Back Home, Boehner Finds Something Unusual: A Challenger

The speaker, who ran uncontested last time, will run against a professor who argues that the needs of Ohio’s 8th Congressional District are not being tended to. Evan Vucci/AP

As he corrals and cajoles the unruly Tea Party caucus in Congress, House Speaker John Boehner is in constant danger of upsetting his own party and losing his speakership of the House. But he never loses sleep over being re-elected to Congress. Since 1990, Boehner has never won his Ohio House seat with less than 60 percent of the popular vote. Last year, he ran unopposed.  

That is, until now. Thomas Poetter, an education professor, thinks Boehner should be called to account. So he will challenge the speaker in Ohio’s 8th Congressional District on the Democratic ticket.

“We’re running because we really want to make sure that Boehner faces the issues in District Eight and doesn’t just rule on high in Washington,” said Poetter. “People on the ground in District Eight haven’t been represented for a long, long time.”

Boehner is so consumed with his role as speaker, Poetter argues, he isn’t representing the needs of his district. He says that is a failure of leadership. A recent example of his putting his party interests in Washington before his responsibility to his constituents in Ohio was during the government shutdown.

“People around here are worked up about this because this is a homegrown person who did this to us,” he said. “And we’re talking about economic impact in District Eight.”

“He’s an embarrassment to the state, the district and national politics because he held us hostage for 16 days. And a vote could have been taken!” he said. “Now I’m yelling at you. Sorry,” he said, after his campaign manager told him to tone it down.

Though he faces an uphill climb, the only thing missing from Poetter’s resume is a purple heart. “I’m the cleanest candidate either party has seen 80 years,” he said. “If anyone finds anything on me, then it’s made up.”  

An education professor at Miami University in Ohio, Poetter holds a master’s in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1989. As a chaplain in Indiana, he worked with young people and coached boys’ basketball and he’s been involved in Little League baseball. He has two sons, one in college and one in high school, and his wife is a treasurer of the local school district.

Poetter “I’m the cleanest candidate either party has seen 80 years. If anyone finds anything on me, then it’s made up.” A political neophyte – the last time he ran for office, he joked, was for high school president – Poetter says he has years of political experience as head of Miami University’s Partnership office from 2001 to 2011, an effort by the university to involve itself in activities with local schools and civic groups. “So I have a lot of experience in the region working with people and getting to know them and trying to connect our mutual purposes and interests,” he said.

Still, Poetter faces the results of gerrymandering that has made the 8th District a safe Republican seat. It was carved out of western Ohio as a largely rural district separate from the state’s larger, Democratic metro areas. According to 2012 data from the Ohio secretary of state, there are only 31,878 registered Democrats in the district, compared with nearly 110,000 Republicans. The rest of the district’s 468,484 voters either register as “other” or are unaffiliated. Boehner is facing three Republican challengers in the primary, but - at least for now - is expected to breeze by them.

“I won’t be popular with everybody who lives here in this district, but I’m going to talk to everybody and we’re going to campaign,” Poetter said. He insists his campaign – which he intends to roll out officially next month when he starts raising money in earnest – should be taken seriously.

“I know that national Dems and others don’t think a challenger can mount a challenge to Boehner, but we’re going to do it,” he said. “We’re going to do it from the grass roots up. It might be the greatest political upset in history. But it could happen.”