Contest for mayor main event

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Every circus needs a sideshow.

Lion tamers, clowns and high-wire acts in the big tent are fine, but if you want to be a really big show, you need a little diversion for the rubes between performances.

You need something sensational, like the Amazing Lizard Boy, the Bearded Lady or a geek who will bite the heads off chickens, if you really want to part the suckers from their do-re-mi.

But the one thing you don't want when you bring the Big Show to Hooterville is longer lines outside the sideshow tent than for the main event.

Well, it is clear now that Cincinnati, early in the city council campaign, is selling most of its tickets to the freak show outside the big tent.

All nine seats on Cincinnati City Council are up for election this fall; 18 candidates are running for them, including the nine incumbents.

But if you want to find the main event in Cincinnati politics, you have to follow the money.

The money, in this case, is flowing to the top, to the candidates the money people believe can be elected mayor.

Being elected mayor in Cincinnati is not much of a trick, at least since the present system was adopted 10 years ago. All you have to do is finish first in the council field race, and if you start with high name recognition and plenty of cash, you can reasonably hope to do that.

The early campaign finance reports showed that three candidates leave the rest of the field eating dust when it comes to raising money. Mayor Roxanne Qualls reported $173,051 raised so far. Republican Charles Winburn, a prodigious money-raiser, had $164,645 in contributions.

But headlining the sideshow line-up was Republican Phil Heimlich, the councilman the GOP has decided should be mayor, who had raised a mind-boggling $316,774.

These three had two-thirds of the money in the first round of campaign finance reports.

Lump all the money raised by the nine incumbents together and it amounts to 87 percent of the $1.072 million raised so far. The nine non-incumbents shared the remaining 13 percent.

And there are people out there who scratch their heads every time the incumbents win.

Mr. Winburn and a Democratic incumbent, Minette Cooper, put forth the theory that the reason nobody but a handful of would-be mayors could raise significant money for the campaign was Cincinnati's new campaign contribution limits law, which limits individual donors to $1,000 per candidate.

The reasoning there is a little hard to follow. We prefer a simpler explanation.

It would appear that the people who give money to political campaigns in Cincinnati - particularly the lawyers, the bankers, the developers and other business people who have a keen interest in what goes on at 801 Plum Street - have decided that the sideshow, the mayor's race, is far more interesting than anything going on farther down the ticket.

Maybe it doesn't matter to them so much any more which nine talking heads are warming seats in council chambers on Wednesday afternoons, since little of monumental importance seems to come out of that place these days.

But the mayor has at least some clout, if only as the sole possessor of a bully pulpit. So the sideshow has become the main attraction and will produce hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV advertising, direct mail and general hoopla over the next seven weeks. The sideshow will be everywhere.

Lock your chickens in the barn.

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