By Sean Rice
The Mercer County Board of Elections is still without a director, as a vote by board members ended in another stalemate Monday.
After the first vote, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell cast the deciding vote, rejecting Denise Fullenkamp's nomination to be the next county elections director. But Republicans on the election board again pushed the nomination back to Blackwell.
Board of elections members met in an emergency session Monday afternoon to discuss Blackwell's response paper sent to the board. Under Ohio law, Blackwell casts the tie-breaking vote for county elections boards.
On Jan. 31, the four-member board voted in a tie during five consecutive votes to hire Fullenkamp. Each vote was motioned by Republican board members Owen Hall and Dell Kramer. On each vote, Democrat board members Mark Uhlenhake and Betty Cook voted "no."
On Monday, the same series of events occurred. Fullenkamp, the daughter of Deputy Elections Director Diana Grile, is one of a list of about 13 candidates who responded to the position that was vacated by Toni Slusser in June. Fullenkamp currently serves as a clerk for the board and has worked off and on there since 1999.
"Based on the materials before me, I vote with Mr. Uhlenhake and (Mrs. Cook) against the motion to appoint Ms. Fullenkamp," Blackwell wrote. "Further, I direct the board to meet promptly to nominate eligible candidates for this position and to reach consensus on that appointment."
Blackwell said he voted against Fullenkamp because evidence presented shows she is a Demo-crat and voted as such in primaries in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
Ohio law calls for a local elections director to be the opposite party of the local election board chairman. The Mercer County board must hire a Republican director, or reorganize to have a Republican board chairman and hire a Democrat director, Blackwell noted.
Fullenkamp submitted a letter to the board in January stating she will vote Republican in the next primary, and switch parties. Blackwell said such a statement in not enough to be considered a Republican.
Fullenkamp addressed the elections board Monday, reading a prepared statement on her work history and avowing her loyalty to the Republican party.
"I've always considered myself a Republican, just with the Democrat behind my name," Fullenkamp told the board, also reading a letter from her husband about leading a "Republican family."
Fullenkamp noted that Uhlenhake voted in June to name Fullenkamp interim director after Slusser resigned and Grile was on medical leave.
"I am asking why the Democratic board members would support an appointment then and consider me qualified to serve as director or acting director, but discriminate against me now if I have an R behind my name," she read.
Uhlenhake responded, saying appointing Fullenkamp "interim director" was an illegal move by the board. And, former office clerk Beth Houts was offered the position first.
"Somebody had to be in here to run the office," Uhlenhake said of his suggestion she become interim director.
Uhlenhake raised his voice when Fullenkamp claimed Uhlenhake party-switched in 1994 and voted Republican.
"I voted for my identical twin brother, and that was on the front page of the newspaper," he quipped. Later he said of Fullenkamp's party affiliation, "We don't know what you are."
After discussing Blackwell's response, Republican board members decided Fullenkamp's party history was the issue with the nomination and motioned to hire her again.
"I'll make the motion that we appoint Denise Fullenkamp as director of the Mercer County Board of Elections," member Dell Kramer said, and repeated four times, each time followed by negative votes from the Democrats.
"Let's just move on and find a director," Uhlenhake said.
Jake Fashner, a Blackwell representative, told the board he is "quite confident" the issue will be "swiftly resolved" by Blackwell.
"If this board is not capable of hiring a director, maybe he should appoint one," Uhlenhake said of Blackwell.
"Did you guys consider any of those other resumes?" Cook asked.
Owen Hall said 11 interviews were conducted and "it's in the best interest of the Mercer County electorate to go with the most qualified."
"I'm very disappointed," Uhlenhake said.
Hall responded, "The disappointment goes both ways."
Prior to adjourning, Cook asked Fullenkamp about a letter written by former clerk Houts.
Cook said the letter stated: "Denise, don't take any shit from the board, remember they are stupid."
"Do you have the same opinion of the board as Beth did?" Cook asked.
Fullenkamp said she never saw the letter. Cook said she found it on a desk with a key taped to it after Houts left for a position with the county clerk of courts.