It’s something purely Cincinnati with a long-standing place in local political history, and many Cincinnatians aren’t even aware of it.
The Charter Committee, Cincinnati’s de-facto independent third political party, is responsible for much of the way city government is structured today. The committee controlled City Council for much of the ’70s and ’80s in coalition with the Democrats. Two Charterites currently serve on council, and the committee has had a presence on council almost every year since the ’20s. Still, many Cincinnatians aren’t aware of its continued existence.
Charter’s current leader says this is something of a PR problem.
“We need to do better at marketing,” concedes Charter Committee President Kevin Flynn, who was selected to head the committee in March after former president Dawn Denno stepped down due to health and business issues. Flynn unsuccessfully ran for council under the Charter banner in 2009 and 2011, finishing ahead of the three incumbents voted out of office in the most recent election but not ranking among the top nine.
“If I do nothing else as president, it would be to get people to stop saying the Charter Committee is on its last legs. Or, even worse, when I was campaigning have people say, ‘What’s Charter?’ ”
This local party, which planned the first riverfront stadium and made Cincinnati the first to adopt a city manager-council form of government, came about in response to the city’s reputation as the most corrupt major city in America. While it stayed strong through the ’80s, its membership and influence is waning. But its leaders say the city needs the Charter Committee more than ever.
Charter claims to be the oldest active independent political party in America. And for observers of Cincinnati politics who think the politics of recent council sessions have been screwy, the Charter Committee was born at a time when Boss Cox’s Cincinnati was considered the most corruptly governed major city in the United States.
In the 1920s Cincinnati politics was controlled by the system started by Republican “Boss” George Cox. Though unelected after only two terms on City Council, Cox virtually ran city government by using gifts and money to build support among Cincinnatians and then having them vote for the candidates of his choice.
At the time, City Council was made up of 32 members, with 26 of those elected from local districts. Cox’s successor — New York brothel owner Rudolph Hynicka — was losing control of the local Republican Party by 1924. Fresh off a tax levy defeat the previous year, an offshoot of the upstart reform group The Cincinnatus Association merged with another good government group to create the City Charter Committee, led by young reform-minded Republican lawyer Murray Seasongood.
The first major action of the Charter Committee was to put before voters an amendment to create a form of city government that looks remarkably like the one we have today:
The proposed amendment adopted by Cincinnati voters in 1924 created the nine-member council elected at large; the system of nominating council candidates by petition instead of in a primary election; nonpartisan elections where candidates aren’t identified by their political party on the ballot; a Civil Service System for City Hall appointments to replace the patronage system; and the city manager-council format of government where administrative power lays with a professional city manager instead of an elected mayor.
“Cincinnati was the first large city that adopted the city manager government,” Flynn says. “We had an administrator instead of a politician running the day-to-day operations of the city. Politicians still crafted policy matters, but there was less graft and corruption.”
Members of the major political parties also recognize the Charter reforms’ effects on undoing the malfeasance of the city’s political boss era.
“Cincinnati has been, for the most part, very free of the corruption that many others have faced,” says Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke.
Charterites were particularly wedded to the manager-council form of government, something that was recently overturned when Cincinnatians in 1999 voted to elect a more powerful mayor directly. The original amendment pushed by Charter called for council members to select a mayor from amongst its members as a figurehead, which was later changed to the top vote-getter becoming the mayor. The Charter Committee eventually endorsed the move.
“(The original Charter reforms had) a totally weak mayor who literally did nothing more than ribbon cutting, in terms of political power,” Burke says.
The Democratic Party has been quicker to adopt changes that have occurred, he says.
Burke points out that a number of the Charter-endorsed candidates who have made it onto City Council in recent years have been registered on the national level as Democrats.
That includes the Charterites currently on council — Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Councilwoman Yvette Simpson — both of whom have been co-endorsed by the Democratic Party, in an unprecedented move.
“I’ve got to give them credit, they came up with Yvette before we did,” Burke says. “She’s absolutely terrific, a wonderful, wonderful choice. We liked her so much we stole her.”
The Charter Committee isn’t an official party under Ohio law because to be recognized a third party must have its candidate receive 5 percent of the ballots cast for governor or presidential nominee in the most recent election. It can also submit a petition signed by qualified voters equal in number to at least one percent of the total vote for governor or nominees for presidential electors.
Because Cincinnati City Council elections are nonpartisan, candidates don’t run as Democrat, Republican or under the banner of a third party. However, parties can choose to endorse candidates and assist them with campaign cash or volunteers.
As such, the Charter Committee has endorsed candidates who have been registered on the national level as Republicans, Democrats and everything in between. While both current Charterites on council are registered Democrats, former Charterite Councilman Chris Bortz was a registered Republican.
“We want to be independent,” Flynn says. “The big policy positions of the national parties don’t really come into play at a local level. I believe it was (former New York) Mayor (Fiorello) LaGuardia who said there’s no Democratic way to pick up trash and no Republican way to fill a pothole. “
“We support and work for the election of candidates that share our principles.”
Broadly, the Charter Committee believes in improving the livability of Cincinnati. It supports good public transportation — it is in favor of the streetcar system, and it was a strong Charter hand in the council that created the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (which runs Metro) — as well as the city parks system, the arts and well-maintained utilities. It was also a Charter-controlled council that adopted the plan to build the first stadium on the riverfront.
The Charter Committee also supports a number of things traditionally considered in the realm of progressive politics, including reducing pollution, funding adequate jail and treatment services and community health services, as well as establishing cost-of-living wage increases for municipal employees.
Charter also holds the distinction of fielding Cincinnati’s first black and female mayors – Theodore Berry and Bobbie Sterne respectively.
The Charter Committee was last most prominent in the 1970s and ’80s when it controlled council in coalition with Democrats. Since then, and more recently, the committee has lost a lot of visibility.
“They’re a little bit less significant now than they used to be,” says Mark Silbersack, president of the same Cincinnatus Association that helped birth the Charter Committee in the 1920s. “The city has become really more of a one-party city in terms of the elected officials.”
Gene Beaupre, director for government relations at Xavier University and longtime observer of local politics who got his start working for Jerry Springer, says Charterites face an uphill battle. For one, they don’t have a precinct-level operation getting out the vote and handing out literature near polling places.
They also don’t have the name recognition that the major parties do. That can also work in their favor, as they can be seen as being a bit removed from the political fray, Beaupre says.
The dominance of media in public discussion has also aided to the fading prominence of the Charter Committee.
“Charterites by their nature were never particularly headline-seeking people and, like it or not, one of the ways you promote your policies as well as yourself when election time comes around is having access to and ability to work with the media,” Beaupre says.
“That’s not on their agenda. They just say, ‘let’s do the right thing and let that speak for itself.’ Another party might say, ‘let’s do the right thing and have that trailing behind the Goodyear blimp during a football game.’ ”
Burke says Charter suffers from a lack of young blood.
“I do think that the folks who are active in Charter tend to be an older, and frankly, smaller group — a bunch of wise people who have contributed significantly to the community, but I don’t see them drawing a bunch of younger people into the organization,” he says.
Marilyn Ormsbee, who worked on Charter campaigns in the ’70s and ’80s and has long served on the committee’s board, agrees that the aging of the city’s population most familiar with the committee during its heyday is also hurting the Charter Committee.
“I think we’ve probably not done as good a job recently in making our presence known to many of the younger people moving into town or taking jobs in the city,” she says.
“Now our two candidates are co-endorsed, which is unusual, but most people refer to them as Democrats.”
Many of the committee’s benefactors and staunch supporters have died in recent years, making fundraising more difficult. The committee has made an effort to reach out to and involve more young people, but it lacks the institutional knowledge and connections that a lot of the Charter’s old guard possessed.
The story of the falling of the Charter Committee is one that has been told many times before, but never seems to have an ending.
“I think their death notice has been issued several times prematurely,” Beaupre said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had not at least one member of their party on council.”
Silbersack said even though the Charter Committee isn’t as powerful as it used to be, it still has an important role as an independent good government third party in Cincinnati.
“Increasingly, it seems like there are efforts made by various groups to amend specific provisions of the charter, and the Charter Party plays an important role in vetting those proposals and either supporting or opposing them. In terms of policy, they’re still a very useful and needed contributor to the public dialogue,” Silbersack says.
“Occasionally, there are calls for review of the charter because some provisions are way obsolete, and there are changes that good government groups may want to see added. I don’t know if this is the time for a more comprehensive review of the charter, but if that was to occur I think you most definitely want the Charter Party around to add its expertise and nonpartisan experience to the mix.”
The Charter Committee exists only in Cincinnati. Bobbie Sterne, who served as a member of council during the Charter-Democratic coalition and also as Cincinnati’s first female mayor, says the local focus lets voters know that the city is the priority.
“I think that’s a great advantage to Charterites and therefore to the city to have people on Charter on city government who don’t have outside interests they are considering — their only interest is trying to have a government that is doing the best they can for the citizens of Cincinnati,” Sterne says.
Flynn says the committee and its independence still has a lot to offer Cincinnatians, and that is only going to grow.
“Our representatives should be beholden to the people of the city of Cincinnati and not their political party,” Flynn says. “Charter is the only vehicle that’s out there right now that gives City Council members that ability.”
He says people are fed up with the quagmire of national politics and are less inclined to care whether or not their local councilperson has a D or an R next to his or her name.
“I think the opportunities for Charter are the best they’ve ever been,” Flynn says. “My goals are to do the best I can to groom some candidates and lead Charter into the future as well as letting people know that Charter is out there and Cincinnati needs Charter as much as Charter needs Cincinnati.”