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Cover Story: Dark Horse

Fanon Rucker's road to politics leads to uphill battle for Hamilton County Prosecutor

By Denise G. Callahan · October 13th, 2004 · Cover Story
Anthony Antal and Sean Hughes

Fanon Rucker's mama warned him against dealing with the devil to get elected. His daddy told him to run for Hamilton County Prosecutor only if he were going to work hard to win.

Rucker is an amalgam of both his parents. He gained a good heart and social conscience from his mom, Jacqueline Rucker of Harrisburg, Penn., and a directed, deliberative demeanor from his father, Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker.

Fanon Rucker is the lone Democrat in the write-in field of candidates vying for the position Prosecutor Mike Allen threw away when he revealed that his former paramour -- an assistant prosecutor -- was suing him in federal court for sexual harassment.

Rucker toyed with the idea of challenging Allen earlier this year, but he was in the middle of his own domestic situation and the timing was touchy. He and his wife of six years are divorcing -- amicably, he says. In fact his soon-to-be ex-wife, Chanell Fleming, is even helping with his campaign.

'I saw a lot more'
Meanwhile Rucker, who lives in Roselawn, has people conspiring to make him look less than squeaky, according to Tim Burke, co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. Republicans have looked into Rucker's divorce papers, hoping for some tantalizing tidbit to taint the young Democratic challenger, Burke says.

But Rucker says they aren't going to find anything.

Admittedly his name isn't well known around the state or even countywide, but Rucker has made quite a name for himself in city circles. At 32, he has an impressive resume both in the legal profession and in community service.

While attending Hampton University in Virginia, a private, historically African-American school, he was flipping through Better Homes and Gardens magazine when he noticed an article naming Cincinnati the nation's most livable city.

Given the fact that he hailed from the least livable city, Gary, Ind., he thought he'd check out Cincinnati. The University of Cincinnati College of Law was recovering from negative publicity about its own racial composition and was recruiting pretty heavily on campus, so it seemed a good fit. Rucker worked part-time in the city's law department while attending law school and accepted a full-time work position as assistant city prosecutor when he graduated in 1996.

Growing up in Gary, Rucker saw more than his share of violence and crime, a fact that fomented the idea he wanted to right some wrongs.

"I was 7 years old the first time I saw someone shooting a gun," he says. "Some of my friends were laid to the ground before I went to college. Some of the others were in jail. Things weren't easy. I saw a lot more by the time I was 17 than a lot of 40- and 50-year-olds have seen even to this day. But I was also able to recognize that there is a greater issue, and that greater issue is what we all need to strive for and look for, to rely on, to draw strength from."

Rucker says he's found that strength in the sundry community organizations for which he volunteers. He is a trustee for the Allen Temple A.M.E. Church; a board member for Boys Hope Girls Hope, the Catholic Inner-City Schools Education Fund and the Children's Law Center; and was a member of the Police and Justice Committee for Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN).

Professionally, he grades bar exams and is a trustee of the Cincinnati Bar Association, a former president of the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati and a member of a host of other legal associations.

Rucker might seem an overachiever, but he doesn't see it like that. A very spiritual person, he believes the Lord paved his path.

"I have always felt a very strong spiritual connection to the people, and so almost anytime someone presents me with the opportunity to help other folks I have done it," he said. "In 2000 I asked the Lord to put me in a position where I could help as many people as I could and still keep him at the head. Within months I had become president of the Black Lawyers Association, and I was out at the forefront of certain issues like racial profiling. The riots happened, and I was placed on a number of committees and community organizations.

"I did a lot of radio, TV stuff and I was able to reach a wider audience.

I would get phone calls from around the country. People would see me on TV or whatever and they'd say, 'I prayed last night and the Lord sent me your name this morning. I feel you can help me.' It was a lot of confirmation and affirmation by (God) that I was doing what he intended me to do."

Part of the reason Rucker sought a prosecutor's post to begin with was because he felt he should be putting bad guys away.

"But by my fourth year as a prosecutor, there were certain things that were happening in the city that manifested themselves in the courtroom," he says. "Many older officers were retiring, so we had a lot of young officers who had only been on the force with one or two years training new officers -- and that was resulting in a lot of false charges and there were also more complaints of police planting evidence on people. What was going on on the street was coming into the courtroom. I was also getting complaints about more police brutality."

This eventually led him to believe he could do more good on the other side, handling civil rights and employment discrimination cases. After a stint with Burke's law firm, he switched to his current gig at Santen and Hughes, a law firm in Cincinnati. He is also village prosecutor for the mayors' courts in Woodlawn and Lincoln Heights.

'Find somebody who has some'
The prosecutor's race is all uphill, even though all the candidates are write-ins. Allen withdrew from the race too late for anybody else to be on the ballot Nov. 2. The campaign has four official write-in candidates, but last week the other two -- Melissa Powers and James Rueger -- endorsed Republican heavyweight State Treasurer Joe Deters.

Neither Deters nor Michael Barrett, chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, responded to repeated queries from CityBeat to comment for this story.

Deters has about as much dirt on him as Allen, but the filth just doesn't seem to filter through the Interstate 275 beltway, according to Burke.

"I have been trying to get the local media to focus on Joe Deters because he is not the knight in shining armor riding in to restore integrity to the Hamilton County prosecutor's office," Burke says. "If you follow his press around the rest of the state, he is practically being driven out of Columbus because of the pay-to-play scandals."

Deters hasn't been charged with wrongdoing, but his staffers strong-armed at least one stockbroker into raising campaign funds for the treasurer in exchange for getting on the A list of government contractors (see "Deters Is Safe at Home," issue of Oct. 6-12).

In 2002, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission slapped an investment subsidiary of Fifth Third Bank with a $1 million fine for paying to play with the state treasury.

Burke says his plan is not only to get voters to know how to spell Rucker's name but also to name Deters for what he is.

"What we've really got to do is to get Fanon's name out there," Burke says. "We've got to make it clear that, if you want to talk about restoring the integrity of the Hamilton County Prosecutor's office, then find somebody who has some to lead the office."

Although Deters didn't deign to defend himself, Powers stepped forward.

"I think he did an outstanding job as a prosecutor and I think he'll continue to do an outstanding job," she says. "The crime rate was the lowest ever in the city and in the county during his tenure. I think that changed once Mike Allen took over. I think he has strong leadership and he would be able to restore the confidence and be able to boost morale. There are lots of prosecutors who just loved working for him, and I was one of them."

'I am very serious'
Rucker, who has two children -- a daughter and a son -- says he always knew he was destined for political office. His mother, Jacqueline Rucker, keeps asking him if he's sure he wants to do this.

"He keeps saying, 'Of course, mom,' " she says. "I think he feels it is definitely a person's responsibility to do public service work and he feels he has enough experience. He keeps telling me, 'I really do feel I would be a good prosecutor and I really want to do this.' "

Jacqueline Rucker says a dedication to community service is deeply ingrained in her son. She said she made him join her while she did volunteer work, including teaching sex education to welfare mothers. She recalled a recent conversation: Rucker said he wanted to get his church involved in prison ministry and also said he was worried about feeding the hungry.

"I said, 'You go, boy! All right!' Sometimes you never know if your kids listen to you," she says.

Jacqueline Rucker, executive director of Christian Churches United, says she realizes Rucker is up against a formidable opponent in Deters and the Republican Party. But she says she's making sure her son remains grounded in his own beliefs.

"I told him, 'If you don't have any money, then you shouldn't make deals with the devil,' " she says. " 'It's not going to be easy for you to win, but there is nothing better than a good fight.' "

Rucker has also received some advice from his father, Justice Robert Rucker.

"I impressed upon him -- or tried to, at least -- that if you're going to be a candidate, you must be a serious candidate and your campaign must be a real campaign," Justice Rucker says. "Don't sort of put your name out there for some kind of future office. This is the office you're seeking. It has to look like a campaign, and you have to be serious about it. If you're not going to be serious about it, then don't do it."

Fanon Rucker has his eye not only on Election Day but also on what effect his success might have on this racially challenged city. He says there have been some positive changes since the riot in 2001. He was instrumental in gathering a group of lawyers to help some of the people who were arrested in the melee.

Rucker says he's pretty certain his presence in the prosecutor's race has some on the other side nervous, because he will likely draw some black voters to the polls who don't ordinarily make the journey. That doesn't bode well for Deters or President Bush, he surmises. But he hopes the public sees the bigger picture.

"This is not about race," Rucker says. "This is about integrity. This is about a justice system that is openly just and is supposed to be a fair, equal and representative of everyone. I think they'll look past the fact that I'm a darker hue than other folks who have had the office. It really is about what's in my heart and what I believe."

He believes in the law.

"I'll be one who follows the law and one who sticks very closely to the Ohio Code of Professional Conduct," he says. "I am very serious about following the rules. There is no excuse for not doing that as a lawyer. We are the ones that are supposed to be instilling public trust in the system. If we do not follow the rules, how can we expect others to respect the profession and for others to believe the system is fair? I hold myself to that standard, and I would expect anyone working under me to do the exact same thing -- and I wouldn't allow anything less."

'What can I do?'
One of Rucker's clients, Tim Higgins, says he was so legally brilliant, able to create so many different arguments in his building code case, that it seemed the judge would prefer to send the case to appeals court.

"It seemed he pretty much knew everything that was thrown at him by the prosecutor's office, not because he was a city prosecutor but because he knew the laws and he knew how to pursue different avenues," Higgins says.

Charles Meyer, a managing partner at Santen and Hughes, agrees.

"He is a good lawyer," Meyer says. "He handles litigation well. He acts very well on his feet, he is very articulate and we're very proud to have him as an associate in the firm."

Another quality makes Rucker right for the prosecutor's job, according to Burke.

"I worked with him as a lawyer here in the office and I was impressed by his skills and his legal abilities, but I have been consistently impressed by his skills as a public speaker," Burke says. "He is terrific. I also worked with him on the Law and Justice Subcommittee of Cincinnati CAN and watched him wrestle with the likes of Mike Allen and some of our judges and some of our other law enforcement folks on some of the issues that are important to Cincinnati CAN. He does it in a way that is direct and appropriate and yet not unnecessarily confrontational. He has a dignity about him that makes his points, I think, that is much more effective than if he was deliberately more controversial."

Burke surmised Rucker's poise comes from his father. But the senior Rucker says his son is his own man and has always been that way.

"He is just a good, solid young man," Justice Rucker says. "He is a good young man now, he was a great kid growing up and I'm very, very proud of him. He is the eternal optimist: Every glass is half full. He has the ability to deal with others without creating offense. He is just real socially conscious, sincerely socially conscious, about people and the kinds of hard knocks and hard licks they've taken in life and he says, 'What can I do to make it better?' "

Ohio Lawyers Weekly recently named Rucker an "Up & Coming" attorney. In an interview before he entered the prosecutor's race, he was asked what type of reputation he'd like to have in the legal community.



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