Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Luken's re-election chances might be enhanced

But opposition party senses an opportunity

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Take nearly any major American city and imagine, in an election year, a week of rioting and violence, stemming from a deep-seated belief that relations between the races are poisonous. The mayor, one might think, would be in a world of political trouble. But not Charlie Luken. Not yet, anyway.

        The Democratic incumbent mayor — who wants to become the first directly elected Cincinnati mayor in over 75 years — has, as a mayoral candidate, weathered the storm that erupted a month ago when 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man, was shot to death by a Cincinnati police officer in an Over-the-Rhine alley.

        To this date, he has no major-party opponent and only one independent opponent — a little-known Madisonville man named Bill Brodberger who has never run for public office before.

        “It doesn't seem that in the local arena there are peer-sized competitors, either by experience or knowledge,” said former Democratic councilman Tyrone Yates. “They may be out there, but they haven't come forward.”

        Monday afternoon, as the city braced for word on whether Cincinnati police Officer Stephen Roach would be indicted in the Thomas shooting, the mayor walked up and down Elm Street, shaking hands with people sitting on stoops and popping into storefront businesses, the way a candidate for public office often does.

        But this was no campaign visit. Mr. Luken passed by businesses where owners were hurriedly boarding their store windows to ward off vandals and looters.

        “City Hall and the police, they need to listen to the people,” 35-year-old neighborhood resident Stefan Cottingham told Mr. Luken. “This whole neighborhood could explode. People are angry.”

        Mr. Cottingham said having the mayor walk the neighborhood was “OK, but it's a little late. He should have come before it got out of control, Now, he's just out of place here. You can put a cat in the oven, but that don't make it a biscuit.”

        Still, Mr. Cottingham said he would “probably” vote for Mr. Luken, “because he seems to be trying.”

        Carole Eubanks, an office worker in Over-the—Rhine who followed Mr. Luken on his Elm Street walk Monday, said she could support him in the mayor's race.

        “It's a difficult job,” Ms. Eubanks said. “He's done as well as you can expect.”

        And, the fact is, even if voters like Ms. Eubanks were dissatisfied with Mr. Luken's performance, they wouldn't have much of an alternative.

        There is no Republican candidate for mayor. Nor is there a candidate with the backing of the Charter Committee, Cincinnati's third political party. There is no law-and-order conservative running at him from the right, nor an African-American who has stepped forward to give black Cincinnatians angry over the city's response to the rioting an alternative.

Opponents sense opening
               The Republican Party is polling Cincinnati voters to see whether the events of the past month tarnished Mr. Luken's reputation and to match him up against potential challengers; several well-known black political leaders are said to be considering a challenge to Mr. Luken, but the efforts, so far, have been invisible to the average voter.

        But there is still time.

        The filing deadline for mayoral candidates is June 28, and events could dictate whether another candidate emerges.

        “Most people in politics feel like the other shoe hasn't hit the floor yet,” said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier University political science professor who has worked in City Hall. “Nobody knows how this is going to turn out.”

        In the weeks since declaring a state of emergency and imposing a citywide curfew that quelled the rioting, Mr. Luken has been unquestionably the focal point of activity at City Hall.

        “I had to step up,” said Mr. Luken, who was mayor in the 1980s and returned to council two years ago.

        “I don't mean to sound noble about this, but I haven't had time to think about the politics of what has happened,” Mr. Luken said. “I didn't have any choice but to act.”

        The public criticisms of Mr. Luken have run the gamut: that he did not act quickly enough after the Thomas shooting to calm emotions; that he was too quick to conclude that 15 deaths of black men by police actions over six years points to a problem in the police division; that it took two nights of widespread destruction and rioting for Mr. Luken to step in and declare a curfew.

        But after the violence died down, the mayor took a series of actions aimed at healing the racial tensions and, some say, at solidifying his position as the city's undisputed political leader.

        He announced he would form a race relations commission to explore the deep-seated roots of racial tension — housing, employment, education and police-community relations — and come up with a solid plan to address them. The next week, Mr. Luken named the leaders of the commission.

High-profile actions
               On Thursday, he hired former city manager Sylvester Murray, the only black to have held that post, as the commission's consultant and the mayor's “special counsel.” The mayor also is arranging to have business and foundations foot the bill for the commission.

        And, last week, Mr. Luken helped engineer the resignation, effective Dec. 1, of City Manager John Shirey, who had apparently lost council's confidence long ago and was a lightning rod for criticism from black Cincinnatians angry over the police shootings.

        All these actions, purposefully or not, sent a powerful message to Mr. Luken's potential political opponents: He was in charge.

        “Charlie's stock probably went up,” Mr. Beaupre said.

        It probably also gave Cincinnatians a taste of what it might be like if they elect Mr. Luken mayor this fall, under the new system where the mayor will have more power, including initiating the hiring and firing of the city manager and veto power over council legislation.

        “We had a state of emergency and, yes, I did have more authority than I normally would,” Mr. Luken said. “Maybe now people are getting a little sense now of what the new mayor system will be like.”

        The Hamilton County Republican Party is hoping that people will not like what they see.

        The polling being done by the Republicans now goes far beyond asking voters how they view Mr. Luken.

        It asks too about their feelings toward political figures such as former Democratic mayors Roxanne Qualls and Dwight Tillery and some of the Republican politicians the party has tried — and so far failed — to get to run for mayor, such as Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, former councilman Charles Winburn and Councilman Phil Heimlich.

        County GOP Vice Chairman Chip Gerhardt said he is convinced that a Republican candidate for mayor could win by saying that the Democrats have been in charge for more than a decade and haven't done a very good job of managing the city's problems.

        “You could point to the record on convention center expansion, riverfront development, neighborhood development,” Mr. Gerhardt said. “There are any number of issues you could run on.”

        The good news for the Republicans, Mr. Gerhardt said, is that the unrest of the past month may have caused voters “to take a second look at the people who are leading them.”

        “It's a delicate balancing act for us,” Mr. Gerhardt said. “You don't want to politicize what's been going on in this city recently, but you want voters to stop and take a look at their leaders.”

        Mr. Luken's political foes believe that the most likely scenario in which he could lose is if there were three or more candidates in the Sept. 11 mayoral primary. The top two finishers would run against each other in the fall.

        If a black Democrat — Mr. Tillery, the former mayor, is the most often mentioned — were to run along with a conservative white Republican, Mr. Luken might see a desertion of the black voters who have supported him in the past, along with the more conservative white voters to whom Luken is a good political name.

Black dissatisfaction
               The Rev. James W. Jones, first vice president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, said he has heard “considerable dissatisfaction” among African-Americans about the mayor and said he would not be surprised if a black challenger emerges.

        “I can't say now who that would be,” the Rev. Mr. Jones said. “But it's only healthy that there is some competition. It would be idiotic to have a mayor's race with one candidate.

        Before the civil unrest, the Rev. Mr. Jones said, there was a feeling in black political circles that Mr. Luken's election this fall was inevitable, “that he was untouchable and that the downtown crowd had stacked the deck.”

        Now, he said, “there is a rethinking. It is a matter of who will have the guts and wherewithal to step up.”

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