Sunday, November 14, 1999

Mayor Qualls taking post at Harvard

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Typically, briskly, she answers the first question before the waiter has a chance to fill our water glasses.


        She's going to Harvard next.

        But just temporarily.

        Roxanne Qualls, who will step down as Cincinnati's mayor Dec. 1, won a fellowship to the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She'll teach there for a semester — February through May of next year. By then, she'll know whether she has been chosen for a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard's School of Design, which would last for a year.

        After that, she says she doesn't know for sure what she'll do.

        But she knows what she won't do.

        “I'm not going to run for office in 2001. I'm just not.” She fixes me with a steely, brown-eyed gaze.

        OK. OK. I'll pass the word along.

        Ms. Qualls says she is “taking this opportunity to organize her intellectual experiences.” This “opportunity” is term limits that didn't allow her to run for council again and a failed candidacy for Congress in 1998. She says she thinks she has discovered that she has an “entrepreneurial” side.

        Is that French for “bossy”?

        Quick, hard laugh.

        She's used to calling the shots. She headed Women Helping Women, Citizen Action and the Northern Kentucky Rape Crisis Center before running for City Council in 1987. She finished 14th, then moved up to 10th in 1989. She finally was elected in 1991, eighth in the race for nine seats.

        Then in 1993, City Manager Gerald Newfarmer was fired. Very messy. “Capricious and and ill-timed and bush-league,” Councilwoman Qualls said. She raged against then-Mayor Dwight Tillery, calling him “instigator” of the “palace coup.”

        Tough talk.

        If she had it to do over, she says, she'd avoid “making it so rancorous and contentious.” Although it was “probably the turning point between the public and me,” it was also then that seeds were sown for bitter rivalry between Ms. Qualls and Mr. Tillery, whom she succeeded as mayor.

        “At first, I had no idea how important that job is to the public,” she says. “There's responsibility beyond the vote. Ceremonial.”

        But not trivial.

        “She put a good face on this city,” says Libby Korosec, a former press aide for the mayor. “She never pulled a Springer or a Marge. Not once.”

        That good face changed considerably over the mayoral years. I'm looking at a 1993 issue of Cincinnati Magazine. Roxanne Qualls is on the cover, her hair a swollen tangle of curls. Rimless glasses. Makeup? Lipstick and maybe a little powder on her nose. Maybe.

        Three terms later, she's sleek, polished, beautifully dressed. Her hair is a burnished blond, her brows plucked to elegant wings. Relaxed. In charge. She is stopped at least three times as she makes her way to our table at Petersen's Restaurant.

        People like her.

        In 1987, she read her announcement speech. Nervous, voice trembling. Ron Wahl, who has worked for Ms. Qualls since 1986, says she'd force herself to go to parties, “just to get some practice talking to people. More than anyone else I know, she's able to set a goal for herself, change herself and actually pull it off.”

        She has met with more than 1,600 people on her Mayor's Night In, listening to complaints ranging from garbage collection to custody battles. She has pushed for light rail, downtown housing, gun control. She battled the “malling of the riverfront” and railed against “Third World sewers.”

        So now this woman — the good face of Cincinnati who has cut our ribbons and marched in our parades and presided over our rubber chicken dinners — soon will take a breather from our sewers and our garbage collection and our urban squabbles.

        Any last words?

        “It has been a privilege.”

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.