Let’s call it what it really is: codependency.
I’m referring to the parasitic relationship between the two demagogues named Chris, Messrs. Finney and Smitherman. They’re the Oscar Madison and Felix Unger of the Cincinnati political scene.
For those not familiar with the concept, codependency is a psychological term that refers to the tendency in a person to become fixated on another person for approval or sustenance. In this instance, the underlying reasons are all about relevance, credibility and (mostly) free legal services.
Chris Finney is the ultra-conservative activist who’s a leader of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). Christopher Smitherman is the fiery president of the NAACP’s local chapter. For the past few years, the two have entered into an alliance akin to a Faustian pact to fulfill each other’s political needs.
For Finney, the alliance is a chance for COAST to regain some relevance after losing much of its political clout in recent years. COAST is comprised mostly of white suburbanites who are Republican and non-city residents. By cavorting with Smitherman, the group gets some inner-city credibility and can tap into a base of predominantly black, Democratic voters, adding some much-needed color to its ranks and potentially influence enough voters to sway Cincinnati-specific issues.
For Smitherman, the alliance is an opportunity to use COAST’s considerable legal expertise to gum up the works for causes and projects it dislikes. Finney is a master of litigating against governments and putting referendums on the ballot and knows how to scour documents and find technicalities to make life difficult for politicians.
It’s no wonder Smitherman appointed Finney to the local NAACP’s executive committee and made him “chair of legal redress” — even though Finney opposes set-aside contracts based on race for public projects, a cause lobbied for by Smitherman; and even though Finney has criticized black activists like the Rev. Damon Lynch III and placed the blame for Cincinnati’s April 2001 civil unrest solely on the shoulders of rioters, completely exonerating the role of police misconduct and police shootings in the incident.
But Finney and Smitherman are so desperate to retain a voice in local affairs that they’re willing to hold their noses and tolerate one another. Two recent events, however, could provide the turning point where we can see just how strong the alliance truly is.
On Tuesday a state transportation advisory panel rescinded $51.8 million in funds that it had approved last year for Cincinnati’s planned streetcar system.
The Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) pulled the funding after the election of Republican John Kasich as governor. Kasich dislikes mass transit in general and Cincinnati’s project in particular.
So, despite Cincinnati’s project ranking at the top of the list of statewide transportation projects under consideration for money based on factors like economic impact, the cash got yanked. So much for TRAC’s “apolitical process.”
Part of Kasich’s excuse for withdrawing the money was a letter-writing campaign organized by Finney and Smitherman. At Tuesday’s TRAC meeting, Finney — an Anderson Township resident — testified, “The people of Cincinnati do not want it.”
Says who? COAST and the NAACP already tried to block the project at the ballot box and failed. In November 2009, the groups placed Issue 9 before voters. If approved, it would’ve required a public vote before taxpayer money was used for any rail-related project; the issue failed 56 percent to 44 percent.
Nowadays, Finney and Smitherman blame the defeat on the issue’s wording, although it was drafted by Finney himself. Nevertheless, the groups are trying to place yet another issue on the ballot this fall. This one cuts to the chase and would prohibit the city from building a streetcar until 2020, at the earliest.
As streetcar supporters have noted, studies indicate the project would create thousands of jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development — all of which would benefit the urban core.
If Smitherman is to be taken at his word, and that’s a big if, he’s mostly opposed to the project because he thinks the city should invest its capital improvement budget into projects in neighborhood business districts. But such a sweeping plan is unlikely to be approved by City Council.
Moreover, we bet Finney and COAST will be nowhere to be found when it comes time to stump for that cause.
As part of his TRAC testimony, Finney said, “Cincinnati has been burdened with albatross after albatross,” referring to projects partially or fully funded by taxpayer money that yielded little or no benefit.
The biggest projects that fit the bill are the new Bengals and Reds stadiums, which were supposed to be paid for using proceeds from a Hamilton County sales-tax hike in 1996. As it turns out, the revenues aren’t nearly enough and the county is facing huge deficits in the next few years to pay for construction debt and upkeep.
But Finney supported the plan, penning a 1995 guest column in a suburban newspaper urging voters to approve it. Dubbing it “perfectly sensible,” Finney wrote, “The plan makes sense, and it won’t cost me a nickel.” Guess again.
In an act of fortuitous timing, Smitherman also announced this week that he would run for Cincinnati City Council this year. If he actually follows through with his intention, Smitherman will be the 18th candidate to run in the race to elect nine people.
Smitherman previously served a single two-year term on council, as a Charterite in 2003. He was easily defeated in his reelection bid in 2005, after alienating many Democrats and Charterites, placing 11th. (Republicans never much cared for him.)
Attention-starved Smitherman, however, is the man who cried wolf: He announced he was running for council again in 2007, perhaps with COAST’s backing. At that time, Greg Korte — then The Enquirer’s number cruncher — sized up his chances.
Analyzing election results, Korte wrote, “By the time the 2005 election came around, (Smitherman) lost the support of the East Side Republican precincts that helped elect him in 2003 … some precincts in North Avondale — his own neighborhood and a Charterite stronghold — also turned on him.”
Korte continued, “Smitherman’s best hope this year may be for strong African-American turnout. But even adjusting his 2005 vote totals to 2003 turnout numbers — when African-Americans turned out to help elect four black council members — Smitherman lost ground in 2005.”
Here, though, is the most important point: Smitherman ended up not running. After garnering a few headlines, he never actually entered the race or mounted a campaign.
With such a crowded field, let’s see a show of hands from people who think he will run this year. Anyone?
In truth, if COAST worked diligently on Smitherman’s behalf and vouched for him in more conservative wards, he might have a chance. But the group won’t.
Count on it.
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