Sunday, October 10, 1999

Luken changes race for mayor

Family name gives him edge

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In mid-June, when Charlie Luken stood in front of the boarded-up Tyler Davidson Fountain and announced he was running for Cincinnati City Council, everything about the 1999 council campaign changed.

        Suddenly, all those candidates who thought they could become top vote-getter and, thus, mayor for the next two years, started to have second thoughts about their chances.

        Charlie Luken, they knew, was not your average non- ‘incumbent candidate.

        The 47-year-old Democrat entered the race only days after resigning as the WLWT-TV (Channel 5) news anchor, a job that, for nearly six years, allowed him to enter the homes of thousands of Cincinnati voters every night at 6 and 11.

        But he could have holed up in a remote mountain cabin for those six years, never seeing

        or talking to anyone, and he still would have entered the race in June with a name, face and voice well- known to most Cincinnatians.

        He entered the race and automatically became a candidate for mayor. Again.

        What has really grabbed the attention of the political establishment in Cincinnati about the Luken candidacy this year is that, if he is top vote-getter and becomes mayor in 1999, he will be well-positioned to run for mayor in 2001 — the year when the city's new direct mayoral election system begins.

A popular mayor
        Mr. Luken was, after all, an extremely popular mayor of the city for six years in the 1980s, and he served a term in Congress before giving up politics for the TV news business.

        He also carries a political name that is second only to Taft in potency at the ballot box — his father, Tom, is a former mayor and councilman and held the same congressional seat for 16 years; his uncle, the late Jim Luken, was also a mayor and councilman, wildly popular in Cincinnati's union households.

        People in Cincinnati have been voting for Lukens for more than 30 years.

        “I don't need the name recognition, like some candidates,” Mr. Luken said of his return to politics. “I need to tell people why I want to come back.”

        On the stump, at the dozens of “candidate night” events that community councils and organizations hold every council election year, Mr. Luken almost always asks people in the audience to watch cable television on Wednesdays to find out why he is running — specifically, to watch the broadcasts of Cincinnati City Council meetings.

        “I have seen a lot of councils, some good, some not so good; and I have been on both kinds,” Mr. Luken told a classroom full of below-voting-age girls at McAuley High School last week. “But I have never seen the kind of chaos and disorganization that you can see if you watch a council meeting on TV.”

        “Every week, we have people on council who will change their minds in mid-sentence, right before your eyes. It is ridiculous.”

Against "spending frenzy'
        True to his reputation as being conservative for a Democrat, he also rails against the “spending frenzy” of the current council.

        “Sooner or later, this city is going to be in a money squeeze,” he said at a recent AFL-CIO rally for union-endorsed candidates. “We have to stop wasting taxpayers' money on council members pet projects.”

        But, as a candidate with a long association with organized labor, he has consistently said he will oppose any effort on council to “privatize” city services by farming them out to private contractors, as Republican Councilman Phil Heimlich has proposed.

Top vote-getter system
        Some in Cincinnati say that Mr. Luken is indirectly and unintentionally responsible for the breakdown of cooperation on council in recent years, at least in part.

        One of the legacies of his nearly six years as mayor is the “top vote-getter” system of electing the mayor, an idea that was pushed by Mr. Luken and then-councilman, now-congressman Steve Chabot and passed by the voters in 1987.

        Mr. Luken was the first beneficiary of the top vote-getter system. He was elected mayor in the first such election, 1987, and, two years later, did it again as the choice of 64 percent of those who went to the polls, a record that has not been broken.

        “Of course, the fact that he has been top vote-getter and been mayor gives him an advantage,” said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier University Political scientist and longtime Cincinnati political observer.

        “Some people say he will be hurt by the fact that he hasn't been on a ballot for nine years and there are a lot of new, younger voters,” Mr. Beaupre said. “But it's the older voters who show up. They remember what kind of mayor he was.”

        The stretch of Mr. Luken's six- year run as mayor that people remember most is the two-year period between the elections of 1985 and 1987, when he was key member of the “gang of five” — a coalition of two moderate Democrats (Mr. Luken and John Mirlisena) and three conservative Republicans (Ken Blackwell, Mr. Chabot and James Cissell) who ruled council and froze the other four councilmen out of leadership positions.

        Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Luken were the key figures in the coalition. After the 1985 election, the five held a series of secret meetings on the campus of Xavier University and ham mered out a council re-organization plan that gave Mr. Luken the mayor's job and Mr. Blackwell the finance committee chairmanship, which he had coveted, and chairmanship of an executive committee that screened all council legislation.

        “I always had the impression that Charlie didn't want to do a lot of the heavy lifting,” said Mr. Blackwell, “He was willing to let me do the grunt work and take the accolades as mayor.”

        Mr. Luken's success as mayor and as a candidate, said Mr. Blackwell, now Ohio's secretary of state, was due in part to the fact that he was able to “attach himself at the hip to most of our conservative Republican positions,” such as fiscal discipline and increased funding for police and fire.

        As mayor, Mr. Luken recruited then-Procter & Gamble chairman John Smale to head a commission to study the city's infrastructure and how to fix it.

        Four years after the “gang of five” was formed — Mr. Blackwell and Mr. Luken — personal friends but political adversaries — went head-to-head in 1990 in the race for the 1st Congressional District seat that had been held for 16 years by the Cincinnati mayor's father, Tom Luken.

        Mr. Luken won the race with just 51 percent of the vote. When he went to Washington in January 1991, the Democrats were still in control, but Mr. Luken soon became frustrated with the pace of Congress and hated the constant travel and the pressures it put on him trying to raise three children.

Travel saga
        Once during his term in Congress, Mr. Luken and Mr. Blackwell — by then a Bush administration ambassador to the United Nations on human rights issues — found themselves sitting together on the same plane from Cincinnati to Washington.

        Mr. Blackwell was headed to Switzerland and a luxury hotel for a human rights conference; Mr. Luken was headed back to Washington and the Capitol Hill apartment he shared with another congressman.

        “You're going to sleep in Geneva tonight and I'm going to sleep on a couch,” Mr. Luken said. “Who won this election anyway?”

        In the summer of 1992, Mr. Luken abruptly announced that he was not running for a second term, a move that greatly agitated his father, who had assumed a person named Luken could hold that seat for life.

        “He never said a thing to me about it,” Tom Luken said.

        But, by that time, the elder Luken was used to learning about his son's political plans from others.

        “As a practical matter, I haven't had much influence on his career choices,” Tom Luken said. “That fellow has his own head.”


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