Sunday, February 18, 2001

Council won't be the same without Winburn

        Cincinnati has a lack of characters. It's as if Marge Schott sponged up all the local color and left the city as pale and lifeless as a corpse at a class reunion.

        When I worked in Arizona, colorful characters were as common as cactus. There was a county supervisor who threw the book at someone. Hit 'em, too. There was a string of governors who acted like windfall fruits from Faulkner's Snopes family tree: Ev Mecham's career was put to sleep to stop the spread of hoof-in-mouth disease; Rose Mofford's big hair made the map
as the highest elevation in Phoenix; Fife Symington defenestrated from skyscraper developer to a pastry chef who was pardoned by Bill Clinton.

        You can't make this stuff up.

        So what about Cincinnati?

        Mayor Roxanne Qualls was outrageously polite.

        Mayor Charlie Luken is recklessly reasonable.

        But for seven years, we had a local politician who was life-sized, whose neon personality and 500-watt style lit up drab City Hall: Charlie Winburn.

        Mr. Winburn is a certifiable character. This is easily determined by applying a simple test: Ask anyone, “What do you think of (name here)?”

        If you ask that about Charlie Winburn, pull up a chair. Some will smile and share a Winburn story; others will roll their eyes and say “Winburn” as if it's a tropical disease that made their parakeet's legs fall off.

        “They won't have Charlie Winburn to kick around anymore,” Mr. Winburn laughed on Tuesday, the day he resigned from city council.

        Never ask a newsman to choose between good copy and good government. But I'm one of the smilers who admire Charlie Winburn for his style, humor and Kevlar optimism. And, OK, my Winburn story is about the time I was told I had an obscene phone call, only to find out the heavy breather was Charlie calling from his treadmill.

        “I've always been kinda non-traditional, understand,” he said when we sat down in his former council office that was suddenly as barren as an unrented apartment.

        To his critics, non-traditional means “Shameless Disrupter.”

        “I like to stir things up,” he says. He's good at it, too.

        Mr. Winburn is something as rare as a tumbleweed on Fountain Square: an African American Republican who is not afraid to call out bigots and race hustlers alike. He's been in the no-man's land of racial trench warfare and has the scars to prove it.

        “I thought African Americans need to stop putting all their eggs in one basket with liberal Democrats,” he said.

        And for that he has paid a price. His harshest critics are in the black community, he said. “They say I'm a lackey, that I'm an Uncle Tom. There's a group from the African American community that has a hatred of Republicans. They've been sold a wrong bill of goods.”

        Mr. Winburn plans to spend more time with his wife, who is struggling with breast cancer. And he has been appointed to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

        On council, he teamed up with Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman to form a roundtable of about 50 local leaders to discuss race and police issues. Many who participated said it opened closed minds and doors. In April, the group will recommend a permanent Mayor's Community Police Forum.

        After stirring things up at hundreds of bickering council meetings, the Great Disrupter wants to leave behind “peace and goodwill.”

        “There are a lot of narrow-minded people who don't want us to break down barriers,” he said. “I'm an optimist. I believe the future is bright for race relations.”

        As I was leaving, Mr. Winburn held up four fingers and said, “The citizens elected a man from a foster home four times.”

        He was smiling. What a character.

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