Friday, May 07, 1999

Wimps need not apply to be mayor

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Now that Cincinnati has a strong mayor form of government, we need some strong candidates.

        Ninety-pound political weaklings need not apply.

        That message came from political strategists I talked with from around the country this week after voters approved Cincinnati's strong-mayor issue on Tuesday. Based on the strategists' expertise in working on elections and studying local governments, I wanted to know what it takes to be a strong mayor.

        The experts told me a strong mayor must have a strong personality and a clear vision of what the city should look like today, tomorrow and 100 years from now. Strong mayors don't diddle and debate. They make decisions and stick to them.

        Cincinnatians need these characteristics in candidates for the city's New! Improved! and More Powerful! top office if we are going to get the strong mayor we deserve and move this city forward.

        The consensus among the political strategists was that only bold thinkers can be a strong mayor. Candidates who come up with new solutions to old problems can bring the city's factions and neighborhoods together if they are able put their thoughts into words, their words into action and Cincinnati on the map as a city on the move.

        “A strong mayor will become the civic father or civic mother with the power to unite the city around a common theme,” said David Axelrod. The Chicago-based campaign consultant has worked with mayoral candidates in Chicago, as well as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City.

        He wondered how Cincinnati was reacting to the change in government, asking in particular if the flags were at half-staff. “You should be in mourning,” he deadpanned. “The end has come to the system that inflicted Jerry Springer on our nation.

        “At the very least you should have transsexuals wrestling Nazis on the steps of City Hall, the way Jerry does on his TV show.”

        Thanks for the suggestion, David. But that stuff doesn't fly in Cincinnati. I told him the only confrontation on City Hall's steps this week took place between protesting cops and members of the black community.

        “A strong mayor would try to pull those groups together,” the consultant said, turning serious. “To govern, a strong mayor must have a strong relationship with all segments of the community.”

        A strong mayor knows how to use that relationship to build consensus. And building consensus “is the key to leadership,” said attorney Byron Trauger, an adviser on the two successful campaigns of Nashville's mayor, Philip Bredesen.

        Nashville is a gazelle city, one of seven progressive boomtowns whose ranks Cincinnati yearns to join. So, maybe we can learn from what Mr. Trauger has to say.

        A strong mayor, he told me, must have a clear vision of what issue to tackle, “map out a long-term, detailed strategy and take it to council.

        “What the strong mayor does not do,” he added, “is put together a committee to study an issue. Doing that is like setting out to devise a horse but coming up with a camel.”

        Sounds like the way decisions were made during the '90s in Cincinnati.

        “Don't look for that to happen with a strong mayor,” said Jim Svara, head of the political science department at North Carolina State University. He's co-author of an international survey of 4,000 city governments, which found cities with strong mayors more decisive and better focused on long-term plans.

        “Strong mayors know voters put them in office because of their agenda. That agenda can be about new sewers or fixing crumbling schools. By electing the mayor, the voters gave him a mandate to get the job done.”

        Beyond the issues, the mandates and the art of consensus building, David Axelrod told me, “electing a strong mayor boils down to electing a strong personality.”

        These personalities “can come from the business world, Congress or the statehouse,” he said. “They're not tainted by the present form of government.”

        Bottom line, we'll take these personalities from any source. Just so long as they are the strongest candidates for the job.

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

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