Sunday, November 28, 1999

The mayor says 'adios'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The mayor of Cincinnati arrives alone. Carrying thank-you notes. No driver. No limo. No entourage in suits carrying briefcases crammed with Important Stuff.

        “Entourage?” she mocks. “You must be thinking of another world in another city.”

        That, I think, is what has endeared Roxanne Qualls to Cincinnati. When so many politicians change colors like a chameleon on a neon sign, she has no pretensions. She needs no circle of head-bobbers to remind her who she is according to the spin flavor of the day.

        Ms. Qualls officially leaves the building on Tuesday, evicted by term limits. She has represented us well.

        But sometimes it seems as if the thing most people will remember about her eight years on council and six years as mayor is the way she looks.

        It's not fair. Nobody talks about Phil Heimlich's shoes, or Jim Tarbell's hair (not much to talk about), or Charlie Winburn's graying temples, or the way the new mayor, Charlie Luken, used to wear lots of hair spray and makeup (he was not a female impersonator, just an anchorman).

        But after she had a “makeover” to run against Rep. Steve Chabot for Congress last year, everyone talked about “Roxanne's new look.”

        When she made a farewell visit to our editorial board on Tuesday, it reminded me of her first visit in 1992. She looked like a Hyde Park hippie in granny glasses. Now she looks stylish and sophisticated.

        But here's something more interesting than the way she looks: How about the way she looks at the world?

        That has changed too.

        To negotiate the mud bogs, switchbacks and potholes of City Hall politics, she traded in her Sierra Club hiking boots for a more pragmatic and polished SUV.

        She has survived head-on collisions with demolition derby champions such as Tom Luken and Dwight Tillery. And she has learned to stick close to the middle of the road.

        “When I worked from the center of pragmatic politics, things got done much more easily,” she said. “When it broke down into wings, that's where everything else broke down.”

        That's her advice to the next council: Form a coalition in the center that focuses less on ideology and more on getting results. “I'd like to make a pitch to stay focused,” she said. “On the riverfront, on downtown and on neighborhoods, for home ownership and community development.”

        She also made a pitch for a certain editorial page to give the new council a break.

        “Charlie Luken will be a very good mayor, and there are two other new faces on council,” she argued. “There's a real chance for a coalition that can get things done.”

        I hope she's right. If council members really do quit making fools of themselves and form a coalition that gets things done, I will have to quit ridiculing council and focus on more important things — like making fun of the Bengals.

        But it's also pretty clear that Ms. Qualls has lost patience with City Hall, along with everyone else.

        “This has been a very nice, very meaningful experience, but it's done,” she said, with a brittle smile. “I've realized how difficult it is to change institutional government. It's very difficult.”

        Asked if Cincinnati has a leadership vacuum, she said absolutely yes, but insists it's no reflection on her. “You can't have nine people running around saying "I speak for the city' and a city manager running around saying he leads the city.”

        She has had a tough time with difficult council members in a lousy system of government. Her politics have been restyled, from no-prisoners activist to prisoner of what's possible. She has learned to boldly reach for . . . a compromise — where the unglamorous hard work is done. She has learned to speak the truth elliptically, as if leaving clues on a treasure map. That's the Cincinnati way.

        But her vision for the riverfront — that public spending on stadiums is only justified to attract private housing, stores and entertainment — is finally coming true, if council members don't sabotage it like some clueless co-worker who comes late to the meeting and forces everyone to stop and back up.

        After six years of playing tour guide on a field trip of delinquents, she has gotten the bus where it needed to go.

        Roxanne looks pretty good. And I'm not talking about her hair style.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.