Until recently, Brad Wenstrup thought his toughest task would be trying to restore the trust between detainees and their U.S. captors at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
When he joined the Army Reserves at age 39 desiring to serve his country, Wenstrup had no idea he’d be deployed to Iraq seven years later and assigned to deal with the aftermath caused by the abuse of some prisoners, captured in all its horrific glory in photographs that U.S. soldiers kept as mementos.
Stationed at Abu Ghraib for 11 months in 2005-06, Maj. Wenstrup was part of the 344th Battalion Combat Support Hospital. The unit’s motto was “To protect and promote the reputation and dignity of America’s warriors.” In other words, clean up the crap left by other soldiers while continuing to do their jobs in a stressful, sometimes dangerous environment.
A podiatrist and surgeon, Wenstrup was assistant deputy commander and responsible for ensuring that prisoners’ health care needs were met.
“We knew what our mission was and what we were up against,” Wenstrup says. “We’re in a prison hospital, we’re taking care of the enemy. Our main mission is detainee health care. Everyone knew about the scandal and the people who did it. What I have to remind people is compared to other countries it was a soldier who turned them in and we took care of it. I guess that’s looking at it in a ‘glass half-full’ way.”
Still, Wenstrup condemns the earlier abuse and insists that most soldiers wouldn’t tolerate that type of behavior if they knew about it.
“What they did was silly, stupid, wrong, unprofessional,” he says. “I train with (military police) most of the time, and that’s just not the type of thing that you’re taught.”
Once back from Iraq, Wenstrup accepted an assignment that some observers think is actually tougher to accomplish.
The Hamilton County Republican Party asked Wenstrup to challenge Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory in November’s election. Mallory is a relatively popular politician, a Democrat in a heavily Democratic city who’s seeking a second term.
He’s also the scion of a local political dynasty. His father, William Mallory Sr., was a state lawmaker for 28 years before retiring in 1994. Mark Mallory then held the same Ohio House seat for four years before jumping to the state senate, which he left in 2005 to run for mayor. The mayor’s brother, Dale, is a state representative; another brother, William Jr., is a Hamilton County Common Pleas judge; another brother, Dwane, is a municipal judge; and yet another brother, Joseph, works at the Board of Elections.
Despite the mayor’s impressive connections, Wenstrup isn’t intimidated.
“I don’t think it’s any secret about how well he polls,” Wenstrup says. “I’ve never met Mark personally, but from what I know of the mayor, when I hear him on the radio, he always comes across as a nice guy. I’m not saying it’s not a challenge, but I’m up to the challenge.
“It’s a chance to raise some issues and bring some awareness to things. If that’s enough to get me elected mayor at the end of the day, then that’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Not a steppingstone
Wenstrup, who turned 51 on the day this article was published, grew up in Hyde Park. Part of a large Catholic family, he has a brother and two sisters who still live in the area and another sister in Florida. Wenstrup attended St. Mary’s Elementary School and St. Xavier High School before enrolling at the University of Cincinnati.
“It was a nice parochial path,” he says, laughing.
After he left UC, Wenstrup went to medical school in Chicago. Away from his hometown for the first time, he realized Cincinnati could be better.
“I loved this place growing up,” he says. “I would talk about it so much that my roommates in med school started calling it ‘the center of the universe.’ Cincinnati is small enough that, if you’re from here, it kind of helps to start your business
Wenstrup bought a private medical practice downtown and worked there for 15 years until he joined the Wellington Group, a consortium of physicians in various offices. He now primarily works in Anderson Township, Blue Ash and Cheviot. Single, he lives in Columbia Tusculum.
The salt-and-pepper haired podiatrist first made headlines in late 2006 when an admirer submitted his name in a Cincinnati Enquirer contest that sought local doctors who would fit the “Dr. McDreamy” nickname given to a character on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Wenstrup made the final list, a fact that causes him some embarrassment.
But it was the talks he gave to civic groups about his Iraq experiences that made the Republican Party sit up and take notice. The speeches generally centered on issues of leadership and ethics.
“Every time I would give a talk, someone would say, ‘You ought to go into politics,’ ” Wenstrup says. “I prefer to call it government leadership. My life has taken me to places where I have experiences that I think I can share. A lot of times, we see people who are career politicians. I’m not the conventional candidate, nor do I want to be.
“When I grew up and I think about City Council, I look at the men and women then — these were people who just wanted to be a part of the community and give something back. They weren’t necessarily trying to use it as a steppingstone to something else. I looked up to those people. It didn’t matter what party they were in, I just felt they were all for Cincinnati. That’s what I have in my mind as I approach this.”
Listen more to citizens
Although Wenstrup won’t unveil a detailed platform of issues until July, after consulting with friends and political advisers, he’s already drawn attention for his stance on the city’s proposed $102 million streetcar system. Mallory supports the project, but Wenstrup believes now is not the time.
“I love mass transit,” he says. “I lived in Chicago and used the El, what a wonderful thing that was. I would love to have a city that’s ready to support that and make it happen. I think we’re putting the cart before the horse. I can’t sit here and say that someday I wouldn’t love to see that.
“I think the timing is bad right now. I haven’t seen any studies that show putting in a streetcar reduces crime or by itself is an economic stimulus. If it has somewhere to go, I think that’s very much a positive.”
Wenstrup says the city’s priority should be on increasing safety in areas such as downtown and Over-the-Rhine, where the initial streetcar line is proposed to run, and recruiting new businesses as a result.
“When I was growing up, when you talked about going to Newport you did it with a snicker,” he says. “You probably were going to get into trouble. What Newport did is they made their area safer, they cleaned it up, created incentives for business and it took off. I would bet if you had a streetcar right now going from Fountain Square to Newport, that might fill up pretty well.”
Instead, he prefers creating a dedicated bus shuttle between the area’s entertainment districts like downtown, Newport, Mount Adams and the fledgling Incline District in Price Hill.
Wenstrup supports the right of a coalition containing the NAACP, an anti-tax group and others to seek a public referendum on the streetcar project.
“If officials have a positive case to make, things won’t end up on the ballot,” he says. “But if the public officials don’t sell the people, (the NAACP and others) have the right to use democracy and put things on the ballot. If we had everything on the ballot, you wouldn’t need a City Council and the mayor and things like that. But when push comes to shove, we are ‘We the People.’ That’s part of the checks and balances within a democracy, and that’s kind of special. Not every country has that.”
Wenstrup also caused ripples when he told the NAACP that he likes the idea of independent monitoring of the Cincinnati Police Department’s performance.
“There’s always opportunity in any city to try to improve police-community relations, and a lot of that is based on trust,” he says. “We sometimes within our medical practice will make a phone call and schedule an appointment to see how that goes. Is it a smooth process, is it the way we want it to be? How can we improve ourselves?
“It’s human nature, in the back of your mind if you think you’re being evaluated, that you might do your job a little bit better. But I also think that it can provide some statistical positives for the police force, where they can point to the evaluations if they do good.”
Police must be responsive to the unique needs of each neighborhood, he says.
“It’s not one-size-fits-all,” Wenstrup says. “What might be one community’s solution to a problem, another community might feel that is going to be deleterious to them. If the mayor is a leader, we’ve got to take into consideration each and every one of those entities and find solutions that are fair to everyone. It must be fair to all involved.
“That’s a hard job, and that takes leadership. That takes listening and keeping your door open to all of the communities. I get sense from some of the neighborhood groups I’ve spoken to that they don’t feel heard (at City Hall).”
‘I’m not a career politician’
In fact, it appears Wenstrup plans to focus on a common complaint among Mallory’s critics: That the mayor is aloof and disengaged from city business.
“In a leadership role in Iraq and in running my own business, what I’ve learned is if you don’t listen you’re going to strike out. You’re going to fail miserably,” he says. “The people you work with have got to know you’re engaged and you’re listening.
“The buck stops on the mayor’s desk. The mayor, to me, has a bully pulpit and an opportunity to be that liaison with the community. You can sit back and say, ‘Well, that’s the school board’s concern, not mine. I’m not in charge of the schools.’ But you are the leader of your citizens and, if you’ve got school issues, I would want to engage with the school board: ‘What do you need, how can we make things better?’ You’re the tie between all the citizens and the school board.”
Wenstrup supports the city continuing to fund human services but says funding recipients should be based on who produces results and not merely on tradition.
“You can prescribe something and, if it doesn’t work, you don’t keep prescribing it,” he says. “We should look at whether it makes the situation better than we found it. As a doctor, I know we’ve got to have some human services. That’s really what we’re all about as people, taking care of one another — or we should be.
“Of course, we have to be focused on reality and how much can we afford, how much can we take on. I think there’s room, particularly on the medical side, to promote more volunteerism, but I don’t want that to be our long-term solution or depend on that.”
Even if his candidacy is successful, it’s likely Wenstrup would have to deal with a mostly Democratic City Council. That’s doable, he claims, because he considers himself largely nonpartisan.
“I’m not a career politician, and I view politics as not which side won but did those it affect gain in some way,” he says. “There’s an old saying I like that goes ‘Everyone I meet is, in some way, my superior.’
“What I’ve taken away from that is everyone you meet knows something you don’t know. You can learn a little bit from everybody so you should be able to work a bit with everybody.”
Read more of Kevin Osborne's interview with Brad Wenstrup here.