With Sterne gone, it's wee the people

Friday, July 3, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bobbie Sterne
(File photo)
| ZOOM |
We the people have lost our voice. Bobbie Sterne has left Cincinnati City Council.

The one member of council who could always be counted on to speak in the best interests of the city and its citizens has packed up her 25 years of experience and retired.

She took her leave this week during the busiest of news days. While the county and the Reds declared the team's new stadium would be a wedgie on the riverfront, as Star Bank merged its billions with another bank named "star" and announced it was moving its headquarters to Milwaukee, Bobbie Sterne quietly bowed out.

No goodbye speech. No fanfare. Just a letter of resignation and she was gone.

But what a letter. It attached the word "please" to a request to council.

"Give special care to the children, the elderly, the sick, the homeless, the poor and the disabled."

Every time I read her words, they get to me. They make me feel that her retirement means more to the city than a stadium deal that surprised no one and a bank's departure that was not exactly unexpected.

Bobbie Sterne paid attention to and spoke for the people who elected her. She realized that government exists to help the powerless, not the powerful. When she disagreed with her constituents and voted with her conscience, she explained why. She didn't put a spin on it. Or lie. How novel.

This is an age when deceit and mendacity in public life are championed as virtues. So speaking the truth and looking out for the people whose votes put you in office may sound like quaint, old-fashioned notions. But for her, they were standard operating procedures.

Bobbie Sterne didn't advertise her people skills. Unlike other members of council, she never pontificated that she was "for the people." Her methods were as simple and as understated as her "Return Sterne" campaign slogan. She just listened, asked questions, raised objections and unfailingly reminded her colleagues they were doing the people's business to make Cincinnati better.

In her 25 years on council, she was one of the few people to give politics a good name. In my mind, she was an elected official, not a politician. She was savvy about winning elections, but she was no savage political animal out for the kill, doing the bidding of power brokers.

Nobody owned her. She was never a prisoner of special interests. Her kind of council member doesn't fit well in the lapel pockets of the shadowy suits who want to run City Hall from the shadows of their Fourth Street offices.

No doubt, it pained her to give up her council seat. Her chipped, chewed-up wooden desk put her between Dwight Tillery on her left and Minette Cooper on her right. Charlie Winburn, council's chain-talker, sat directly across from this woman of few words.

We were lucky that during her time on council, Bobbie Sterne never saw her beaten-up desk as a launching pad to further her career. She didn't use council as a steppingstone to wear judge's robes, work on the county commission or take a seat in the Statehouse or Congress. She saw her terms on council as public service. Nothing more. Nothing less.

With Bobbie Sterne gone, we are left with a council of relative newcomers and would-be whiz kids. Her successor, Jim Tarbell, is at once council's newest and oldest member. But, at 55, he's hardly a geezer.

In terms of length of service, Dwight Tillery takes over as council's senior member. And he's been on the job only one-third as long as Bobbie Sterne.

With the possible exception of Tyrone Yates, I'm hard-pressed to come up with other council members who speak for the people, and not for themselves, on a regular basis.

Bobbie Sterne can't be replaced or duplicated. But the city she represented so long and so well would be well served if her successors borrowed a chapter from her book. Let me suggest the one titled: "Listen to the People."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.