Live, on stage . . . it's Jim Tarbell!

Sunday, July 5, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Tarbell
It's show time, folks.

Some time ago, we took a look at Cincinnati and concluded that for pure theater, Republican Charles Winburn could not be beat. A true performance artist; the Laurie Anderson of city council. The hardest working man in show business.

Well, now he has some competition.

Now, Jim Tarbell is a Cincinnati city councilman.

The Wednesday afternoon matinee at the Plum Street Theater may never be the same.

Mr. Tarbell, the longtime restaurant owner who turned the Broadway Commons effort into a crusade, nearly was elected to council on his own last fall, falling short of Republican Jeanette Cissell by about 350 votes.

He ran as a Charterite, a candidate of that longstanding, self-appointed "watchdog" committee that exists to preserve the council-manager form of government.

His running mate was Charter incumbent Bobbie Sterne, who had been in city hall for a quarter of a century. Mrs. Sterne won; Mr. Tarbell didn't. But because the term limits law prevents Mrs. Sterne from running for re-election in 1999, many assumed that, at some point, she would step down and turn her seat over to a Charterite who could then run as an incumbent and give the Charter Committee good odds on keeping a presence on council as the new century dawns.

Well, Wednesday, she did; and she did it as quietly as she had served. She simply got up from her seat in the council meeting and left.

Mayor Roxanne Qualls immediately picked her replacement; and, not surprisingly, it was Mr. Tarbell.

So Bobbie Sterne, this quiet, dignified, quintessential Charterite, was replaced by the toothy smile and bald dome of Jim Tarbell -- a man who has been known to parade around town from time to time dressed up like Peanut Jim, the legendary peanut vendor from Crosley Field.

Charterites have a reputation as a somewhat staid bunch, and Mr. Tarbell does not fit the mold. But it is not the first time the Charter Committee has gone outside the ranks when its existence was threatened -- when Councilman Arn Bortz resigned in 1989, they passed over longtime Charterites and picked Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams as his replacement, even though Mr. Williams had never voted in a Cincinnati election.

Mr. Tarbell, though, is considerably more engaged in the politics of this city than Mr. Williams.

His downtown restaurant, Arnold's Bar and Grill, has been something of a hangout for political people for decades; and, as a businessman and property owner in Over-the-Rhine, he has found himself in the middle of any number of city hall battles involving that neighborhood over the years.

At Wednesday's council meeting, after appointing Mr. Tarbell to the seat, Ms. Qualls told Mr. Winburn rather pointedly that if he considered himself to be the "fire" on city council, Mr. Tarbell would be the "backfire" that she and her allies on council would use to battle the blaze.

But when Mr. Tarbell made his inaugural speech to council Wednesday, with his family lined up behind him, no heat was generated.

Mr. Tarbell was low-key -- in fact, barely audible at times -- and his speech was full of references to Charter icons of the past such as Murray Seasongood and Charles Taft, dropped into the speech to assure the many longtime Charterites in the audience that he is truly one of them.

It was a difficult speech to quote from; one radio reporter was practically banging her head against the press table, trying to will him into an interesting sound bite she could play on the air without hypnotizing her audience.

Mr. Tarbell seemed determined to show his serious side.

But, at city hall, many are assuming that before long, the showman will break through.

They will not bat an eye that day he shows up in council chambers in top hat and tails and dances on his desk to the tune of "Puttin' on the Ritz."