Greg Harris was cautiously optimistic that 2009 might finally be his year to get a seat on Cincinnati City Council. He just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
Harris, a longtime Democratic Party activist and candidate, ran for City Council during the last election two years ago, finishing 15th in a field of 26 candidates. Only the top nine vote-getters — all incumbents — won.
Never one to shy away from tough political battles, Harris planned to campaign again this fall. He also realized that two longtime council members, David Crowley and John Cranley, were facing term limits. As is frequent practice, those members typically step down before their last term is done so their political party can appoint a replacement and give that person the advantage of name recognition and media coverage when running for election to keep the seat.
Harris hoped that Crowley, a friend who shares many of Harris’ progressive views, would consider him. Much to Harris’ surprise, it was Cranley, a fellow West Sider, who tapped him for an appointment in early January.
When Cranley left to join a downtown law firm as he pondered his own political future, he recommended Harris for the spot. The ultimate decision lay with City Council’s other Democrats, who, after interviewing Harris and other contenders, agreed with Cranley’s choice.
“It was kind of a pressure cooker for a few days,” Harris says about the process. “It was a tremendous relief and a tremendous honor at the same time. I was also thankful it was all over.”
Harris, 37, lives in West Price Hill with his wife, Angela, and two children. He works as a public policy officer at KnowledgeWorks Foundation and is a former Miami University instructor.
An Illinois native, Harris moved to the region more than a decade ago to attend graduate school at Miami University in Oxford. He stayed here after graduation and served for a time as executive director of Citizens for Civic Renewal, a non-profit public advocacy group that promotes good government, volunteerism and civic involvement.
Harris’ path to City Council mirrors Cranley’s.
After Cranley ran unsuccessfully against Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot in 2000, he was appointed to City Council later that year to replace a member who had won election to another office. Cranley later won election in his own right four times, the limit for consecutive terms on council.
Harris ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic challenger to Chabot twice, in 2002 and 2004. He also was prepared to challenge Republican Greg Hartmann for Hamilton County Commissioner last year until Democratic Party leaders cut a deal with the GOP and asked Harris to step aside and let Hartmann run unopposed. A reluctant Harris complied.
Now that he’s on City Council, Harris is eager to get working.
Among his top issues will be scoring more money for demolishing vacant buildings and removing urban blight in Westwood, Price Hill and surrounding neighborhoods. The West Side areas are Cincinnati’s largest residential neighborhoods and once accounted for about 30 percent of the city’s population but have seen their tax base and property values decrease in recent years.
Some West Side residents allege part of the reason is an influx of publicly subsidized housing there as gentrification swept through the West End and Over-the-Rhine. The West Side had a 60 percent increase in Section 8 housing between 1994 and 2004, according to a city study.
“I do not think we can have the changes we need in this city unless we build up home ownership,” Harris says. “There’s enough Section 8 housing in most of Cincinnati, not just the West Side. There need to be better standards. I want those residents to have clean and safe places to stay.”
Cincinnati recently received $8 million from the federal government to deal with the foreclosure crisis. Although the city is allowed to use up to 75 percent for blight removal, City Council has earmarked just 50 percent for that purpose. Harris wants to see more.
“What we’re not lacking right now is low-income housing,” he says. “Where we’re lacking is Cincinnati can be a hard place to own a house. We need to send a signal that City Hall gets that.”
Also, Harris is helping oversee Cincy Care, a two-year pilot project that provides affordable healthcare coverage to low-income people who have jobs but don’t have coverage at work and don’t qualify for Medicaid. The program provides comprehensive health insurance and a prescription drug benefit, requiring a $10 co-pay from eligible participants.
The program is paid using federal grants and a $100,000 grant from the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati as well as donated or discounted services from United Healthcare Co., Interactive Health Solutions and LabCorp.
“My dream would be to be a city that can offer basic healthcare to all of its citizens,” Harris says.
Noting that making healthcare more affordable reduces the financial burden on businesses, he adds, “There’s a moral imperative to insure everyone, but it really helps the bottom line, too.”
Keeping a campaign pledge from 2007, Harris still continues to oppose a rollback of Cincinnati’s property tax.
Almost every summer, City Council engages in a fierce debate about whether to roll back the city’s tax rate to offset increases in property values and keep the amount paid by property owners steady. Most cities and counties routinely roll back property tax rates, but Cincinnati charged the maximum rate of 6.1 mills allowed by the city charter for more than four decades, until some council members began challenging the practice in 1999.
With the rollback, the owner of a $100,000 home saves about $15 annually in taxes.
“The property tax rollback is a cut that’s more rhetoric than reality,” Harris says. “I would much rather see that money pooled to help people buy their first homes. The primary benefactors of the rollback are apartment building owners, and I’m not sure that’s something we need to be encouraging.”