Chuckle amid the posturing

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Politics can be a grim business sometimes, so we have to take our laughs when we can.

Fortunately, there is someone around like Charlie Winburn, the Republican Cincinnati councilman, to provide comic relief in our darkest hours.

Friday afternoon, when it appeared the nascent contest for the mayor's office was about to slip into the nether regions, Mr. Winburn fired up the fax machine at Comedy Central and brought some levity to the situation.

Mr. Winburn was apparently having publicity withdrawal - no one had mentioned his name in print or on the air in well over six hours - so he fired out a press release calling for mayoral debates in Cincinnati this fall.

"In a time when so many things are unclear, bringing clarity to this process would help Cincinnatians in their choice for the direction of this city," Mr. Winburn said.

Well, clarity would be nice, we suppose.

The problem with Mr. Winburn's idea, though, is two-fold:

  1. There really is no "mayor's race" in Cincinnati; instead of running for mayor, candidates try to be the top vote-getter in the council race;

  2. The two principal aspirants for the top vote-getter spot - Democrat Roxanne Qualls, the incumbent, and Republican Phil Heimlich, the challenger - seem to have difficulty dealing with direct questions, based on this past week's performance.

Mr. Heimlich, for example, exerted a tremendous amount of energy this week launching his bid to up-end Ms. Qualls. It was a Herculean effort. Mr. Heimlich, in fact, did the work of three men this week: Larry, Moe and Curly.

A 60-second radio spot began popping up on WLW in which two actors, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Cincinnati, rake city council over the coals for not "savings millions" with "managed competition," Mr. Heimlich's pet project and an idea Ms. Qualls has opposed. Mr. and Mrs. Cincinnati urged their fellow citizens to call Ms. Qualls and tell her what a good idea it is.

The disclaimer on the ad said it was paid for by "First Amendment Inc.," which is really Norm Cummings, a longtime operative in Ohio GOP politics. The ads were placed by an Alexandria, Va., ad firm that Mr. Heimlich used in his council campaign two years ago. Because the ad did not advocate the election or defeat of any candidate or candidates, it was not subject to campaign finance reporting requirements, and Mr. Cummings could, quite legally, tell anyone who asked who paid for the ads to go pound salt.

There was no use either in asking Mr. Heimlich, whose office provided the background material for the ad. Asked repeatedly the yes-or-no question of who paid for the ad, Mr. Heimlich's response was that "you'll have to ask Norm Cummings about that."

You could have asked Mr. Heimlich anything about this last week and that is the response you would get.

Meanwhile, while Mr. Heimlich is launching what turned out to be a rather ham-handed opening shot in the mayoral war, the incumbent, Ms. Qualls, was diving under her desk.

When asked about the ad, her response was "no comment" and "you'll have to ask my campaign manager about that."

Mr. Heimlich's attempt at a back-door attack ad was so transparent that any other politician we know would have taken him apart like a Lego toy, filleted him like a rainbow trout. But all anyone could get out of Ms. Qualls was a referral to her campaign manager.

Maybe Mr. Winburn needs to rethink his debate proposal. We find it hard to believe there will be much voter interest in a debate between Norm Cummings and Roxanne Qualls' campaign manager.

Howard Wilkinson's politics column appears Sundays.