Charlie Luken handles himself well before a supportive crowd. His business suit is as immaculate as those worn by the many business executives who gather June 12 for a Cincinnati Opera luncheon at Music Hall to hear the Cincinnati mayor speak. His self-effacing jokes about a long-ago school appearance attract some sizable laughs. More importantly, he plays to his audience's long-standing support for the arts by placing himself squarely on their team. To hear Luken talk, you'd think he spends more time in recital halls than he does in downtown bars. You'd be wrong.
LUKEN'S RULES OF ORDER, LESSON 1: Listen to everything he says. Compare his words with everything he does. Then disregard what he says.
"I want to tell you what you already know," Luken tells his rapt audience at Music Hall. "I want to tell you about the importance of the arts and the opera."
There are key phrases scattered throughout his brief speech about the city's recent struggles and its bright future. Education, neighborhoods, culture and economic development are emphasized.
"As we compete with West Chester and we compete with Northern Kentucky and we compete with Warren County, we have tremendous things on our side of the ledger," Luken says.
"And I can think of none with greater value than our arts organizations. We pledge to do what we can to support our major arts organizations."
Last year, when he ran against Courtis Fuller for the chance to become Cincinnati's first "strong mayor" in 70-something years, Luken described his pro-arts platform. He talked about City Hall support that goes beyond the occasional big-money check for brick-and-mortar projects. He also discussed his plans for spearheading a marketing campaign to increase cultural tourism to Cincinnati's major arts attractions.
Today the November election is a distant memory, and Luken has officially become Cincinnati's political leader. The city has pledged funding support for an array of arts projects, including an initial $300,000 grant for Cincinnati Opera's renovation of Music Hall's North Hall. Yet the City Hall-led cultural tourism campaign remains on the drawing boards.
LUKEN'S RULES OF ORDER, LESSON 2: Don't forget Lesson 1. Pay little attention to the mayor's words and pay close attention to his actions. Try to connect them both to the same man.
Near the end of his speech at Music Hall, Luken sums up the city's tumultuous state of affairs. He also pushes the focus away from himself.
"We have been through a difficult time," he says. "We can argue about what happened and point accusatory fingers at each other that will lead us in a circle."
His closing thought is a plea for arts organizations like the Cincinnati Opera to do more. He wants Cincinnati's arts organizations to reach further into the neighborhoods with outreach programs. He wants them to revitalize the city.
Basically, Luken wants to challenge Cincinnati's arts organizations. He makes no mention, however, about any challenges for himself.
Regarding everything Luken says at the Cincinnati Opera Guild luncheon, I accept one statement as factually true. When told that the city does not do enough to support the arts, the mayor offers a quick response.
"Mea Culpa," he says. "It's true. We don't do enough. We also don't do enough to keep our parks in good shape either."
At last, Luken's words and deeds are in perfect harmony. He admits he doesn't do enough. I guess there is hope for this struggling city of ours.