Republican party operative charged with OVI, weapons violation in Delaware County

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An influential Delaware County Republican Party operative whom police stopped on suspicion of impaired driving last week asked Genoa Township police to call her friend, a Genoa Township trustee, as she was being handcuffed.

A motorist called Genoa Township police just after 10 p.m. April 19 to report seeing a reckless driver “cross into the left of the two turn lanes (along Home Road) and almost hit another driver who laid on their horn to alert them,” according to the man’s written statement. The car repeatedly crossed the center lane lines and at one point drove into oncoming lanes, the witness reported.

Genoa Township police located and followed the GMC Yukon, which they learned was driven by Catherine Nelson, into Lewis Center where it continued to swerve and alternately speed and slow, according to a police report.

Police stopped Nelson and said they noticed a strong smell of alcohol from the SUV and on her breath. They asked her at least three times if she’d had anything to drink, according to both the police report and body camera video of the traffic stop. The first time she answered, “absolutely not.” A few minutes later, the officer again asked her, and she admitted to having a drink at 3 p.m. that day. The third time she said she’d had a glass of wine during dinner.

Nelson, 68, said more than once, “I don’t drink.” Police found a bottle of liquor in her vehicle’s back seat, according to video.

Asked if she had taken any medication, she paused and told them she was taking generic codeine for a procedure she had undergone that morning. Codeine is a Schedule 2 narcotic; its use is illegal while driving.

After refusing to take an alcohol breath test, records indicate Nelson failed a field sobriety test. At the same time, officers found a loaded 9 mm Ruger handgun in Nelson’s driver side door. Ohio law prohibits motorists from carrying a firearm in a vehicle if they are driving drunk.

Shortly after they were arresting her on suspicion of drunken driving, she asked them to “Call Renee Vaughn. You know Renee Vaughn. She’s my best friend,” according to the video.

The officers said they knew the Genoa Township trustee but told Nelson they would not be calling her.

On Friday, Nelson declined to speak with a Dispatch reporter for publication.

GOP leaders: Catherine Nelson had ‘grenade thrower’ influence in Delaware County politics

Nelson has for years been a force in Delaware County politics, organizing fundraisers, helping select candidates and choosing opponents for those not aligned with her ideology, Republican party sources said. She has not held public office.

Those who know her describe her as hardworking and extremely effective at directing and molding party direction and leadership.

Earlier this month, seven of 10 Delaware County Republican County Party executive committee leaders were voted out of their positions. Nelson, they say, coordinated much of the housecleaning.

Shawn Parker, the party’s outgoing chairman, said he worked hard to pull factions of the party together, only to see his work be undone by a new, more conservative leadership.

“I’ve spent two years trying to pull together our moderate and ultra-conservative Republicans,” he said. “The ultra right-wring Republicans organized. And that was their goal — to get control of the party,” he said.

He said that Nelson had much to do with the transformation.

Karl Gebhardt, party chairman from 2018-2020, calls Nelson “kind of a grenade thrower” who “likes to create controversy.” The tactics are effective, Gebhardt said, because “logical people want to avoid conflict. And that leaves her in charge and all alone.”

The leadership sweep comes amid a growing county population, especially in the southern townships including Concord, Genoa, Liberty and Orange. And while there’s a 2-to-1 ratio of registered Republicans to Democrats, almost two-thirds of the county’s registered voters have no party affiliation. Both incoming and outgoing leadership site their “Big Tent” approach to expanding the party, especially with a national election six months away.

Voters in Delaware County approved in November two major social issues many Republicans opposed: abortion rights by 60% and marijuana legalization by 55%.

“We are a political party,” said outgoing chairman Parker, “and political parties need to be open and welcoming to everyone who is living in the county.”

He said he’s been reluctant to criticize the new leadership because he still has a role in it.

“I still believe that I have influence to make this party wider and broader and to make it palatable to the independent voters to come our way,” he said.

Democrats cite the Republican Party’s shift toward Evangelicalism as dangerous and unwelcoming.

“They’re pulling toward the extreme right,” said Peg Watkins, chairwoman of the Delaware County Democratic Party.

Nelson faces a pre-trial hearing on the DUI. A Delaware County grand jury is expected to hear the gun charge, improper handling of a firearm, and decide whether she’ll be indicted on the fifth-degree felony. Her attorney, Elizabeth Gaba, has not returned calls from The Dispatch.

Attorney W. Martin Midian, who specializes in impaired driving case said those responsible for prosecuting her, all of whom in Delaware County are Republicans, may have conflicts of interest. A special prosecutor and judge could be used.

“More than likely, they’ll know her personally,” Midian said. “She’s awfully close to the powers that be.”

Nelson’s arrest shared with township administrator

Genoa Township police were so alarmed at Nelson calling on Trustee Vaughn for help that they emailed the township’s administration.

“While she was being arrested, (Nelson) made a comment that she knew and was good friends with Renee Vaughan and she requested we call Renee for her to figure things out. We did not oblige this request but thought it best to send an email in case Renee does contact us and ask about the incident. (Nelson) made other comments that she is ‘in politics,’ but none of us were aware of her other than that she sometimes makes comments at township meetings.”

Administrator Paul Wise said he forwarded the email to other officials in the township “as an FYI.”

Those emails likely were shared with other party insiders, many of whom had heard about the incident.

Outgoing Republican Chairman Parker said neither party can afford such self-inflicted missteps.

“Both parties have to behave themselves,” Parker said. “We’ve got to police ourselves and manage ourselves with honor. The party brand has to have integrity.”