Friday, February 16, 2001

Charlie Luken

He needs to be challenged

        Charlie Luken, strong mayor presumptive, needs a challenger.

        Not that I have anything against him, but he is being allowed to coast into what is the most important public job in the region. A job that, according to all the consulting reports, is the key to making Greater Cincinnati a viable urban center in the opening decades of the 21st Century.

        Don't interpret this as anti-Charlie Luken. He's a great candidate for mayor. He has personality, political smarts, non-political smarts, experience and smiling charm.

        He just doesn't have any competition. And that's bad. Bad for the city and bad for him.

        You don't have to look any further than the Hamilton County Courthouse to see what happens when there is a lack of political competition. Decisions get made after quiet chats and knowing nods instead of full and open debates. Philosophies become as solid and unyielding as the limestone pillars holding up the roof. It took more than 30 years for a Democrat to crack the rock of the county commissioners' office. We still have a judiciary where competitive races are a rarity.

        Nobody is at the top of their form when they train alone. Muhammad Ali would not have been the greatest without Joe Frazier. Ken Griffey Jr. does not hit home runs without a pitcher.

        For the past year, Charlie Luken has been sitting in the big chair, presiding over a fractious city council. No matter how hard he bangs the gavel, he really doesn't have the power to put the other members in line under our present system.

        That is all supposed to change this fall. The voters have reworked the charter so that we can have a real race for mayor. The idea is that competing candidates with competing ideas will thrash it out in front of the voters who will, in the end, pick one person to lead the city on a chosen course. The winner of that race will have some real power — power to reward and punish with committee appointments, power to veto, power to set an agenda and, if the cards fall right, the power to force the rest of council to get in line behind him.

        All of this power is going to go to Charlie Luken, but we don't know how he will use it because there is nobody to make him say. Right now he doesn't have a viable opponent on the horizon. The Republicans say they will put somebody up, but at this point they don't know who. All the natural predators have been scared off because of the Luken aura. Charlie Winburn has left council for a job on the state civil rights commission. Phil Heimlich realized he wouldn't get the financial support from traditional Republican backers to take on Mr. Luken.

        No matter how good Charlie Luken is, and he is pretty good, he could be better if another candidate was out there pushing him, offering alternatives, claiming to have a better way, insisting on debating the issues.

        There are issues that the next mayor — the strong mayor — will be expected to address forcefully. How will this city address its growing racial divide? What will be done to ensure the success of The Banks and the rest of the riverfront development? Should we, can we, will we expand the convention center? How will we fashion Cincinnati into the centerpiece of a regional economic dynamo?

        “Debate is good for the system. Whoever runs, I will debate them,” Mr. Luken said. And if no candidates emerge, “I don't feel the need to be in a knock down, drag 'em out campaign to articulate my vision for the city.”

        He has spoken of the issues in general terms. He talks of the need to be civil, to work together, to embrace the region's diversity. They are comforting, but not very specific statements.

        The election is still months away and in the normal course of things a candidate would hone his positions as the campaign heats up. But this campaign is unlikely to heat up.

        The need for the city to deal with issues like these is why we turned to the strong-mayor system. It will be a wasted effort if, now that we have started this engine, we let it coast in neutral.

        The Republicans, who were among those who fought to get the strong-mayor form of government, should have committed themselves early to finding a viable candidate.

        But so far they haven't.

        So it looks like Charlie Luken will win it in a walk. He probably would have won anyway. He is a great candidate and may become a great mayor. But without serious opposition, he will win this one without ever having to show us his best stuff.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail:


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