Mayor's race
under way,
and it's a doozy

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bake a cake. Put on the party hats. This year Cincinnati celebrates the 10th anniversary of a phenomenon that sets it apart from every city in the country.

You can scour the road atlas and you won't find another sizable city in the 48 contiguous states that elects its mayor the way Cincinnati does.

It started 10 years ago, when the voters of Cincinnati, frustrated over a lack of leadership and direction on city council, decided to change the way the mayor is elected.

For 60 years, council had chosen the mayor. And, for the most part, it didn't much matter because the council-manager form of government reduces mayors to ribbon-cutters. Mayors in Cincinnati wield clout in direct proportion to their own personal stash of political capital.

In 1987, the voters approved a charter amendment making the mayor the top vote-getter in the field race for nine council seats that takes place every two years.

The practical result has been that nobody ever stands up and says, ''I am running for mayor,'' because, in fact, there is no mayor's race.

The ''mayor's race'' exists only in a parallel universe, a fourth dimension that runs alongside every biennial council marathon.

Sometimes, the fourth dimension race is hard to see. It's little more than a sub rosa plot, a diversion while the real business of council politics goes on.

But not this time.

This time, the race-that-is-not-a-race will have all the subtlety of a circus parade - lacking only Shriners careening down the streets in tiny cars.

This year, there is no blue smoke obscuring the view. It is clear there are only two candidates for mayor: the incumbent, Democrat Roxanne Qualls, and Republican Phil Heimlich, 1,093 votes shy of knocking her off the last time.

While an as-yet undetermined number of incumbents and challengers will be grubbing for the other eight spots, these two will be at each other hammer-and-tongs.

It started in earnest this past week. The present mayor, fresh from her trip to Philadelphia for President Clinton's summit on volunteerism, came back determined to put a volunteerism plan for Cincinnati on the table.

The centerpiece of the Qualls plan was a proposal to allow city employees - all 7,000 of them - to trade one hour per week of volunteer service for one hour of paid leave.

Thursday, when Ms. Qualls went on WNKU's ''Speaking Frankly,'' a call-in radio show, to explain her plan, the first caller was Mr. Heimlich. He proceeded to take apart the idea of paying people - with taxpayers' money, no less - to do volunteer work.

The result was about 20 minutes of highly entertaining political back-biting and venom-spitting that signaled the start of the mayoral campaign. The station ought to reproduce it and sell it as a party tape.

Mr. Heimlich spouted a Bible verse and went on about how the mayor proposed to monitor her volunteer plan to make sure city employees weren't just going to the golf course or sleeping in their cars.

Ms. Qualls, who clearly believed that Mr. Heimlich, by calling the show, was the ultimate buttinsky, questioned whether the would-be mayor has an incredibly low view of human nature if he would believe city employees would do something like that.

After the show, it didn't take long for Ms. Qualls' council colleagues to join Mr. Heimlich in dumping on the mayor's plan. Even her fellow Democrats chimed in: Vice Mayor Tyrone Yates suggested the mayor had a ''bad case of Clintonitis.''

Mr. Heimlich sat back quite pleased with himself, and the race- that-isn't had begun.

Bring on the Shriners.

Howard Wilkinson's politics column appears Sundays.