He was appointed to the Ottawa County commissioners at age 27 in 1993 and twice won elections before getting named to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1999. In 2002, Redfern was selected House minority leader by his fellow Democratic representatives, and then at the end of 2005 he became state party chairman. Now, having overseen the successful 2006 elections, he’s a figure of national significance for the 2008 presidential race.
The kid from Port Clinton is expected to help Democrats retake the White House and will spend the next several months dealing with the likes of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. He says he’s certain that if the Democratic presidential nominee follows the playbook that elected Strickland last year—campaigning in rural counties, focusing on economic concerns and avoiding polarizing social issues—she or he will win Ohio.
And the Democratic nominee will learn to deal with Redfern’s edgy personality. “He’s got a witty sense of humor,” says Parma Mayor Dean DePiero, a close friend of Redfern. “Some of the sarcasm is in jest.” Not everybody gets sarcasm. But DePiero—who was Redfern’s predecessor as House minority leader—says he never advised him to tone it down. “I think that his style has served him well,” DePiero says. “That’s the way he is, and that’s the charm of the guy.”
Charm may not be the right word, but it’s true that in the stodgy, overchoreographed world of politics, Redfern can serve as a nice change of pace. He doesn’t come off as a phony. He’s a good orator, capable of delivering a smart, passionate speech—as well as a clever sound bite. And humor is an undervalued quality in a politician. Even when Redfern is delivering a harsh partisan attack, he can elicit a good belly laugh.
“I’ve always considered him just a delightful personality,” says Governor Strickland, whose endorsement of Redfern was viewed as key to getting him elected as chairman. “He has an extremely quick wit, a sharp mind, and I think he is just a very attractive personality. He’s got energy. He’s got enthusiasm and he has a very sharp political sense.”
Redfern seems uncomfortable with compliments and responds to praise the same way he answers criticism: with heavy irony. “People generally like me,” he says. “They just can’t help themselves—a lot of group hugs, adulation. Some have been known to throw petals and flowers.”
Lakshmi Satyanarayana is trying to make it safely across Fourth Street, despite the unhelpful commentary coming from the back seat of the Ohio Demo-cratic Party’s Dodge Caravan. Satyanar-ayana—whom Redfern usually calls “Lucky”—is the party’s deputy finance director, a job that apparently includes the thankless task of occasionally carting Redfern to and from downtown events.
Redfern is squabbling with communications director Randy Borntrager while
simultaneously nagging Satyanarayana about her cautious driving. “Want me to get out and push?” Redfern says. “Just go, Lucky.”
The needling continues after they reach party headquarters on East State Street. Redfern is unhappy that his staff gave Democratic lawmakers free tickets to an upcoming fundraiser—though Satyanarayana says it was Redfern’s idea. He dials an aide, asking for 15 names to fit the description of “a Democrat farmer from Ottawa and Erie counties.” He repeatedly asks his assistant, Liz Shirley, what he’s going to do about lunch, and each time Shirley says someone already has been dispatched to Einstein Bros. Bagels to get it. Redfern continually calls people into his office to ask questions or give orders while signing letters and making phone calls.
There are few details too small for Redfern’s attention. He wants to know seating arrangements at Democratic fundraisers and has strong opinions about the etiquette regarding thank-you notes. He even offers guidance on how to repair the Democratic headquarters’ temporarily closed stairwell, which has been roped off since Ohio Senate minority leader Teresa Fedor slipped on the steps.
Redfern says his wife, Kim—whom he married in early March—teases him that he reminds her of Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. A key difference is that unlike Miranda Priestly, the fashion magazine editor played by Streep, Redfern does not inspire fear among his underlings. They listen to him respectfully, but not anxiously, and they occasionally disagree with him.
“I have little time to coddle,” Redfern says. “I have little time to manage emotions. So I tend to attract people to the circle of the executive offices here at the party and my support staff who get the fact that when I am short or terse or barking they shouldn’t take it personal. And they don’t. And people who do won’t last.”
Redfern’s lunch from Einstein finally arrives, though he accidentally drops the bag on the floor while doing a telephone interview with a Dayton TV reporter about the 2008 campaign. As the Democratic boss in the state that reelected George W. Bush, he is a national expert on the presidential race, which already is well underway. Although the nomination likely will be decided before Ohio’s primary next March, candidates are expected to visit Ohio early and often. Obama, for instance, was in Columbus in February.
Redfern got his first taste of presidential politics in 2004 when he was state chairman for Edwards’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. Although John Kerry won the Ohio primary, Redfern helped the former North Carolina senator build relationships and leave a good impression. While Edwards is no doubt pleased to see his former state chairman now leading the Ohio Democratic Party, Redfern says he will stay neutral until the Democrats have a nominee.
In the meantime, Redfern believes that success in ’08 hinges on winning this year’s municipal elections, which include Co-lumbus, where Mayor Mike Coleman appears headed for a relatively easy reelection. Most important to Redfern is Canton, where he’s targeted incumbent Janet Creighton, one of the only Republican mayors in a sizable Ohio city. When Redfern says the ’07 mayor’s race in Canton will determine the presidential race, he’s only half kidding. Redfern says the party builds success by prevailing in under-the-radar elections. When the Dem-ocrats elect, say, a prosecutor in a small county, that’s someone who can run for a Republican state legislative seat later on. He says he was as excited about the party’s winning the Perry County auditor’s seat as he was about Strickland’s election. If Democrats can get a foot in the door in the red territories, it can turn the state blue. “We’re going to lose Clermont County,” he says. “The key is to lose it better.”
Nothing irks Redfern more than the notion that his 2006 victories were the result of good timing rather than good strategy. But that is by no means the only thing that annoys him. He’s irritated by the liberal bloggers—they call him The ’Fern—who have watched him with a critical eye over the last couple of years. He has little time for those he considers self-righteous policy wonks with no understanding of electoral politics or newspaper writers who pontificate about issues such as redistricting reform that real people don’t care about.
Redfern also is tired of the repeated references to his preppy attire and youthful appearance—he looks at least 10 years younger than his 42 years. And he doesn’t like questions on his past, whether they’re inquiries about his childhood or, especially, the events that led to his selection as chairman in December 2005.
He really won the chairmanship earlier that fall when he, along with several other legislative Democrats, endorsed Strickland for governor over Coleman, his chief rival. Then, after Denny White unexpectedly resigned as head of the Democratic Party, Strickland, before he won the Democratic primary, returned the favor by announcing Redfern as his choice to replace him.
Not everybody was thrilled with Strick-land’s preference. Some Democrats were bothered by the fact that the same organized labor leaders who’d supported the failed chairmanships of White and his predecessor, David Leland, were solidly behind Redfern. Another sticking point was that Redfern continued to serve in the legislature; though he would step down as minority leader, he had no plans to leave the House, and several observers thought he’d have trouble juggling the two roles.
Redfern overwhelmingly defeated Mont-gomery County Democratic chairman Dennis Lieberman—who also ran unsuccessfully against White in 2002—at a contentious meeting that left Lieberman supporters complaining of intimidation by Redfern and Strickland. “There were a lot of hurt feelings,” Lieberman says. “I think the 900-pound gorilla was the governor. He had made a decision that he wanted to support Chris for his reasons, and he did, and I think that was probably the biggest factor.”
Divisions in the party have lessened but remain. Lieberman today has nothing bad to say about Redfern—but nothing nice, either. Another of Redfern’s critics, Mayor Coleman, has softened his view of the chairman. Last year, the mayor complained about Redfern’s “anti-city, anti-urban” legislation, such as a bill to repeal Columbus’s assault weapons ban.
But now Coleman says he and Redfern have developed a mutually supportive and trusting relationship. “We have since had some engaging heart-to-hearts,” the mayor says. “You ever had a heart-to-heart with me? They’re not the most pleasant encounters. I think it turned out good. We just laid everything out on the table and he did, too, and I like that.”
Still, Redfern further antagonized old foes in May 2006 by supporting candidates—he says there were five, though the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported “about 10”—to run against incumbent party committee members around the state. Why did he pick those fights? “Because they didn’t support me as chairman of the party,” he says flatly. “Although you may not like my answer, that’s my answer.”
Strickland says he doesn’t believe Redfern is vindictive. “I think what you’re describing is the usual give and take of intra-party dialogue and disagreement,” the governor says. “I don’t think Chris is any more or less controversial than any other chair would be.”
As for Redfern, he thinks he should be judged on the results rather than the means: “I know I’m a pain in the ass, and I know I can be impatient with those around me, and I know that I come across as a little frantic or disconnected—working two phones and a message and writing a note all at the same time, looking at the Internet. But I love it. And so far I think I’m doing a pretty fair job.”
Redfern is strolling through the Statehouse’s underground parking garage when he spots Steve Buehrer, a Republican state senator. Redfern shouts, “I’m proud of you.” Buehrer, looking confused, stops to ask for an explanation, but Redfern keeps walking. He seems more relaxed now than he does at party headquarters, where he’s the boss. At the Statehouse, Redfern is more like the class clown.
Upon arriving at his 10th floor legislative office in the Riffe Center, Redfern is greeted by a trio of men from Willoway Nurseries in the Cleveland suburb of Avon. Redfern doesn’t look excited about meeting with the unexpected visitors, but invites them in his office since a previously scheduled appointment has been canceled. Redfern is polite, but seems, as usual, mildly impatient. “Give me your pitch,” he says after pleasantries have been exchanged.
Afterward, Redfern’s mood sours when his legislative aide, Valarie Johnson, informs him that Ohio Department of Agriculture director Robert Boggs has sent an assistant, Adam Ward, for their meeting. Redfern likes Ward—a former Democratic House aide—but makes no effort to hide his chagrin, telling him he’s “disappointed the director didn’t show.”
Redfern then heads back to the Statehouse for a meeting of the House insurance committee. Chairman John White begins by asking all committee members to say a little bit about themselves—not unlike what you’d see on the first day of summer camp. “Mr. Chairman, my name’s Chris Redfern and I represent the 80th House District,” Redfern says when it’s his turn. “I’ve been in the House since ’99 and, much to the pleasure of many, this is my last term. I also run a small political organization up the street.”
Although Redfern enjoys the legislature—where he earns $63,933 in addition to his $89,400 salary as party chairman—he won’t get to stay past 2008. He thinks next year he could win an Ohio Senate seat, currently held by Republican Randy Gardner, but Strickland has asked him to concentrate fully on the party. The governor says he wants Redfern to build one of “the most well-organized, effective parties in the nation.” Strickland adds, “It’s going to require someone with undivided attention and undivided responsibilities, and that’s why I’ve talked with Chris about his future in that regard.”
Meanwhile, Redfern’s presence on the House floor might create an awkward situation for himself and Franklin County Rep. Joyce Beatty, who replaced him as Democratic leader. However, Beatty says she and Redfern have remained friends. “It makes my job a lot easier,” she says. “We don’t get in each other’s way.”
Husted says now he needs to check in with two Democrats instead of just one. “I certainly pay my respects to the minority leader, Joyce Beatty, on the fact that she is the minority leader,” he says. “But you don’t go without trying to understand what Chris Redfern’s opinion is.” Husted doesn’t believe being a lawmaker undercuts Redfern’s other job. “I think Chris has always had a party chairman’s mindset,” he says. “He is always going to think of his role as party chairman first.”
Redfern’s Dodge Durango is easy to spot. It has a pro-Strickland sticker (“TED” with a black oval around it) and an anti-Bush one (“W” with a diagonal line through it). His personalized license plate says “VISIT,” which makes sense only if you read the words “Put-In-Bay” on the frame below it.
He spends many nights in Columbus at his wife’s house on Schiller Park in German Village. (The former Kim Kahl-ert, a registered Republican, is development director for Equality Ohio, a gay-rights organization, and she also worked last year as a fundraiser for the reelection campaign of GOP Congresswoman Deborah Pryce.) Despite the time he spends at party headquarters, the legislature and with his wife in Columbus, Redfern speaks adoringly of his home in Catawba Island, which is near Put-In-Bay in Lake Erie.
“I love Lake Erie,” he says. “I’d put a chair in front of it and just watch it. The chair would have a little holder with Budweiser, the King of Beers, that sits in my right hand. Like two old friends helping me along: Lake Erie and Budweiser.” Sometimes he speaks dreamily about leaving politics and opening a bar on the lake.
Even if he were to change jobs, however, he says he wouldn’t alter his personality. “If things didn’t work out and everything unraveled in 2008,” he says, “and I decided to take another path, I would be as disconnected and frazzled and all the other things—arrogant, whatever—selling cars or bartending or running a charter boat.” He doesn’t expect everything to unravel in 2008, though. He anticipates having a new president of the United States who will be indebted to him.
“My needs are so simple,” he says. “Win the presidency and enjoy a bottle of beer by Lake Erie.”
Dan Williamson is a senior writer for Columbus Monthly.