City campaign heavy on oddity,
light on candidates

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As happens every odd-numbered year, staid old Cincinnati is about to commit an unnatural act.

It is about to elect a city council once again. In public. In broad daylight. And it just doesn't care who's watching.

It's an unnatural act because a Cincinnati City Council election is an anomaly, a critter as rare as a yeti in the biosphere of politics.

We know of only one other city of comparable size in the United States - Richmond, Va. - where the city council is elected in a field race.

Here, candidates do not run against each other to represent neighborhoods or wards on a body that governs the entire city.

Candidates are contestants in a competition to win one of nine seats; and, more often than not, voters have a couple of dozen or so candidates to choose from.

It is the only election we know of where you can finish ninth and win; the only election where it is considered bad form to criticize another candidate because, after all, you have no opponent, really. Only fellow candidates.

Hovering over this unusual system of electing council is yet another electoral anomaly, this one found nowhere else in the known universe.

It has been around since 1987, when Cincinnati voters decided they wanted a new way of choosing a mayor. For 60 years before that, council itself chose one its own to fill that largely ceremonial position, but, in 1987, voters passed a charter amendment making the top vote-getter in the election mayor.

Picture it: Every two years, we have this surreal situation where you have a large field of council candidates who are not running against anybody in particular while simultaneously running for mayor in an election that doesn't really exist.

Where is Salvador Dali when you need him?

There have been elections in the not-so-distant past where the chance to win one of the nine council seats has attracted throngs of candidates from Cincinnati's political parties - Republican, Democrat and Charter.

This year, though, the field that will begin campaigning in earnest tomorrow - Labor Day being the traditional kickoff of Cincinnati council politics - is relatively small. Only 20 candidates filed petitions last week - seven endorsed by the Democrats, seven by the Republicans, three by the Charter Committee, and three independents.

Most people in and around Cincinnati politics assumed that the city's term limits law - which limits council members to four consecutive two-year terms - would bring the candidates out of the woodwork. But it didn't happen.

For four of the incumbents - Mayor Roxanne Qualls, Dwight Tillery, Tyrone Yates and Bobbie Sterne - 1997 is the last round-up; they can't run again in 1999.

So, assuming the four are re-elected this year, that would mean there will be no fewer than four open seats two years from now. In Cincinnati politics, the tradition is you run once or twice or even three times before you are successful in winning a council seat; and the political parties assumed ambitious young council wannabes would be knocking down the doors to run in 1997 and get good exposure for the coming 1999 bonanza.

It didn't happen. All three parties had to scrape and claw through spring and summer to put together their slates.

Maybe the would-be candidates decided to keep their powder dry for 1999. Maybe they decided council is not where it is at.

Or maybe they just decided that begging for the six-figure campaign fund that seems to be the price tag for admission to council these days is just, well, unnatural.

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer. His column appears on Sundays.

WILKINSON ARCHIVE