Sunday, September 24, 2000

Stadium debate may be pivotal

Single issue could determine commission race

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bob Bedinghaus felt like a million bucks. Actually, the Hamilton County commissioner felt like 453.2 million bucks.

        There was a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back everywhere he turned at the Paul Brown Stadium open house last month.

[photo] Bob Bedinghaus talks with patrons of the Engine House Restaurant in Norwood.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        “It's been like this all night,” Mr. Bedinghaus said at the time.

        But that same number — $453.2 million, the price of the Bengals' new home — could cost the Delhi Township Republican a second elected term.

        Mr. Bedinghaus is being challenged by Cincinnati City Councilman Todd Portune for a four-year term on the three-member county commission.

        The two candidates are expected to spend a combined $1 million, most of it in TV advertising. A third candidate, Libertarian Paul Naberhaus of Hyde Park, is running a self-financed campaign.

        “A single issue can be clearer for citizens to focus on than an overall record,” said Herb Asher, a professor of political science at Ohio State University for 30 years. “When you start talking about an issue like the stadiums, it's something that has clarity in nearly every voter's mind.

        “It was a good investment or it wasn't.”

[photo] Todd Portune speaks to the Women's Political Caucus.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        Mr. Bedinghaus championed, then stuck with, that investment as it grew from a $544 million deal for two stadiums to more than $900 million for the stadiums and other riverfront development.

        Now, with more than $46 million in overruns at the football stadium, Mr. Bedinghaus might pay the political price.

        What Mr. Portune blasts as mismanagement, Mr. Bedinghaus defends as a worthy investment in the community's riverfront that will pay dividends for generations to come.

        The Bedinghaus camp, meanwhile, accuses Mr. Portune of being part of a do-nothing city council that Mr. Bedinghaus says has wasted millions in tax dollars in failed attempts to improve the city's neediest neighborhoods.

        Mr. Portune, 42, of Westwood is running against history as much he is running against Mr. Bedinghaus.

        Largely because of Republican strength in the suburbs, no Democrat has been elected to the commission since Vincent H. Beckman in 1964. Mr. Beckman was defeated four years later.

        But in his fourth term on city council, Mr. Portune already has strong name recognition. Only Mayor Charlie Luken got more votes in last year's city council race.

        Mr. Portune supported the stadium sales tax increase in 1996, but was one of four councilmen who voted in 1995against giving the county authority to build the stadiums, and has criticized the county's oversight during construction of Paul Brown Stadium and of the lease between the county and the Bengals.


    Bedinghaus: Says the community is on right track. The $46 million in cost overruns at Paul Brown Stadium is “pretty typical” for a job of that size. Thinks stadiums have made a new riverfront possible.
    Portune: Thinks the county has mismanaged the stadium projects, has wasted tax dollars and hidden information from the public.

$1 billion county debt

   Bedinghaus: County has used sound financial policies — such as setting aside reserve funds and issuing debt that is recallable after 10 years. County has managed to keep its cash flow intact.
    Portune: Cuyahoga County built three sports arenas and kept its debt below Hamilton County's. Thinks county is due for a “serious belt tightening” and wants to bring in County Auditor Dusty Rhodes to review spending.

Economic development

   Bedinghaus: Current policy is an attempt to keep and attract business to the county without “giving away the store.” Commissioners have not approved a tax break which the local school district disapproved. Wants to work more closely with Northern Kentucky.
    Portune: Opposes giving companies full tax breaks for relocation to or staying in Hamilton County. Backs a policy that abates taxes that come into the government but still forces companies to pay schools the percentage of tax they are due.

Portune's issues

    Western Hamilton County Collaborative Plan: Will support only a “proper” plan that supports existing bedrock communities. He says the collaborative plan shut out public from decision-making and will carve up precious green space in the outlying areas of the county, while inner-ring communities such as Lockland, Norwood, St. Bernard and Reading deteriorate.
    Mass transit: Advocate of a “light rail” system that would use existing infrastructure to link communities throughout the county.
    Auditing: Says county auditor Dusty Rhodes has been denied the ability to do his job, and that using the office correctly can save taxpayers money.

Bedinghaus' issues

    Foster care: Hamilton County embarked on an innovative advertising campaign to recruit foster parents, peppering billboards and television airwaves with the message that the county needs foster families willing to care for these needy children.
    Abortion: The county eliminated abortion as an elective service under the county health care plan, which is funded by tax dollars and offered to 6,000 employees. The county also put an end to funding a Planned Parenthood program that was to be paid for with tax dollars.
    Welfare reform: The county has cut the number of people on welfare by more than half. Along the way, Mr. Bedinghaus says, the county stood up for working mothers by offering child care subsidies.

    Bob Bedinghaus:
    Todd Portune:
    Paul Naberhaus:

        Mr. Portune says his campaign is about changing a power structure that has not served taxpayers well.

        “Really, this campaign is about a direct challenge to the power elite and power structure which has been in control for too long,” Mr. Portune said. “I'm about breaking up that power structure doing business behind closed doors.”

        He finds support from voters like Mike Tolbert, 47.

        Mr. Tolbert voted for the stadium sales tax but said he will vote for Mr. Portune this fall. The Norwood Democrat said he is angry over the lease the county negotiated, and that the stadiums are so expensive.

        “The deal was changed on us after we voted to raise the tax,” Mr. Tolbert said. “There is nothing that anyone can say that will change my mind. It all comes down to how much those stadiums cost.”

        Mr. Bedinghaus, 41, is proud of his stance on stadiums and other riverfront development issues.

        If not for himself and other county politicians, Mr. Bedinghaus said, the city would have watched idly as the Bengals left town.

        “You couldn't find two people who come at issues any differently than me and Todd,” Mr. Bedinghaus said. “We'll present a very strong message that we are on the right path on the riverfront.”

        Mr. Bedinghaus said Mr. Portune would bring a “liberal, activist” approach that would disrupt county government.

        Recently, Mr. Bedinghaus sent a letter to anti-abortion households in which he said Mr. Portune has been a “leading proponent of the horrific practice of partial birth abortions.”

        “That's really vile,” Mr. Portune said of the letter. “And it's an outright fabrication meant to inflame people. The city doesn't legislate in the area of abortions.”

        The commissioner defended the letter, saying abortion will define the two candidates for many voters.

        “I'm not surprised Todd is sensitive to this issue,” Mr. Bedinghaus said. “Abortion is always one of the most hotly contested issues in any political race. I'm not surprised he wants to deflect that.”

        Mr. Bedinghaus said too much has been made of the cost overruns at Paul Brown Stadium.

        Overages are “pretty typical” when building a stadium, he said. The most important thing is that they did it right.

        “You only get one opportunity to make this kind of change,” Mr. Bedinghaus said. “I approach politics from the position that I'm not afraid to lose an election. That gives me the freedom to stick with a project from beginning to end.”

        Rick Kemper, a Democrat from Norwoodsaid he doesn't care about political parties in this race. He's voting for Mr. Bedinghaus.

        “He's got (guts),” Mr. Kemper said. “Bob stood up for something when no one else would.”

        Most Republicans will support Mr. Bedinghaus on election day, said Rick Bryan, Republican vice mayor of Blue Ash. He said Mr. Bedinghaus took a risk for the community, and now the community should support him.

        “I hope this race isn't just a referendum on the stadium,” Mr. Bryan said. “But when you strip the emotion away, if the city had lost the Bengals and the Reds, it would not be as desirable a place to live.”

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