Voters ready to send
in lions over stadiums

The Cincinnati Enquirer

This is the time of year when a politics writer suddenly becomes very popular on the rubber-chicken circuit.

Nobody wants to hear what a politics writer has to say in January, but when the fall comes, the leaves turn gold and there is a nip in the air, every civic club or senior citizens' group or neighborhood coffee klatsch wants to hear some political talk.

And we are glad to do it. We sit up late at night scratching out notes, trying to come up with a cogent presentation on the Cincinnati City Council race, the battle for the mayor's job, campaign finance reform and the Great Issues of the Day.

These days, though, when we get up to the podium to deliver our homily, something strange happens. No less than 90 seconds and no more than two minutes into our prepared remarks, a hand shoots up in the audience - a hand attached to a citizen who quite obviously has something to say.

And, so far this election season, what that citizen says is always the same:

''What in the name of Sam Hill is going on with this stadium mess?'' or words to that effect.

Commissioners, take cover

At that moment, we look out across the audience and see neck veins bulging, eyes popping, heads bobbing up and down. And we hear a rough rumbling sound from the assembled citizens that reminds us of the noise the torch-bearing burghers in the old Frankenstein movies used to make.

So, we just toss our carefully prepared notes aside and talk about the ''stadium mess'' for the next hour or so.

Politicians such as the Hamilton County commissioners in years like this, when they are not up for re-election, may not get out much - but, if they do, they might consider wearing protective head gear.

People are hot. People are bothered.

They went out and voted, overwhelmingly, for a sales tax increase to build new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals. During that campaign, they were told a new football stadium on the riverfront would cost $184.5 million. Now, they are told the price tag is $400.3 million.

Council isn't in the clear

To his great good fortune, Bob Bedinghaus, the county commissioner who engineered the stadium deal, does not have to run for re-election until 2000. Tom Neyer Jr., the appointed commissioner who was not around when the ''stadium mess'' began, has to run next year - and he may want to find a mirror and practice his innocent bystander look.

But the nine incumbent members of Cincinnati City Council are running for re-election this year; and they, too, are hearing plenty about stadiums when out on the stump.

Ultimately, it is not their issue; the county commissioners are calling the shots on stadium locations, construction contracts and the like. But they will, before this campaign is over 44 days from now, take some heat for turning the question of stadiums over to the county commissioners in the first place.

Dominant issue

Between now and then, they will go to countless neighborhood candidate forums, luncheons thrown by this special interest group or that, radio debates and the like and they, too, will be peppered with questions about what is going on with the stadiums.

After all, there are no other overriding issues in this council campaign. They can talk about putting more police officers in the street, turning over city services to private companies, keeping sexually oriented businesses out of the city, helping the schools, or whatever else strikes their fancies, but no issue dominates the discussion in the lunch rooms and barber shops of Cincinnati like the stadium debate, an issue over which they have little control.

No topic of discussion even comes close. Except for Marv Albert, of course.

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