Sunday, April 09, 2000

Democratic rookie doesn't act like one




BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        All the wise guys and know-it-alls of Cincinnati politics decided months ago that John Cranley, the 26-year-old Democrat taking on Steve Chabot in the 1st Congressional District, doesn't stand a chance.

        But young Mr. Cranley, it seems, hasn't been checking his messages lately.

        He is not at all behaving like the typical young, first-time Democratic candidate in Hamilton County, the kind that gets his name on the ballot and then goes into a cryogenic freeze while somebody at party headquarters forgets to thaw him out before the election.

        What we have here is a Price Hill boy who went to St. Xavier High School (Elder grads will take note of that, we're sure), went on to Harvard Law School and is a couple of weeks away from finishing up a degree at Harvard Divinity School.

        If you want to know what it is like hearing him give a political speech, imagine Jerry Mathers doing a Bobby Kennedy impersonation.

        He looks like the neighborhood kid who ran his bike through your flower bed, and he has all the hand-chopping, hair-brushing moves that have come to be known in American politics as “Kennedyesque.” The kid knows all the words; he seems to be learning the tune, too.

        Mr. Cranley didn't exactly start his political career (and, believe it, he means to have one) by thinking small. Instead of getting lost in the shuffle of a 20-plus candidate field for Cincinnati City Council, he is taking on the Incredible Hulk of Cincinnati politics — Mr. Chabot, who, since upsetting an incumbent Democrat to win the seat six years ago, has taken on all comers and left them spitting teeth into the dust.

        While Mr. Cranley is finishing up at Harvard this month, he may want to pop in at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where former Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls has a teaching fellowship, and ask her what it is like to take on Steve Chabot.

        Two years ago, Ms. Qualls was the strongest possible candidate the Democrats could have fielded. But there are unending herds of Republican voters in the 60 percent of the 1st District that is not in the city of Cincinnati, and they sunk Ms. Qualls, who ended up with 47 percent of the vote.

        Ms. Qualls spent well over $1 million and had nearly that much spent on her behalf by labor unions and others and still managed to come up short in what had been pegged as one of the hottest races in the country.

        This week, Mr. Cranley's campaign will file a new set of campaign finance reports that will show that he has about $150,000 in the bank — money he raised in an eight-week period. Not bad for a rookie.

        Last week, the young Democrat had a crew from MTV tailing him around, for the purpose of figuring out whether his campaign was worth a feature on the rock music network's 2000 campaign coverage.

        Friday, Mr. Cranley started what is likely to be a long string of press conferences and press releases blasting Mr. Chabot for taking money from tobacco political action committees and for the fact that, so far, slightly over half of the money Mr. Chabot has raised for the campaign has come from PACs, mostly business PACs.

        This young pup can be expected to nip at the heels of the big dog with these kinds of attacks from now until November and will, at the very least, make Mr. Chabot spend some of his campaign stash, which is up to about $560,000. The conventional wisdom, even among Mr. Cranley's fellow Democrats, is that while his chances of winning are slim, he will be just enough of a candidate to make Mr. Chabot's life miserable. And, in politics, if you can't win, that's good enough.

        Mr. Cranley, it appears, does not see it that way. He seems to think he can win. He must wake up every morning humming a certain tune.

        You know the one. It's a tune about an ant. And a rubber tree plant.

        Howard Wilkinson covers politics. He can be reached at 768-8388 or email hwilkinson@enquirer.com.