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Storming the Gates

City Council challengers say change is crucial for Cincinnati

By Kevin Osborne · October 14th, 2009 · News
While he was campaigning for the presidency last year in New Mexico, Barack Obama tried to underscore how dysfunctional Washington politics had become by issuing a desperate warning.

“But another thing I know is this: We can’t steer ourselves out of this crisis by heading in the same, disastrous direction,” Obama admonished the crowd. “We can’t change direction with a new driver who wants to follow the same old map. And that’s what this election is all about.”

Many people are using a similar sentiment to describe this year’s Cincinnati City Council elections.

With Cincinnati facing a potential $51 million deficit in 2010 due to stagnant tax revenues and a City Council narrowly divided by one vote on most major issues, the outcome of this fall’s election could have a huge impact on the city’s future.

Of the current nine members of City Council, only one — Democrat David Crowley — isn’t seeking reelection because of term limits. The remaining four Democrats, two Republicans and two Charterites are seeking to keep their seats for another two-year term.

And if history is any indication, they’re all likely to succeed. Because incumbency often entails frequent appearances on TV and mentions in newspapers, the name recognition of those already on City Council is high and difficult to overcome at the voting booth. Combine that with local voters’ tendency to fear the unknown, and the result is a long tradition of returning the same people to council over and over again.

The rare candidates who have been elected to City Council on their first attempt usually have a talent for raising large amounts of money (David Pepper and Alicia Reece) or assembling a smart campaign team, like Christopher Smitherman before he became radicalized.

Another factor working against challengers is the habit of voters to cast all nine available votes in council races, even though many voters have just a few candidates they feel strong ly about. For example, if someone passionately supports five candidates, that person will probably use his or her remaining four votes on other candidates — typically incumbents whose names they recognize. This results in some mediocre council members being reelected time and again (whoever you might think they are).

Savvy activists recommend employing what’s known as “bullet voting” or “short voting” and not using the remaining votes at all.

Still, even with only Crowley’s seat up for grabs, this might be the year when some challengers crack through and displace a few incumbents.

That’s because Councilman Jeff Berding, a Democrat, was recently unendorsed by his party for some of his votes, which could alienate party members. Further, Democratic Councilman Greg Harris was an appointee and not voted in, making him potentially vulnerable, and Republican Councilman Chris Monzel often finishes near the bottom of the pack of winners, even losing one year before making a comeback.

As in previous council elections, CityBeat is again spotlighting the non-incumbents, many of whom are ignored by mainstream media.

Perhaps due to the uphill battle, there are only 12 challengers running along with the incumbents this year, far fewer than in recent election cycles.

They are Democrats Tony Fischer, Nicholas Hollan, Laure Quinlivan, Bernadette Watson and Wendell Young; Republicans Amy Murray, Charlie Winburn and George Zamary; Charterite Kevin Flynn; Green Party candidate Anitra Brockman; and independents Darryl Cordrey and LaMarque Ward.

Of those candidates, Brockman, Cordrey, Flynn, Winburn and Young didn’t respond to CityBeat’s request for comments or were unable to meet the deadline.

Dems offer diverse slate

On the Democratic side, Tony Fischer is probably the most controversial candidate. An Iraq War veteran who served two tours of combat duty there and was active in the local Obama campaign last year, Fischer was one of the earliest people to announce his candidacy and was a protégé, of sorts, to Mayor Mark Mallory.

But Fischer, 31, later drew Mallory’s ire for publicly siding with Berding and a council minority about budget cuts and how to handle negotiations with the police union. Mallory threatened to withdraw his backing unless Fischer apologized to party members, which he ultimately did.

This is Fischer’s first council campaign, but the Madisonville resident previously ran for the 7th Ohio Senate District seat in 2002. The newcomer managed to get only 29 percent of the vote against popular Republican Robert Schuler. Nowadays, he does volunteer work for the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

Asked if the recent heated budget showdown on City Council could have been handled differently, Fischer says, “I believe any negotiation should be approached with a spirit of partnership and should be conducted with the focus on reaching common goals rather than an adversarial approach. It’s been well documented within the literature of negotiation theory that a mutual gains bargaining approach produces the most benefits.”

Mallory’s budget plan eventually resulted in the police union accepting other cuts instead of layoffs, and Fischer agrees no department should be exempt from reductions.

“I believe it is appropriate to take any path that will prevent police layoffs,” he says. “Keeping the current complement of officers on the street during this budget crisis is a win for the city of Cincinnati.”

Like most candidates, Fischer’s top priorities are increasing public safety and pushing for more economic development.

“The two most critical issues facing the city of Cincinnati are jobs and quality of life in neighborhoods,” Fischer says.

“I would address them by focusing on police walking patrols, improving neighborhood business districts, funding the Port Authority to implement (the) GO Cincinnati (plan), reforming our local transportation systems and working closely with (the school district) to improve our schools.”

Nicholas Hollan, meanwhile, is something of a rarity: a West Sider who’s an unabashed progressive.

Campaigning for the first time, Hollan, 29, lives in Westwood. He’s a firm believer in community service and is employed by the American Red Cross and previously worked for the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

“I firmly believe we need a renewed commitment to Cincinnati’s children,” he says, referring to the city’s high infant mortality rate and the number of juveniles who are incarcerated. The key is early intervention, before kids get into trouble, with programs like Head Start and ensuring good nutrition.

“There is a school-to-prison pipeline in the United States,” he adds. “One of the things I would contend is what does crime do when human services are cut? There’s a direct corollary.”

For Hollan, improving quality of life issues while setting the city on a sounder fiscal course are his priorities.

“A mounting budget deficit and decreased tax revenue are inextricably linked and are without question the greatest challenges facing our city,” he says. “Every dollar spent should be justified and made transparent. My non-profit background has taught me a lesson in accountability and transparency. If an organization doesn’t prove that it is serving as a good steward of entrusted funds, that organization will quickly find it has lost all of its contributors. In our predicament, residents will leave town thus further diminishing our tax base.

“Appropriate actions such as limiting take-home cars and collaborating with the County to reduce costs are a necessity. It is important to state that we as a city are not going to cut our way out of this problem. … I staunchly believe that no one is going to invest in Cincinnati unless we are willing to invest in ourselves and make this a community where people want to live and businesses want to operate.”

The most familiar face in the race this year is Laure Quinlivan, the ex-TV reporter who headed WCPO Channel 9’s I-Team for years.

Quinlivan, 50, of Mount Lookout, won an award for a TV report a few years ago that suggested methods for redeveloping Vine Street through Over-the-Rhine after the 2001 riots. Then-Mayor Charlie Luken picked up several of the ideas, which helped result in the ongoing Gateway Quarter project. These days, Quinlivan describes herself as an independent journalist and citizen activist.

“I am running to bring a new energy and fresh perspective to City Council,” she says. “I am tired of waiting for progress to happen and believe I can help move us forward. The prompt came while reading an article last January listing the people running for council. I was disappointed. It occurred to me that my I-Team investigative experience better prepares me to make a difference for taxpayers than anyone else running — so I decided to run.”

Quinlivan criticizes the budget battle over possible cuts to the Police Department.

“We cannot exempt public safety departments from budget discussions,” she says. “In the real world, when times are tough, we all do more with less. We should focus on ‘smarter’ policing driven by data and the latest technology. Everything should be up for consideration. However, some departments/areas have already been cut to the bone.”

If elected, Quinlivan would lobby for budget reforms.

“I’ll thoroughly review each department’s line items, ask tough questions of managers and solicit input from city employees on solving our budget problems,” she says. “It’s important to employ some common sense measures: Out-source collection of outstanding parking fines ($6 million owed the city) and require paramedic certification for all new firemen instead of having the city pay to train our firemen to be paramedics.”

Although Quinlivan might be the most famous name to the public, Bernadette Watson is the best known at City Hall. She served as Mayor Luken’s chief of staff for five years and also was the Health Department’s spokeswoman for a time as well as being active in the Avondale Community Council. Watson currently is a team leader for the U.S. Census Bureau.

“For the course of my career, I have worked to bring together elected officials, nonprofits, businesses, faith-based groups and community organizations in our area,” she says. “This has given me insight into the many changes facing our culturally diverse city and this is the driving desire to be a policy leader who will create the continued growth and development that is needed in Cincinnati.”

Watson, 62, believes it will take more than police patrols to help reduce crime in Cincinnati’s neighborhoods.

“Police is important to the safety on our streets, but our neighborhoods and communities must be involved,” she says. “I would like to work with community councils to continue programs in place, develop Youth Councils, but also assist in people understanding the cultural diversity that changes the face of our neighborhoods and some of the social challenges our young people and others are facing because of the economic downturn and life experiences and situations.”

Watson is a strong supporter of the streetcar project and opposes efforts to sell the Cincinnati Water Works or the city-owned railroad. She wants City Council to discuss the possible annexation of smaller communities with Hamilton County officials.

“The expansion of our tax base is important and should be looked at seriously for the benefit of the entire area,” Watson says. “Because we are the largest municipality in the county, we need to have a active part in making decisions that affect the entire county.”

GOP makes targeted effort

With Cincinnati being a predominantly Democratic city, the Republican Party isn’t running a full slate of nine candidates. Instead, the GOP is concentrating its resources on three challengers as well as its two incumbents.

In fact, it could take just one or two newcomers to tilt City Council toward a more conservative direction. With incumbent Berding decidedly right of center, the election of any GOP challenger or possibly Democrat Fischer would be enough to sway the group.

Making her first run for elective office, Amy Murray is an experienced businesswoman who says her background could help City Council sort through its budget woes. Murray, 45, of Hyde Park, is a former Procter & Gamble employee who now owns a consulting firm that tries to attract Japanese companies to Cincinnati.

“I don’t want to over simplify this, but we need to be less reactive and do a much better job at forecasting, budgeting and priority setting,” she says. “Our planning and forecasting horizons must be pushed further out and the process for dealing with shortfalls and issues must be well established and clear to all.

“Unfortunately, we have mismanaged our way into the two most critical issues at this moment: The budget shortfall and maintaining public safety have been thrust upon us. However, the better answer is ‘Jobs and Taxes/Budget Management.’ When you allow yourself to get in a ‘reactive mode’ you no longer have the luxury of choosing your issues — they choose you. We must become business friendly and help create jobs. Jobs pay our bills, and we need to see no more migration across the river or to the suburbs.”

Like her party, Murray has qualms about the proposed streetcar system.

“We must look at all mass transportation/light rail ideas for Cincinnati,” she says.

“Good transportation options are essential for the city. I am concerned about the fiscal issues regarding the (proposal). Even if money does come in to fund the initial plan, we haven’t heard how this will be sustained annually. I don’t see how, in this economic environment, we can responsibly support any project that is not completely clear about how the project will be funded and sustained annually.”

After running for council in 2007, George Zamary is hoping the second time is the charm. He ran as an independent two years ago but thinks party backing this time will help him pierce the public’s awareness.

Zamary, 36, of Hyde Park is an attorney who also sits on Know Theatre’s board of directors and is involved with The Urbanists revitalization group. A main issue prompting his council run is the loss of residents and businesses from 2000 to 2005, with a 6.8 percent drop in population and nearly 8,000 jobs lost. (Others, though, note those numbers are slowly rebounding since then.)

Although Zamary opposes the streetcar project “at this time,” he also opposes the charter amendment that would restrict funding for rail-related projects without a public vote. Council’s recent budget debate should have been approached differently, he adds.

Zamary believes all municipal departments should be asked for savings, “however, I would put police, fire and other basic services as one of the last things addressed, not the first. We must maintain basic services that people expect from city government.”

Not to be forgotten

Without major party backing, first-time candidate LaMarque Ward, 31, is running as an independent after failing to win the Democratic Party’s endorsement. A South Cumminsville native, Ward was something of a basketball star, playing first for Fairleigh Dickinson University and later for pro leagues in Chile, Latvia, Peru and Switzerland.

Now a College Hill resident, Ward heads the Cincinnati Jobs Corps’ athletics department.

He’s pegging his election hopes on his “Dream Cincinnati Initiative,” a character-building and mentor-driven plan that would expand on efforts at the city’s community centers. Further, he supports expanding council terms to four years and possibly switching at least partially to electing members by district, which he believes would lead to a more diverse and effective council.

“I think it could be a great option,” Ward says. “Running as an independent, it would make it easier for guys like me to get elected. I also believe we would get more done for the community we serve.”

Regardless of who wins in November, they’ll face a list of tough decisions: How to make $51.5 million in cuts, whether to sell city assets like the Water Works and the railroad, how to stay on top of street repairs with limited resources and how to keep and attract jobs in a recession.

If you like the way things have been going in Cincinnati during the past two years, reelect all the incumbents. If not, use your votes selectively to weed out the officials you think have caused problems.

As Quinlivan says, “I’d like to say to all those people who complain, ‘I’m so tired of this City Council’: This is your chance. You’re in charge.”

ADDITIONAL Q&A SESSIONS with City Council challengers continue at CityBeat’s Issues/Politics blog.

ELECTION CENTRAL (here) has CityBeat's endorsements on this race and other races and issues and an archive of other election news coverage. You can also download our "Who's Endorsing Whom" charts to see how issues and candidates fared with the local media, political action committees and other interest groups.



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