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Unlikely Allies on Districts

By Michael Blankenship · February 17th, 2000 · Power of One
The emerging discussion over whether to return to districts or wards for the election of Cincinnati City Council and dump the current "9X" system might hinge on individual and group action within the Republican Party. With the departure of Buck Niehoff and the return of State Treasurer Joe Deters to head the Hamilton County party, Republicans have to settle their stance on a whole range of issues, including the question of districts.

Traditionally, Republicans have been opposed to council districts for the standard reason: the "balkanization" of neighborhoods, where districts and their representatives on council work only for themselves and their neighborhoods and fail to consider the welfare of the city as a whole.

And it's a good reason. But traditions don't take into account the realities of today, where the voters feel uninvolved in a system they see as controlled by big money and where voter turnout is at 50 percent or less. The GOP will be wrestling with these realities in the coming months of this election year, and success or failure on the national front could indicate changes to be considered here at home.

Two individuals who could help retool the party machinery for council district races are attorney E.J. Wunsch and Cincinnati Councilman Pat DeWine. Both were involved in Build Cincinnati, the group that, whether you like it or not, brought us the "Strong Mayor" initiative which in 2001 changes how Cincinnati's mayor is elected. And both DeWine and Wunsch see clear flaws in the present "9X" system.

DeWine says it's important to see how the "Strong Mayor" plan works before tinkering any further with the city's election system. And he says that any such council plan should combine districts with at-large seats.

"The question is finding the right number," he says. "Nine, 11, 15 -- they're all possible."

DeWine is quick to point out the flaws in the current system.

"What I don't like is a system where people win with 35 percent of the vote," he says. "It lends itself to races that aren't about issues."

Of course, DeWine won election in exactly the system he describes. Will such flaws be as obvious to him when he's up for re-election? I point out to him that the current system allows candidates to basically hide among a core constituency.

"I spent a year trying to change the system," DeWine replies. "I won't argue with you."

Wunsch, 29, is a lawyer and organizer in the Republican Party who got involved in Build Cincinnati to help develop a reform plan for city government. He says all were agreed that "what we had wasn't working" and saw the need to get the dialogue going again.

"What we came up with," he says, describing the group's original plan, "was (one) that included an executive mayor with a city manager and districts for city council."

The group then set up a series of "what-do-you-think?" community meetings, where many people identified with the idea of a directly elected mayor with enhanced powers but didn't show broad enough support for the council district plan. A key element in the failure of that plan appears to be the racial factor.

"There are basic demographic realities of the city you can't change," DeWine says. "For any district plan to work, it will require African-American support, and people don't want to feel disengaged."

DeWine states that, while the NAACP had supported districts, "once the process developed and people started to look at it, they questioned the ability to elect four black council members."

Depending on whose numbers you believe, Cincinnati's African-American population ranges from 40 percent to more than 50 percent, hardly what one could call a politically powerless minority. Yet the question of when a "minority" has reached political parity, or even majority status, is answered too often with the emotions of past wrongs or injustices and at the expense of political practicality.

When race enters the picture, realities get skewed. These are the questions that no politician or activist can address honestly, because someone will always feel slighted.

Might racial divisions deal a death blow to any council reform? "I think you have to have a process that people perceive as fair," DeWine sums up.

He points to an Internet site designed to get around such problems with redistricting plans. Any group can submit a district plan to the site. There's a mathematical formula to evaluate each and guarantee a compact district, not one "gerrymandered" to suit racial or party lines. "It takes out politics, race and goes purely on the numbers," DeWine says.

Speaking of numbers, for a city the size of Cincinnati to have six districts, each would need a population of about 60,000. The more districts, the fewer people in each, the easier to run in them, the lesser the influence of big money or TV ads and the more involved the voters.

Wunsch agrees on the benefits of districts, citing more accountability of council elected directly from neighborhoods; more representation of diverse neighborhoods on city council ("There are 52 neighborhoods in Cincinnati," he says, "and some have never been represented); and lowering the cost of campaign financing. "You could run a campaign on shoe leather, as opposed to money," he says.

DeWine adds what might be the best feature of council districts: "I think that people are not as civicly involved as they used to be. (This) gets people more involved in neighborhoods and in politics, more involved in communities."

We can only hope that others agree.



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