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News: A Whole New Team

City council was supposed to change, but nobody predicted this

By Stephanie Dunlap · November 9th, 2005 · News
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Nutshell for those who don't know: incumbent Cincinnati City councilmen Sam Malone and Christopher Smitherman are out; challengers Jeff Berding, Chris Bortz, Leslie Ghiz and Cecil Thomas are in.

Cincinnati voters shocked pretty much every prognosticator by dumping not one but two council incumbents Nov. 8.

Or four, depending on how you look at it. There were already two council slots open, vacated earlier by Alicia Reece, who lost her mayoral bid in the Sept. 13 primary, and David Pepper, who made it past the primary but lost at the last minute to State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-West End) in the final head to head for mayor.

The two incumbents who directly sought and lost reelection, coming in 10th and 11th in the race for nine seats, were also the two most extreme members of council from opposite poles.

Councilman Sam Malone is a Republican who last year led the unsuccessful campaign to keep Article 12, an amendment to the city charter forbidding anti-discrimination protection for gays and lesbians. His popularity faded after he was charged with domestic violence May14 in a case still playing out in court.

Councilman Christopher Smitherman, a Charterite, got himself elected on his first try two years ago on a platform of racial reconciliation but came storming the gates of the Cincinnati Police Department in the name of oppressed African Americans. With earnest motives but misguided and misinterpreted moves, he earned the enmity of nearly all conservatives, the respect of some liberals and the adoration of many civil rights activists.

Moving to the center
Replacing those two most radical members of council and filling the two seats already open were four of the most moderate candidates city voters could pick.

Jeff Berding is a longtime behind-the-scenes activist -- he was key in implementing the new strong mayor system in 2001 -- but the Bengals sales manager is also a controversial Democrat who doesn't always toe the partisan line.

Chris Bortz, a Charterite, was a first-time candidate whose uncle Arn Bortz served as Cincinnati councilman and mayor years ago. He ran on promises to bring council back to its mission of setting policy for city governance and to work as part of a team backing the mayor and the new city manager.

Leslie Ghiz's election allowed the Republican Party to keep its two council seats in spite of Malone's loss. But she's incensed some Republican insiders by backing the repeal of Article 12 and refusing to support the candidacy of the Rev. Charlie Winburn, the radically conservative evangelist candidate the GOP fronted in the mayoral primary.

If Malone and Smitherman were polar opposites on council, socially liberal Ghiz and conservative Malone would be polar opposites in the local Republican Party.

The fourth new council member is Cecil Thomas, a 27-year city cop and former head of the Sentinels, an African-American police association; he took the ninth council slot. Thomas resigned as head of the city's Human Relations Commission to run for council. Though an endorsed Democrat, he seems both more conservative and openly spiritual than many of his fellow Democrats.

Councilman John Cranley took first place, a spot he easily held all night Nov. 8, while Councilwoman Laketa Cole, a fellow Democrat, placed fifth, far below the first place finish that some had predicted for Reece's protégé.

Councilman Chris Monzel, a Republican, easily won reelection in spite of failing to do so two years ago, after which the Republican Party appointed him to a vacant council seat anyway.

Councilman David Crowley fared much better in fourth place than he had two years ago, when he barely eked into ninth.

Crowley gets giddy
Election night at the Hamilton County Board of Elections (BOE) seemed to play out "excruciatingly slowly," as one of the dozens gathered to watch the returns put it.

For a time John Eby and the Rev. Bill Barron were the only council candidates to show. Eby, the fourth endorsed Republican, is a charming West-side everyman who gives reelected Councilman Jim Tarbell a run for his money in telling longwinded stories.

"It's a weird feeling to have it come down to no control," Eby said as he watched the monitors logging returns. "This is the one election I can't read."

He said that, no matter how the night played out, he plans to run again. Eby placed 15th.

The early results counted absentee ballots, which established the nightlong pattern that all candidates endorsed by one of the city's three political parties finished above all non-endorsed, independent candidates.

That must have been disappointing to Justin Jeffre, the former mayoral candidate and 98 Degrees singer who liked to advocate for independent candidates as long as it was himself and the independent media as long as it supported him. He was very briefly seen pontificating for some cameraman at the Board of Elections.

Eve Bolton, a Democratic candidate, came to watch the results with an air of looming defeat. The last few days had been "hectic" and "difficult," she said. She also said wouldn't run again if the night didn't turn out well for her. It didn't. Bolton took 14th place.

"This would be one of the best opportunities that I would have," she said. "You can't keep investing your own money into the race."

Bolton has worked a long time for the Hamilton County Democratic Party, first as county recorder in the 1990s and then as their sacrificial candidate in two races nearly impossible for a non-Republican challenger to win. By Nov. 8 she seemed done with the party.

"I wouldn't think I'd be that involved, " she said. "The party probably wants to move on, and I think I would want to move on, too."

Second-time Charter candidate Nick Spencer showed up along with a glut of others just as the returns came in for more than 80 percent of the ballots. Spencer seemed resigned and fairly cheery, given that by that time he knew his own chances were over. In the end, he placed 17th, last among the endorsed candidates and just below the middle of the 31-candidate pack.

In came the council victors to give statements to the media while their skin turned orange under the TV camera lights.

Crowley, the reliable and reasonable old-school Democrat on council, told CityBeat he appreciated the paper and its endorsement. He was still fuming that The Cincinnati Enquirer's endorsement board passed him over.

"I'm very happy I was elected the second time without their endorsement," he said, seeming outright giddy.

Tickling Tarbell
At 10:32 p.m. and with 97 percent of precincts reporting, Mallory took the lead in the mayor's race for the first time. The excitement in the room ratcheted up.

An emotional Ghiz appeared wearing jeans and a blazer with a scarf wrapped through her hair. While other winning candidates gave prepared speeches, she mostly effused and wiped at tears.

"I feel kind of overwhelmed," she said. "I kind of want to sleep with it."

The number one lesson and priority for council members is to stop working toward individual agendas, Ghiz said.

"It's overwhelming to me because you get put in a pool with people you don't know very well and you have to get to know them and move the city forward," she said.

While hugging Bortz, she whispered in his ear, "We got a lot of work, man."

Bortz tried harder to contain his excitement, going on for TV cameras about getting behind the city manager and how the first goal right now is to find a good one to get behind. The beaming woman beside him wore a sign designating her as, "Susie: I'm Chris Bortz's wife."

He spoke to CityBeat about leadership and teamwork while this trademark banjo jingle broke out in live concert behind him.

"Did I give you some good stuff there?" he asked, trying to ignore the distraction to deliver his sound bites. "I'm a little shaky."

One of those unlucky, unendorsed candidates was Robert Wilking, who stuck around the Board of Elections to congratulate his fellow candidates. In spite of his 21st place finish, he's leaning toward running again. He wants to stay involved and on top of the issues he learned for the race.

"I'm looking to make more of a contribution in the future," Wilking said.

Enter Smitherman, one of the two ousted council members, along with his wife, eerily doppelganger relatives and an entourage of supporters.

"I'm not sure what's next," he told the cluster of cameras. "I never viewed myself as a politician but as a public servant."

"This is the definition of grace right here," said Adam Conway, who for the past two years has worked in Smitherman's office as a legislative aide.

"I'm standing tall, sister," Smitherman consoled one of his supporters. "I did what I had to do."

"We love you, Chris!" someone shouted, prompting long applause.

A young man pulled him aside to thank him for coming to his aunt's funeral.

"Absolutely," Smitherman said, with trademark intensity. "You keep your head up and a positive attitude."

Then as quickly as the Smitherman camp had come, it was gone.

Berding and the young daughter in his tow just looked tired.

"We have a great city," he said. "Let's start serving it."

In typical fashion, Tarbell held idiosyncratic court. The longest-serving member on council seemed more interested in others' races than his own winning one.

"I'm not sure that I would have predicted exactly this arrangement," he said. "I'm tickled."

Tarbell's not yet thinking about the possibility of relinquishing his seat so the Charter Committee can appoint a replacement before term limits force him out in two years.

"I'm feeling energized with this new team, so I'm not in any hurry," he said. "This last two years has not been easy. It's been hard putting a team together and pursuing a very hard and fast vision."

"We got a good team," agreed Monzel, as he came to greet Tarbell. He called Tarbell council's "senior statesman."

"Young whippersnappers," Tarbell growled back and affectionately needled Monzel in the side.

"It's a nice combination," Monzel agreed.

Cole was clearly exhilarated by her reelection and read much in the results of the council race as a whole.

"I think citizens spoke very loudly in sending half the council away," she said. "It's not so much about being nice, it's about working together."

Thomas also spoke about putting a team together and working for one common agenda. Asked whether that might affect the Human Relations Commission he used to head, Thomas said he's not making any decisions without the rest of council.

"That's how we got in trouble," he said. "The Bengals would lose every game if they did that."

The first order of business for Thomas, though, is to "fast and pray," he said.

The Charter Committee held a party for its candidates at Arnold's Bar and Grill. As he walked in, Pete Witte looked perplexed. The new council was about as conservative as he could imagine, said Witte, a Republican West side activist who ran unsuccessfully for council two years ago.

"It's the most exciting council I could imagine," he said.

Charter's executive director, Jeff Cramerding, agreed it was a "bizarre" night.

"Tomorrow we gotta figure out what happened," he said.

Bortz succinctly addressed the crowd before turning the floor over to the more garrulous Tarbell.

"Well, thank you. I'm astonished that we won," he said. "I'm terrified of what comes next. Already tonight I've gotten plenty of advice. I'm sure it'll keep flowing."

At which point Tarbell stepped forward to dispense some with a history lesson.

The lesson of the council race of 2005? Play nicer.



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