Monday, September 1, 1997
Tarbell: City's fun candidate

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The guy in the shiny suit approaches the hotel's pay phone. Gawking at the man who just dropped a quarter in the slot, he asks:

''You Tarbell?''

The man on the phone nods and turns a slight shade of pink under his straw hat.

''Glad you're running,'' the guy says as they shake hands.

''But you haven't got a prayer.''

Both men laugh. The candidate keeps smiling long after the guy has left.

Jim Tarbell - restaurant owner, Broadway Commons' biggest booster and Cincinnati's self-appointed civic jester - is running for city council.


''I honor the institution of city council,'' he says with a straight face and his hand over his heart.

But he insists that won't keep him from taking himself too seriously.

''You have to be able to laugh at yourself if you are going to be effective.''

You'd expect nothing less from a man whose wife coined his unofficial campaign slogan, ''Tarbell? What the hell!''

He's so serious about his candidacy, he's already joking that, if elected, he knows what his first act in office will be.

''We'll start every council meeting with a song.''

Jim Tarbell smiles as he says that. He keeps smiling when, over lunch, he pinches his grin-creased cheeks and says, ''underneath there's a very serious side to me.'' To him, running for council ''is the most serious thing I've ever done.''

The funny thing is, he has a serious chance of being elected.

He could unseat Jeanette Cissell or Minette Cooper. Both first-time incumbents are vulnerable. Neither council member knows the vote-getting crafts Jim Tarbell has already mastered. He can grab a headline and stand at ease in the glare of TV news cameras.

He can also talk a good game, as anyone can attest who has heard him go on forever about the merits of putting the Reds' stadium on Broadway Commons.

Warming up for the election season that begins today, he can go on about the issues of neighborhood development, housing, mass transportation and ''race relations which are very, very poor in Cincinnati and need to be addressed.''

He shies away from specifics. But then, that's smart politics.

The trouble is, he's not a politician. He's the city's one and only court jester. For the life of me, I can't figure out why he wants to be just one of nine fools.

He says he's doing it for love and out of frustration. He loves Cincinnati. But he's fed up with City Hall being ''at an impasse over development.''

He was willing to gripe about that impasse from the sidelines. But, that changed three Sundays ago, when he sat down at his kitchen table for breakfast with his wife.

Over a bowl of granola and a homegrown cantaloupe from his sister's garden, his wife told him to run.

''She said I was going to fight the battle anyway. So, I might as well get into the race.''

By entering politics, he would continue a family tradition. His grandfathers were judges. His uncle was the mayor of Dayton, Ohio. In the '30s, his father ran and lost one race for Congress.

''Once,'' says Jim Tarbell, ''was enough for him.''

Different strokes

As he laughs and giggles and slaps the table, Jim Tarbell insists he's not pulling a Pat Paulsen. His campaign is no spoof.

Maybe it just seems like a prank because he's so different from the other candidates. He's the guy who wears the old Reds baseball cap on TV soundbites. He once painted the outline of a ballpark on a parking lot. He's staged dances he calls ''Odd Balls'' and has entered those occasions atop an elephant.

He's the guy with a smile on his face. He represents fun. The other candidates represent poker-faced seriousness.

The contrasts don't worry Jim Tarbell. ''Only very, very casual observers know me just for being the guy with the baseball cap in a few TV clips.''

He would be wise not to ignore those ''very, very casual observers.''

Seasoned politicians know these people by another name.

They're called voters.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.