Sunday, March 25, 2001


Mayoral election may limit the money grubbing

        Moments of serendipity come so rarely in politics that we like to share them when they do.

        When a small but mighty group of Cincinnati voters went to the polls on May 4, 1999, and changed the city's form of government, they may well have planted the seed for such a moment this year.

        They may have managed to take some of the money out of politics.

        Some, we said.

        That's significant, too, given that Cincinnati City Council candidates have spent about $6.8 million since 1995 trying to win council seats.

        Only 18 percent of the electorate went to the polls two years ago to vote on a charter amendment that created a direct election for mayor and took the mayor out of the mix of the city council field races. It passed and goes into effect with this year's city elections.

        There was a lot of jibber-jabber at the time about how the new system would increase “accountability” in city government and how it might make buying a seat on Cin
cinnati City Council less expensive.

        There is some evidence that the new electoral system just might take some of the money-grubbing out of local politics.

        The previous system for electing council was, in fact, a mayoral election, without anybody having to declare his or her candidacy for mayor.

        From 1987 through 1999, Cincinnati had a council election system where the top vote-getter in the council field race would become mayor.

        This meant that every council incumbent or deep-pocketed challenger would get dreamy-eyed over the prospect of finishing first. The only thing for them to do was to amass huge amounts of money and try to spend the opposition into the ground.

        It rarely worked. The biggest spender of them all, Republican Phil Heimlich, poured over $1.3 million into the last three council races all by his lonesome. What he got for his money was a second-place finish, a sixth-place finish and a fourth-place finish.

        In 1999, 20 council candidates spent a record $2.5 million. Almost half — 49 percent — was spent by the four candidates who finished at the top: Democrat Charlie Luken ($184,343), Democrat Todd Portune ($243,862), Republican Charles Winburn ($288,152), and Mr. Heimlich ($504,176).

        This year, all four are out of the council mix. Mr. Luken is the incumbent candidate for mayor; Mr. Portune is busy being a county commissioner; Mr. Winburn quit before being term-limited out, and Mr. Heimlich is term-limited out.

        It is hard to imagine a field of council candidates heavy with first-time candidates making up the $1.2 million those four spent in 1999.

        Now, if there were a hotly contested mayor's race, it would more than make up for the lack of council-race spending. And, if grandma had wheels, she'd be a tea-cart. But she doesn't.

        So, instead, in 2001, we may bask for a bit in the glow of unintended consequences. Until the first hot mayor's race comes along.

       Howard Wilkinson can be reached at 768-8388 or email at


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