Shhhh! They really want to be mayor
Sunday, November 29, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The unspeakable is about to occur.

Once the calendar turns to December, the Cincinnati City Council campaign is likely to begin in earnest, with challengers jockeying for party endorsements and incumbents dialing for dollars.

And with that biennial marathon comes the technically nonexistent race for Cincinnati mayor, an otherworldly affair that both is and isn't.

It is because certain candidates, particularly incumbents, clearly lust after the mayor's office, and it isn't because no candidate dares to say he or she is running for it.

It is the one office we know of that you run for by saying, repeatedly, that you are not running for it.

Eleven years ago, Cincinnati went into a collective vapor lock and adopted the system of choosing a mayor that has plagued City Hall ever since - one in which the top vote-getter in the field race for nine council seats becomes the mayor.

Being mayor of Cincinnati looks good on the resume, we suppose, but it is of dubious value as a political power base - unless you include the power to sign proclamations, snip ribbons and play traffic cop at the interminable gab-fests council holds every Wednesday at 2 p.m.

If you want this job - and some do - you can do whatever you like to get it. You can raise piles of money; you can buy up all the TV ad time in sight; you can issue press releases by the bushel - but there is one thing you cannot do.

You cannot say you want to be mayor.

You can't even have others say it for you, while you stand by humbly receiving their blessings. Moi? Oh no, I am not worthy . . .

Phil Heimlich, the Republican councilman, thought he could be mayor the last time around, and his handlers in the Republican Party proclaimed him their candidate for the top spot. After all, he had come so close to knocking off Roxanne Qualls two years before, and the moneybags were more than willing to shower him with a ticker-tape parade of campaign checks.

In the end, he spent $456,352 - far more than had ever been spent by an individual council candidate. It worked out to $12.04 per vote, and landed Mr. Heimlich in sixth place. There is no prize but a council seat for finishing sixth; he might as well have finished seventh - but that spot was occupied by Democrat Tyrone Yates, who spent $1.14 per vote.

Mr. Heimlich's plans went awry because by lusting after the mayor's office so publicly, he lost nearly every voter who wanted to keep Ms. Qualls as mayor. Those people made a point of not giving Mr. Heimlich one of his or her other eight votes.

What the top-vote-getter system has created - other than turning council meetings into a cable-access version of Hollywood Squares - is an election in which the candidate who is to be mayor has to draw strong support from nearly every geographic and demographic sector of the city, which is not a bad thing.

We see another one of these artificial competitions coming down the pike in 1999 between Democrat Todd Portune and Republican Charlie Winburn, both of whom seem to think they should be mayor but dare not speak the word.

Both are accomplished performance artists when it comes to drawing attention, although Mr. Winburn is likely to have the money advantage.

But both began their council careers three elections ago, and, while Mr. Portune's vote totals have risen steadily, Mr. Winburn's have been a flat line.

These two have obviously set their sights on each other, and by next fall will have totally forgotten that there are any other names on the council ballot.

The sport in this face-off will be watching which one cracks and says the word mayor first.

Howard Wilkinson's politics column runs Sundays. E-mail him at