Sunday, April 25, 1999

Anyone going to vote?


Small minority will decide big change for city

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If we had a dime, or maybe a quarter, for every time in the last few weeks that someone has asked us which side will prevail in Cincinnati's Issue 4 debate, you would not be reading this column.

        That's because we would have taken our coins, put them in an armored car and bought the first South Seas island we could find.

        There's only one answer to the question; and it is usually unsatisfying for the person who asks:

        Whichever side gets the most votes.

        This election coming up nine days from now, in which Cincinnati voters will go to the polls and decide whether they want to make the most dramatic change in city government since Calvin Coolidge was president, is not like most elections.

        This time, there will be nothing else on the ballot to motivate Cincinnati voters to come out to the polls other than Issue 4, unless folks are just hell-bent to put on their voting shoes and march to the polls to vote for or against a

        police communications levy.

        You see, we just can't figure out who is going to show up for this thing.

        Representative democracy has taken a beating in America in recent years; voter turnout has generally been appalling compared to the rest of the free world. And municipal elections in Cincinnati are no exception.

        Some believe that only about 20 percent of Cincinnati's registered voters will take the time May 4 to vote, which amounts to about 43,000 people out of a population of about 345,000.

        And if it rains next Tuesday — well, you could probably invite the entire voting population to your house for dinner Wednesday night.

        Let's leave aside for the moment the implications that a relative handful of people could end up deciding an issue that would completely change the way Cincinnati is governed.

        Instead, think about what that means for Coming Together for Cincinnati, the campaign committee that is out pushing Issue 4.

        Sometime this week, you can expect to start seeing the first TV commercials from Coming Together for Cincinnati, produced by the same Columbus media firm that sold the stadium sales tax a few years ago.

        We have not yet seen the product that will hit the airwaves, but we can hazard a pretty good guess on the basic message. Chances are, it will go something like this:

        You should be able to elect a mayor. A real mayor. A mayor with authority who will be accountable to the people. Cincinnati needs someone who is in charge.

        That's a message that can be spit out in 30-second, made-for-TV chunks; but, of course, it's not the whole story. Media campaigns are not designed to provide details; they are designed to motivate and create desire. Yes, Issue 4 means that, after 70-some years of council electing a mayor or the goofy “top vote-getter” scheme, Cincinnatians would have a real election for mayor, where candidates actually have to declare for that office and run for it.

        But it would also create a mayor who would have substantially more power than the current brand, whose function has never been quite clear. This mayor could veto legislation, appoint the council's committee chairmen, initiate the hiring and firing of city managers, and generally be in charge.

        Coming Together for Cincinnati has a real challenge on its hands because, in Cincinnati, there seems to be a deep ancestral memory of the bad old days before the city had good government, creating an almost instinctual resistance to giving any one person too much power.

        But the idea of actually being able to choose between candidates for mayor — candidates who would presumably have to say something during the campaign about what they would do as mayor — is an idea that could they might be able to sell to the typical Cincinnati voter.

        The trick will be getting that voter up on his or her hind legs and actually going to a polling place.

        Maybe they should just tell that voter there will be no lines, no waiting.

        Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at hwilkinson@enquirer.com

Apathy, confusion define mayor issue