Monday, January 22, 2001

Challengers for Luken are scarce

He's the front-runner for city's new strong mayor

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Any Republican wanting to take on Mayor Charlie Luken in this election year — the first in which Cincinnati's mayor is chosen under a direct election system — will find no line, no waiting.

        At this point, the Republican Party has no obvious candidate.

        “No one's fooling themselves here,” said Joe Deters, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. “It's very difficult for Republicans to win one of nine council seats in this city, much less go head to head with Charlie Luken.”

        Mr. Luken wouldn't say Saturday which Republican candidates he fears will run against him.

        “I'm hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” he said, adding that the best “would be if I can get re-elected, and do so handily.”

        Mr. Luken also wouldn't say whether he feels he deserves to remain unchallenged, only that he is ready to face any opposition.

        “I have a good record, and I am proud of it. I have a clear vision, and I want to share it,” he said.

        So far, Mr. Luken said the only person who has openly expressed interest in running is Councilman Charile Winburn.

        “On the floor of council, Charlie talks about it every week,” he said.

        Mr. Winburn and Councilman Phil Heimlich — two Republican council members who cannot run for re-election to council this year because of the term-limits law — would be the most likely mayoral contenders, but Mr. Deters said neither has expressed interest to party leaders yet.

        “I have no plans to run for anything this year,” Mr. Winburn said.

        Mr. Heimlich said he, too, is not interested.

        “That's just not in my plans,” he said.

        It was the Republican Party and their allies in the business community who pushed hardest for a change in Cincinnati's electoral system. They were successful in 1999 when Cincinnati voters passed a charter amendment called Issue 4.

        Issue 4 replaces the present system, in which the mayor is the top vote-getter in the council election and has no more than ceremonial duties.

        Under the new system, the mayor is not a member of council, but is, in effect, the chief executive officer of the city, with veto power over council legislation and the ability to choose the city manager, with the consent of council.

        On Sept. 11, a nonpartisan primary election for mayor is scheduled. The top two finishers in that race will face each other in the November election.

        No party affiliations will be listed on the ballot, but, as with council races, the political parties — Democratic, Republican and the Charter Committee — can field their endorsed candidates.

        Mr. Luken, a Democrat who was mayor in the late 1980s, ran for council in 1999 after having spent seven years in TV news and two years in Congress. He picked up right where he left off, finishing first in the council race, just as he had in 1987 and 1989.

        Leaders of all the parties acknowledge that Mr. Luken will be hard to beat.

        In his last campaign, Mr. Luken pulled in campaign dollars from traditional Democratic sources such as organized labor and from Republican sources, such as the $25,000 he received from Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner in 1999.

        Fund raising for Mr. Luken's re-election campaign this year will kick off Feb. 12 with a breakfast at the Westin Hotel. Mr. Luken said he has assembled a committee of business and civic leaders to organize the effort.

        Mr. Luken spent a relatively modest $184,343 to be elected the top vote-getter in 1999. Four candidates spent far more — Mr. Heimlich ($504,176), Republican Pat DeWine ($363,176), Mr. Winburn ($288,152) and Democrat Todd Portune ($243,862).

        In 1999, while running first citywide, Mr. Luken was the first-place finisher in 19 of the city's 26 wards. In the other seven wards, he was among the top five.

        While the suburbs surrounding Cincinnati vote overwhelmingly Republican, the city's electorate grew more and more Democratic through the '90s. City voters have elected Democratic majorities to council in the last three council elections.

        The Republicans, said Hamilton County Democratic Party co-chair Tim Burke, “struggle inside the city the way we struggle in the suburbs.”

        Candidates have until midsummer to file petitions for mayor. Mr. Deters said he is certain the Republicans will field a candidate.

        “I can't see us letting this go by,” Mr. Deters said.

        Some Republicans are not convinced the party needs to compete in the mayor's race.

        “I think Charlie (Luken) does a great job, and he's going to be hard to beat,” said Gloria Morgan, a Republican ward chair in East Price Hill. “When you look at Charlie, you're not looking at a party line.”

        What the Republican Party needs to do, Ms. Morgan said, “is find a candidate who can identify with the neighborhoods and not be totally fixed on downtown. That's what Charlie Luken does. He goes to the neighborhoods.”

        Mr. Deters said that even though Democratic voters dominate city politics, a Republican candidate could win the mayor's job by hitting the right issues.

        “I think if you had somebody who would hit hard on school choice, that would help, because it appeals to a lot of people,” Mr. Deters said. “And hit hard on crime. That's a real concern to a lot of city voters, particularly African-Americans.”

        Mr. DeWine, a first-term Republican councilman who says he will run for re-election this year, said a Republican candidate for mayor could make the case that “the city hasn't done well under Democratic leadership.”

        “There are any number of issues, from how the city spends its money to development issues, that a Republican could run on,” he said.

        “I believe we will have a candidate, someone who can compete,” Mr. DeWine said. “It doesn't look good now. But things change pretty quickly in politics.”


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