Every Wednesday in the brutally ugly but impressive Romanesque castle on Plum Street, you can see city government at work. In fact, you can usually watch a Cincinnati City Council meeting from the front row. Unless there's something big going on at City Hall, the peanut gallery is usually press, a few lobbyists and the occasional concerned citizen.
Oh, yes, and staff.
Mostly young, mostly bright, mostly anonymous, they are poised on the sidelines to do the last-minute bidding of the boss. An unexpected spectator? Find out what she wants. Somebody here about potholes? Get me some figures. It's raining? Get me an umbrella.
Well, you get the idea.
Once a week, the business of the city is transacted publicly, punctuated by the occasional private conference. An aide slithers noiselessly to a council member, leans
down and pours whispered information into the waiting ear. Just like in the movies.
What, I have wondered, is the big emergency? What secrets are they telling?
Sir, your fly is unzipped.
The camera is on you. Don't chew gum.
Your wife says bring home some milk.
But, of course, this is speculation.
One staffer just quit to take another job. This is not unusual. Being employed by an elected official nearly always means working your buns off for little money and uncertain opportunity. As Libby Korosec, who is leaving the mayor's office to work for Cincinnati Bell, says, "You don't automatically grow up to be mayor."
Just ask Diane Goldsmith, who was Guy Guckenberger's aide for 12 years. She knew the city inside and out, and everybody in government knew her. Voters didn't, and she was defeated in her first run for office.
Roxanne Qualls, who did grow up to be mayor after beginning as an aide to Marian Spencer, says Libby is "one of those invisible people who make city government work." They do everything from broken sidewalks to budget analysis. Not to mention being chauffeurs and gofers.
Chief deputy clerk of council Marilyn Kaiser says council members get $62,680 for personnel and expenses. Part of that goes for office supplies, subscriptions, travel and telephones. The rest - an average of $50,000 - is paid to two or three aides. The budget for the office of the mayor is a little fatter, $166,470. More responsibility, more public duty, more people, more expenses. About $135,000 goes for salaries of five staffers.
Mayor Qualls calls herself demanding. I wonder what I'd call her if she made me wear a beeper and telephoned me at 6:45 a.m. Libby calls Mayor Qualls a person who works harder than anybody else and has vision. "That's why I still like her."
I doubt there are job descriptions for aides. Marilyn Ormsbee, Bobbie Sterne's aide for 10 years, says she can't remember her official title because "it just wouldn't be very meaningful. I do whatever I can to make life easier for Bobbie."
Marilyn left a 24-year career she calls "somewhat promising" at Procter & Gamble to work for Ms. Sterne. For many aides, this is the first stop. Libby came directly to City Hall from Ohio State where she earned a master's degree in journalism after an undergraduate degree in political science from Miami University.
Officially the mayor's press secretary, she got the newspaper gene from her grandfather, Bill Ware, former editor of Cleveland's Plain Dealer. Her politics came from her mother. Somewhere in both their closets there are Birkenstocks and Save the Whale T-shirts. Now she has cleaned out her desk and turned in her beeper. She'll be working at a place where they have job descriptions. Hers is media relations. She wonders if she'll miss "being at the center of things." Maybe she'll love being at the center of telephone things.
Or maybe she'll grow up to be mayor.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.