In Ohio’s swing-state glory days, the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party was one of the country’s most crucial chapters — offering a mother lode of votes with the potential to deliver the state. Now, there’s a new political landscape and party leadership.
In July, party chairwoman Shontel Brown cast 28-year-old Ryan Puente as the party’s executive director in charge of day-to-day operations, liaising candidates and strategizing for the push in November. A two-time intern both for Sen. Sherrod Brown and in President Barack Obama’s White House, Puente, a former campaign strategist, re-founded the Cuyahoga County Young Democrats in January 2017. The group’s support and endorsement helped Shontel Brown fend off a challenge from progressives in June to win a four-year term as party chairwoman. We talked to Puente about his agenda, the party’s internal split and potential for a blue wave in November.
Cleveland Magazine: What are your marching orders?
Ryan Puente: It’s kind of up to me. My big focus for fall has got to be the top of the ticket. Getting our people involved to get voters out.
CM: What’s your biggest challenge walking in the door?
RP: Communication. That was the criticism of the past — trying to call the office and even getting someone on the phone. It’s getting people to know who I am. You have to build that confidence and comfort from the ground up.
CM: Is your main job winning back Democrats and independents who voted for President Donald Trump or is it to overcome apathy and indifference of nonvoters?
RP: It’s a combination. ... It’s getting back the faithful. It’s the kitchen table issues that really matter to them like jobs, health care and education. It’s also engaging and persuading nonvoters who may be turned off.
CM: How do you convince people voting matters?
RP: It’s being able to show what’s happening at the federal level and how it’s impacting the local level — being able to make the connection.
CM: How much of the election is a referendum on President Trump?
RP: That remains to be seen. ... We don’t want to rest on the notion the big blue wave is coming. It’s up to us to get our folks activated.
CM: So you don’t think a blue wave is a foregone conclusion?
RP: I think it’s possible, but we have to do the work.
CM: Was your age a factor in getting this job, perhaps because you might connect with young people and use social media better than political veterans?
RP: I don’t think age was a primary factor. My role is to work hard. … But [my hiring] shows we are trying to engage and connect with young voters. It sends a signal.
CM: What skills did you take away from interning with Sherrod Brown?
RP: I was the lowest man on the totem pole. But that’s what gave me satisfaction being able to help [constituents] who were not able to help themselves.
CM: How do you cope with the declining strength of unions to provide funding and volunteers?
RP: I don’t have a magic bullet for that.
CM: Sherrod Brown is the only statewide democratic officeholder. How do you change that?
RP: We have to run up the score in major urban areas.
CM: How do you heal the split between the party’s mainstream and progressive wings?
RP: I don’t think [progressives] have taken their ball and gone home. ... I wouldn’t say there’s much division. It was decided with the second election [of Shontel Brown]. Everybody seems to want to work toward one goal.
CM: Ten years later, is the party still suffering damage from the Jimmy Dimora-Frank Russo county corruption scandal?
RP: I don’t think so. I think we’re past that.
RP: We need to know where we are in Cuyahoga County. I don't have that number.
CM: Do you have a goal for Democratic turnout in November?
RP: I'm not going to share that.
CM: If you could snap your fingers, what would be the one big change you would make?
RP: Funding is the big thing. It would give us more opportunity. We could maybe afford to open up additional offices on the East Side and West Side.
CM: What skills did you learn as a White House intern that are useful to you now?
RP: How to work in a fast-paced environment. Kind of like sink or swim.
CM: Do you have any mentors?
RP: [Cleveland city councilman] Blaine Griffin. He taught me about running campaigns that are both high tech and high touch. And Leonard Jackson, [the former athletic director for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District], taught me how to coral and motivate volunteers.
CM: So what's your vision for the party under your leadership?
RP: The Democratic Party has long been a champion of working families and values that help move our communities forward. My mission is to support and elect Democratic candidates, causes and issues that match those ideals. To do that we will continue to grow and engage grassroots to build a stronger party.