Republicans take a County Commission majority, leaving Democrats’ future uncertain

Portage County Commission incumbent Sabrina Christian-Bennett talks with friends during a Portage County Republicans watch party at the Kent American Legion on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager
Portage County Commission incumbent Sabrina Christian-Bennett talks with friends during a Portage County Republicans watch party at the Kent American Legion on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

Republicans take a County Commission majority, leaving Democrats’ future uncertain

Christian-Bennett and Badalamenti pledge to focus on the economy. Kennedy calls for reconciliation.

Republicans swept the Portage County elections this year, winning all but one partisan contest and flipping the County Commission’s Democratic majority. Vicki Kline will remain the Commission’s lone Democrat in 2021.

Republican challenger Tony Badalamenti unseated Kathleen Clyde, the president of the Board of County Commissioners and a rising star in the Ohio Democratic Party. In 2018, after meeting her term limit in the Ohio House of Representatives, she won over 2 million votes in a failed race for Secretary of State. This year she participated in the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

Meanwhile, Republican Sabrina Christian-Bennett successfully defended her post against Democratic challenger John Kennedy, winning by more than 10,000 votes, according to the Portage County Board of Elections’ unofficial results. She has served on the Commission since 2014.

Badalamenti, an ex-Marine from Aurora who works as a chiropractor, attributed his victory, by over 4,000 votes, to his own activity in the community. His experience as a chiropractor has taught him empathy, he said, and he sought to integrate that into his campaign.

“I spent 10 years in the Marine Corps and learned how to lead men in different directions and get them to do very difficult tasks,” he said. “I decided and was able to accomplish becoming a doctor. … I think when you blend them together, and you have some intelligence and want to care for people, it makes you a unique type of leader.”

He positioned himself as a staunch law enforcement supporter. During his campaign, he visited the Aurora Police Department and attended a Blue Line Unlimited motorcycle rally in a show of support for first responders. He characterized Clyde as more focused on higher office.

“She had bigger plans for herself as a rising star and with running for Secretary of State,” Badalamenti said. “I think she left the people in Portage County behind, and she never picked up and never became part of Portage County again.”

Clyde did not respond to requests for comment, but during her campaign this year she was active in the community, virtually and physically. She hosted frequent Zoom talks, joined Black Lives Matter protesters and participated in a series of popup food pantries for people hit financially by the pandemic. She also led an effort to declare racism a countywide public health crisis. (Christian-Bennett abstained from supporting it.)

Clyde served four two-year terms representing Ohio’s 75th congressional district in the Ohio House. When she hit her term limit, she ran unsuccessfully for Ohio Secretary of State in 2018 and was then appointed County Commissioner after her predecessor resigned.

“Last night was a tough one for Portage County Democrats,” Clyde wrote on Facebook after the election. “In the middle of a deadly pandemic, we went to the people creatively and safely, ready to work our hearts out for our community. I am proud that I stood on the right side of history with these outstanding candidates for the dignity of all people.”

Kennedy, the Democratic challenger to Christian-Bennett’s seat on the County Commission, ran more than 100 miles through every city, village and township in the county to raise nearly $3,000 for Change Hunger of Portage County in September. He secured endorsements from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and a number of labor organizations. A type-one diabetic, Kennedy has been a vocal advocate for lower insulin costs and better healthcare access for people with pre-existing conditions.

Portage County Commission incumbent Sabrina Christian-Bennett talks with friends during a Portage County Republicans watch party at the Kent American Legion on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

“Like I talked about in the campaign, poverty is a big issue,” he said in an interview. “We may not want to face the facts on that, but that’s not going away. And it’s just going to get worse, I think, as we head into these long winter months, and people are struggling to make ends meet, struggling to put food on the table. I’m not being dramatic. That’s happened. That’s a reality. And we saw it over and over and over again, all summer long, all spring, all fall at these various food pantries.”

But his activity wasn’t enough to launch Kennedy to victory. Kennedy said he may have lost because he chose not to spend a lot of money advertising his candidacy and because he chose to advocate on issues Portage County may not be ready to address.

“I don’t know that people were necessarily ready to be engaged or to be open to having the conversation about some of the big problems that we’re facing,” he said. “And I’m not even blaming people for that. I understand it. I get it, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still push forward and try to overcome some of this stuff because I know we can.”

Christian-Bennett, like Badalamenti, attributed her re-election to her commitment to Portage County and her visibility in the community.

“I’m at everything,” she said. “But you know what, that’s what I feel, as a public servant, I need to be. I have 162,000 bosses, and they want to see me. And of course, I’d be remiss to say we had an awesome turnout at the polls.”

The overall turnout was 81,719, over 75 percent of registered Portage County voters.

When asked about her party’s sweeping victory in the county, Christian-Bennett said it’s a positive step for Portage County “because there’s still a diverse amount of Democrats and Republicans in office that, you know, pretty much everyone will still be represented.”

“Once you’re in office, you’re no longer a D or an R,” she said. “You are a public servant who represents all the people, not just your political affiliated party. And I’ve always said that, and I walk that talk. Obviously, I have to have Democrats vote for me as well as Republicans. And that’s one of the things that I’ve always been successful with.”

Christian-Bennett and Badalamenti both said they plan to focus on the economy in their upcoming terms. Christian-Bennett said her experience owning a real estate title company lends her a unique perspective on how development impacts the economy. And being a small business owner, she said she understands the needs of small businesses. She also serves on the Northeast Ohio Consortium Council of Governments, an organization aimed at connecting local employers and job-seekers to resources that allow them to compete in the global marketplace.

Badalamenti said he seeks to develop a strategic plan for Portage County’s economic development.

“I think, as a business person, not having a strategic plan is a dereliction of the duties they need to do for the county,” he said. “And I think I have different approaches about economic development as a business person and being associated with different business people. I have different views and things that we should do that have never been done.”

Despite losing, Kennedy, too, laid out his philosophy moving forward in a Facebook post on Wednesday. He told The Portager he plans to engage with community efforts against poverty and hunger more than he ever has. He said he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll do yet, but he mentioned working with the King Kennedy Center, Family and Community Services, Kent Social Services and the Community Action Council.

“I think the other lesson is, we have to start trying to understand one another,” he said. “All the anger and resentment and vitriol, what place is that coming from in people?”

Kennedy said understanding that core problem is important not only for Portage County residents, but for people all across the country.

“We’re a microcosm of all the stuff that’s happening across the country. Every community is going to need to peel back the layers. Listen more than shout.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Clyde served two terms in the statehouse. She served four two-year terms.

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Michael Indriolo is a visual journalist based in Kent. He is a contributor at The Portager covering a range of topics, including local government and community.

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