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Eight Ex-Mayors Discuss Cincinnati

By Joe Wessels · April 22nd, 2009 · Wessels

It was comforting to sit in the audience listening to former Cincinnati mayors talk about the state of our city.

See, much of this time I thought I’d completely lost my mind. Was I the only one frustrated by the stagnation prevalent in the upper echelons of Cincinnati’s power structure?

Not exactly. Even former mayors of Cincinnati find that moving our city forward can be as challenging as getting a barge to hop over the Suspension Bridge.

I joined about 200 politically-minded people at Xavier University April 15 to hear eight of the 12 living former Cincinnati mayors explain how the more things change the more they stay the same. And, damn, Jerry Springer still is funny. And Bobbie Sterne can still put men in their place — politely, of course.

The personalities on the dais varied as widely as the decades they covered. Sitting, in order of service, were Gene Still cares. Ruehlmann (1967-1971), Sterne (1975- 1976; 1978-1979), Springer (1977-1978), David Mann (1980-1982, 1991), Tom Brush (1982-1983), Arn Bortz (1983- 1984), Dwight Tillery (1991-1993) and current City Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls (1993-1999). Ken Blackwell (1979-1980) was included via a pre-recorded interview.

Conspicuously missing were the father-and-son Luken mayors, Tom and Charlie, who had been invited but didn’t show.

Discussions went around about development, social justice, our area’s attraction for young professionals, streetcars and, as Springer put it, the “white elephant in the room,” race relations.

Tillery said a newspaper editorialized when he was mayor that hopefully he wouldn’t make his time in office about race. He said it hurt. I can imagine why.

Qualls rightly suggested that we’re a welcoming people who don’t necessarily take it to the next step and embrace outsiders. It was an astute observation — ask any “import” about that.

We’re closed because of our social values and appear not to welcome anyone, Springer noted.

Cincinnati seems cliquey, distant and less open to new ideas. That would be probably OK for those who’d rather be that way, but my German practical side knows it doesn’t makes sense in a world where business and information flow so freely.

We have to attract outsiders. We do that by embracing things like a rejuvenated downtown and Over-the-Rhine, a streetcar system, Segway tours of downtown, dogs on Fountain Square, the free flow of ideas where those with ideas are welcomed and included, real improvement on race relations, equality among our neighborhoods and dedication to working together and not tearing one another apart. I was pleased to know a few mayors see it that way, too.

A one-hour edited version of the nearly 180-minute program airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WLWT-TV (Channel 5). I’m curious to see if Springer’s funnies — like talking about the time he was asked to speak to an Elder High School reunion and arrived to find no cars in the parking lot (the guests walked) — make the cut. I also enjoyed his remark when, talking about our city’s infamous issues with homosexuals, he said, “If you don’t like gays, then don’t date one.”

There was a propensity among the former mayors to talk about the way our town once was, like Springer’s recollection of an East Side vs. West Side values uproar over whether Riverfront Stadium could be used — gasp! — for a Rock concert in 1978. There wasn’t enough conversation about where we are today and where the mayors thought the city could go in the future.

It’s a rare opportunity to get so many people who care so deeply for this community in one room, but I think a conversation geared to the future would be a more beneficial use of their time. It might be worth hosting this ex-mayors event annually.

For the time being, I feel a little less crazy and a little more like a Cincinnatian for having attended the gathering.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



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