'Who's this guy?' Underdog Hamilton County Commission candidate offers some answers

CINCINNATI - Democratic candidate Sean Feeney knows well the hurdles that stand between him and a victory against Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel.

Eight months into his campaign, Feeney’s raised less than $1,000 from donors, compared to Monzel’s campaign coffers of more than $187,000.

Feeney’s experience holding an elected office includes, well, none.

And the 27-year-old’s political savvy and networks lag that of the better-known Democrats – a fact his party reminded him of last week when he was asked to step aside for a more popular cohort.

But Feeney’s shortcomings as a candidate and fundraiser, he says, are no different than they were months ago when the North College Hill engineer won the May Democratic primary with 65 percent of the vote over Paul Komarek.

“Eight months ago, we were looking around and asking who was going to step up against Monzel,” said Feeney. “No one came forward, so I did.”

 In the last week, though, Feeney's believes something has changed about his bid. More people are taking notice.

The underdog candidate thinks his struggling campaign is landing an unexpected boost following Monzel’s controversial icon tax vote and the Democratic Party's attempt to coerce him to step down a week ago.

Monzel and fellow Republican Commissioner Greg Hartmann voted to let voters decide in November whether to raise the county sales tax by a quarter-cent for five years to generate roughly $170 million for the restoration of Union Terminal. Monzel's plan - which opponents decried as ill-conceived -- dropped Music Hall renovations in the original icon tax plan that would have increased the tax by the same amount but for 14 years, thus generating hundreds of millions of dollars. 

“People have started to take notice of the issues at stake in this race, and they’re asking: 'Who is this Feeney guy?'” said the husband and father of two. “I’ve had calls from some very powerful people, and I have a number of meetings coming up that I see as great potential.”

From Working Class Background

An only child, Feeney grew up in Covington attending public schools, graduating with honors from Holmes High School in 2005.

He began his first job at 14 “out of economic necessity” working as a cashier in Florence Mall. His father worked as a security guard and his mother, a school bus monitor.

In 2009, he earned his bachelor’s of science in software engineering from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in  Terre Haute, Ind. Next year, he expects to wrap up an MBA from Wright State University.

In his current role as a private cloud technology architect with Accenture, Feeney says he helps Fortune 500 companies and many others save money and streamline. It's experience he says he thinks more elected officials could use.

“What really qualifies someone for public office?” said Feeney. “Because someone raises a lot of money, suddenly they’re qualified for office? I think voters want real world, business experience and people who are new to politics so they’re not so corrupt.”  

This week, he held a campaign strategy session at his home – hoping to “reinvigorate” his volunteers – there’s about 10 of them.

“They’re true volunteers,” he said. “Not paid volunteers like most campaigns. We’re all working professionals with our own families to support.”

His campaign platform is simple: Strengthen the middle class with investments in art, parks and libraries. Improve infrastructure and expand public transit options. And improve the city and county’s relationship “to ensure we continue to lead our region.”

New micro-donations are coming and very soon, he says, he expects to break the $1,000- mark in outside contributions to his campaign.

Next month, he’s hoping to host a fundraiser at an Over-the-Rhine brewery, though details are still coming together. “I’ve knocked on hundreds to the low- thousands of doors,” Feeney said.  “We are doing what we have to do to get elected.”

Burke: Step Aside ... For Now

But whether Feeney can leverage his perceived campaign bounce, and gain more support across his own party, remains to be seen.

Rewind just one week.

Following Monzel and Republican commissioner Greg Hartman’s vote to remove Music Hall from the icons tax Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke invited Feeney to lunch last week.

“I asked him ‘How’s your campaign going?’ and his response was ‘It’s terrible,’” said Burke.  “We expressed our preference that he give us the opportunity to run a stronger candidate.”

The line-up of possible swaps, Burke says, included a list of whose-who among Hamilton County Dems:  Former Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, Cincinnati council candidate Greg Landsman, former Cincinnati councilman Jim Tarbell and State Rep. Denise Driehaus.

In return for stepping down, the Dems would have worked to groom Feeney for future political roles and help him “find ways to get more name recognition,” Burke said.

“He has loaned his campaign $3,000 – that’s what his campaign is living on,” Burke said. “We would have helped raise the money so that his campaign would have paid off that loan to his family.”

But in what Burke calls a “missed opportunity,” Feeney declined the favors.  Monday at 4 p.m. was the last opportunity to replace him.

For his part, Feeney says he’s staying in because none the Dems whose names were floated offered up a plan for their potential bid.

“Many of them, they were dragged into this on the party’s behalf,” said Feeney. “I got several calls, but I never heard a commitment or plan from any one.”

Burke says a stronger candidate would have indeed stepped in, but it was up to Feeney to get out of the way.

“Whether we would have preferred someone else with more experience and a stronger name is irrelevant now,” said Burke. “At this point, he’s the guy.”

To the extent that Feeney’s has the backing of his going forward, Burke said the party “will help him as best we can.”

Landsman, who Feeney credited as being among the most supportive of his decision to stay in the race, said the young candidate needs to do more.

“Sean has to start meeting with people, lots of people, get as much advice as possible, and demonstrate that he has a credible plan to defeat Monzel,” said Landsman.

Meanwhile, the GOP is resting on Feeney’s inability to do so, so far.

“He has not demonstrated any fundraising ability,” said Hamilton County’s GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou. “And, what’s the message from Sean Feeney? I would have raised your taxes more?”

As for Monzel, he says his campaign remains about much more than the icon tax.

“At the end of the day, it was one issue,” Monzel said. “I have a track record as commissioner, and we’re getting our message out to voters. That to me is what they’re going to look at and weigh when they decide in November who is the right person to lead the county.”

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