Return to saloonkeeper rule would be sobering to some
Sunday, December 6, 1998

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There was a time, back when your grandma was young, that Cincinnati was run by saloonkeepers.

Twenty-six of them, as a matter of fact. Back in the bad old days, pre-1925, before there was a Charter Committee, a city manager or a city charter, there was a ward system in Cincinnati -- and the saloonkeepers ran the wards, and the Republican boss ran the city..

But, in the 1920s, the Charter Committee -- then, as now, a group of earnest good government types -- threw out the bosses and the hacks and the saloonkeepers and replaced them with a nine-member city council, a professional city manager and a city charter that allowed for no monkey business, whatsoever.

Today, there is only one saloonkeeper on city council -- Jim Tarbell, the restaurant owner chosen to replace Bobbie Sterne when she retired from council last summer. The irony is that it was the Charter Committee that chose the tavern owner for a council seat. Rud Hynicka, the corrupt boss the Charterites threw out 70-odd years ago, must have noted that with interest, in whatever part of the nether world to which he was assigned.

Maybe the Charterites were just waiting for the right saloonkeeper to come along.

Still, the Charterites must be feeling a bit unsettled by all the talk in Cincinnati these days of scrapping the governing system their ancestors created 70 years ago.

Build Cincinnati, this movement calls itself. It is essentially a group of young professionals -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- who are crafting a plan they hope to place on the May primary ballot. .

Most of these people are in their 20s or 30s, but they have been operating under adult supervision. The two party chairmen -- Mike Allen of the Republicans and Tim Burke of the Democrats -- have been overseeing the project, along with NAACP President Milton Hinton..

On the surface at least, the Build Cincinnati plan would seem to have something for everybody. Republicans and their allies in the business community would get a directly elected mayor who would not be the toothless critter the charter created; this mayor would be the chief executive officer of the city.

That means boss.

Instead of a city manager to run the show, Cincinnati would have a city administrator. It is not entirely clear what this worthy would end up doing all day, aside from licking the mayor's boots. It sounds like the kind of a job that, if you were a CEO, you would give to your sister's worthless son after he flunked law school.

Those African-American political leaders who have lobbied for a council elected from districts would, under this plan, get their wish.

The problem is, not all African-American political leaders in Cincinnati believe that electing council from districts is such a good idea. They believe it might limit blacks to two or three districts where black voters have a strong majority. And they look at the last two council elections -- when, running in an at-large field race, four of the nine elected were African Americans.

They see district elections as a cure in search of a disease. .

Then there are the Democrats. A lot of Democrats are involved in the Build Cincinnati movement. A lot more are wondering what is in it for the Democratic Party. After all, they win majorities on council regularly; and, in the decades to come, the city is only going to become more Democratic, not less so. Why create some districts that would almost guarantee a Republican presence on council? .

Build Cincinnati may or may not get its plan on the ballot next spring. It is massive; it is wide-ranging; it can be shot at by opponents from any one of a dozen directions.

.

If it does make it to the ballot, the Charterites will fight it with whatever resources they have, because if it does pass, the charter form of government will go up in smoke.

And, should that happen, the Charterites will once again have to head for the hills and become the Fidelistas of Cincinnati politics. Just like the bad old days. Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays.

Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at <hwilkinson@enquirer.com

Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.

WILKINSON ARCHIVE