Sunday, December 05, 1999

Singing a new tune on City Council?

Fresh faces may cut out the 'Mi, mi, mi'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Maybe, just maybe, the Al Franken Decade at Cincinnati City Council is over.

        You remember the old bit on Saturday Night Live. Al Franken would come on the “Weekend Update” segment and deliver a sonorous monologue on a momentous issue of the day — Afghanistan, Three Mile Island, hostages in Tehran — and, in the end, he would ask, “What does it mean to me, Al Franken?”

        That, pretty much, has been what life at City Hall has been about in the '90sfor the parade of council members checking in and out of the place — what does it mean for me?

        Not all of them, certainly, and not all the time. But more often than not.

        A case in point: The day before Thanksgiving, the old City Council held its last meeting, and soon-to-be ex-Mayor Roxanne Qualls introduced a resolution honoring a neighborhood activist for her decades of work as a community council officer and neighborhood oganizer.

        Councilman Charlie Winburn — a man with a pre- Copernican view of the universe; he often seems to think that somehow the sun and planets revolve around him — got his 2 cents in with a speech honoring her work, adding that she had had a cameo role in a Winburn campaign commercial, as if that were her great legacy to leave to Cincinnatians yet unborn.

        It's all about me.

        Wednesday, the new Cincinnati City Council was sworn in for its two-year term, with Democrat Charlie Luken in his return engagement as mayor and two new council members, Republican Pat DeWine and Democrat Alicia Reece.

        The nine council members were a band of brothers and sisters Wednesday, like a closely knit platoon landing on the beaches of Normandy and heading into the hedgerows.

        Council inaugurals are always hopeful affairs; the council members make speeches about how they plan to work together and put the needs of the city first and themselves second, or even third.

        This year, the nine were especially motivated to sound a note of harmony. They had all just gone through an election cycle where council itself seemed to be the only issue.

        There was a general feeling among the public that the current council had not distinguished itself, that it had spent more time squabbling over trivia and preening for TV cameras than on doing the city's business. Most of the nonincumbent candidates picked up on this, some more effectively than others.

        In the previous council, much of the political gamesmanship coming out of council chambers was directed at Ms. Qualls, a three-time top vote-

        getter. Some council members seemed determined to get under her skin, just because she was more popular than they and because they thought they could get away with it.

        Ms. Qualls, to them, was like a substitute teacher in grade school. Any self-absorbed, self-respecting fifth-grader would feel duty-bound to fire off stink bombs in her class.

        Charlie Luken, on the other hand, may prove to be a different matter. He may prove to be more of the shop teacher type, the guy who coaches wrestling on the side.

        Mr. Luken has been in and around the Cincinnati political scene for 20 years now; he has dealt with the likes of Ken Blackwell, Arn Bortz, David Mann and a host of others over the years whose political skills were considerable.

        Been there; done that. The present crew of council members who might want to undercut the mayor in hopes of winning the job themselves two years from now, when there is a direct election for the job, will have to rise well before dawn to come up with a schtick Mr. Luken has not seen rolled out on the floor of Cincinnati City Council.

        Despite all the nice words spoken Wednesday about comity and cooperation, it is too much to expect that these nine politicians will not fight. Government is politics, and politics is not pretty.

        All the people of Cincinnati can hope for is that they remember who they are fighting for. And it's not Al Franken.

        E-mail at


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