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Michael Avenatti’s approach for Ohio Democrats? Fight fire with fire.

August 7, 2018

Michael Avenatti’s approach for Ohio Democrats? Fight fire with fire.

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio – Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in her case against Republican President Donald Trump, draws a crowd.

That was evident by his appearance at the Mahoning County Democratic Party’s annual dinner Monday night, where around 100 party loyals flocked to The Upstairs just to catch a glimpse of who might be the president’s main antagonist.

At face value, the Youngstown area seems like the type of place that would feel blasé about a well-dressed, high-priced Los Angeles attorney. And the Democratic mantra of the 2018 elections has been “stick to the issues.” Don’t focus on the president’s numerous scandals: possible collusion with Russia by the president’s campaign, the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Trump’s erratic tweets.

Stormy Daniels’ alleged affair with the president – and Avenatti’s position as her lawyer – fall squarely in the latter category.

The Buckeye State was unwittingly sucked into the scandal after police officers arrested Daniels during a performance at a strip club in Columbus. The charges against Daniels were ultimately dropped, and Avenatti has said the whole incident was politically motivated.

To many Democrats, Avenatti is a media-hungry sideshow. He’s cotton candy when the party needs to be eating its meat and vegetables.  

But his speech to the Mahoning County Democrats showed he can be much more than a distraction.

“I mean I’ve been fighting for Davids versus Goliaths my entire legal career for the better part of 18 years,” Avenatti said in an interview before his speech. “The Democratic Party for a long time, they’ve yearned to have a fighter. A fighter for the left. Someone to actually stand up for working people and espouse ideals of the Democratic Party.”

Avenatti has been a mainstay on cable and network news as a vocal critic of Trump. Where most talking heads and politicians keep the criticism to carefully orchestrated talking points, Avenatti has gone shot for shot with the president.

In that time he’s transformed from a simple cable news guest to a key figure in the Democratic “resistance” against the administration, a man unafraid to punch low when the president does.

“People want frank talk,” Avenatti said. “What you see with me is what you get. I don’t have to conduct a poll to figure out what I’m going to tell somebody. I don’t have to hire some consultant to come up with some cute catch phrase. I just call it like I see it.”

Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Petras said that is the style voters in the Mahoning Valley will respond to.

“We found a fighter,” Betras said. “No one was fighting with Donald Trump. You know and I know that Donald Trump wants to hire a guy like Michael Avenatti, and he’d beg to have a guy like Michael Avenatti instead of Rudy Giuliani.”

Democrats – and even Republicans – have often been bewildered by how best to counter Trump’s hard-nosed, impromptu style. What is the rulebook for attacking someone who doesn’t play by the rules?

If Avenatti has any say, the answer is to go just as hard. In his speech, he said he respects former first lady Michelle Obama’s creed of, “When they go low, we go high.”

That works in a normal political environment, but Trump’s election ushered in anything but normalcy, he said.

“I believe that we cannot be the party any longer that turns the other cheek,” he said. “We must be the party that marshals the power of law and government and passion to bring those who hit that cheek to justice. When they go low, I say we hit harder.”

Avenatti is unapologetically confrontational. While he’s now a high-profile attorney, he grew up in St. Louis, a blue-collar town that has fallen on tough times in recent decades, similar to the Mahoning Valley.

He speaks with the cadence and polish of a seasoned politician, injecting gravitas into every word and pausing at just the right moment to garner applause from the crowd. He’s even teased the idea of running for president.

His blunt approach and the fact that he’s become such a celebrity has made him a headache to some Democratic Party insiders.

But he’s not completely devoid of the issues either. One of the main focuses in his speech was the Lordstown Chevrolet plant where the Chevy Cruze is manufactured and a major employer in the area. Outsourcing has decimated the factory, which has eliminated two shifts.

Trump has been nowhere to be found to fight for those workers, Avenatti said.

“He’s traveling around the country talking about promises kept when in reality I think most hard-working Americans are wondering where those promises went to,” he said.

The roughly 100 people in the Mahoning County crowd were receptive to Avenatti’s approach. In a way, he was tailor-made to speak after the slew of local Democrats who hurled insults and expletives at their brethren in the room, a kind of roasting usually reserved for behind closed doors.

“That’s what they’ll respond to in this town,” Betras said of Avenatti’s brashness. After all, Youngstown is the hometown of U.S. Rep. James Trafficant, a larger than life politician in his own right who embodied the off-the-cuff, populist approach.

The Mahoning Valley is precisely the area Democrats need to rebound in to have any shot of turning the state blue in 2020. Once reliably Democratic – President Barack Obama won Mahoning County by more than 27 percentage points in 2012 – Trump’s populist brand propelled him to the best showing by a Republican in years, losing the county by just 3 percentage points.

So what about the roadmap to success – sticking to the issues and not playing the president’s game?

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, who attended the dinner and spoke just before Avenatti, said the issues are still what’s most important for candidates. The sideshow won’t win elections, he said.

However, he did think Avenatti had some sage advice.

“I think we’re up against a sort of aggressive party on the other side,” Pepper said. “Look at what they did to Merrick Garland. Look at what they did in gerrymandering our state. They don’t play. To the extent that his message is you’ve got to fight fire with fire, don’t just roll over and be the nice guy, I agree with that.”

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