Sunday, July 08, 2001

Charter's choice bucks group's origins

Candidate Fuller aims for strong-mayor role

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Charter Committee's candidate for Cincinnati mayor, Courtis Fuller, is running for an office under a new system that might make the original Charterites scratch their heads in wonder.

        But it is also a system that, some say, may breathe new life into Charter, a Cincinnati institution that often has been given up for dead in recent decades.

        “There's a chance we may be seeing the revival of Charter,” said Zane Miller, a history professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati who has written extensively on the city's political history.

        Last month, Mr. Fuller quit his job as a WLWT-TV (Channel 5) news anchor to take on Democrat Charlie Luken in the first direct election for mayor Cincinnati has seen since 1923.

        The new mayor, who will be the survivor of a head-to- head contest Nov. 6 between the top two finishers in a Sept. 11 primary — will not be a member of council, but will have greatly enhanced powers, thanks to the charter amendment passed by voters in May 1999.

        The mayor will appoint council committee chairs, have veto power over council legislation and initiate the hiring and firing of the city manager.

        It is a far cry from the council-manager government with a weak mayor that the original Charter Committee members campaigned for and won in the 1920s to replace a ward system run by a corrupt Republican political boss.

        The Charter Committee has survived since those days in its self-appointed role as “watchdog of good government,” fielding slates of candidates and defending a series of professional city managers.

        It will have much the same role to play under the new system, Mr. Miller said.

        “I can see the possibility of Charter reaching out to people disaffected by the major parties, whether it is black voters, younger voters, or moderate Republicans,” Mr. Miller said. “Charter could end up with more clout than it has had for a long time.”

        Even today, members of the Charter Committee protest when they are described as a political party. Partisan politics, Charterites argue, is what they were born to oppose.

        Decades of corruption and mismanagement at city hall led in 1924 to the formation of the Charter Committee. It was a coalition of Democrats, reform Republicans and supporters of Progressive presidential candidate Robert LaFollette that included progressive young lawyers like Murray Seasongood and Charles Taft, son of President William Howard Taft.

        Rudolph “Rud” Hynicka, once a lieutenant of the notorious Cincinnati political boss George Barnsdale Cox, headed the Republican political machine at Cincinnati City Hall in the early 1920s. He did it mostly from afar, though, spending most of his time in New York City running a string of burlesque houses.

        By the 1920s, politicians stealing from the public till was only half the problem. Hynicka's machine was not only corrupt, but inefficient. The city was nearly bankrupt; garbage piled up in the streets; whole blocks burned because of a lack of firefighting equipment.

        In 1923, when city government put a tax increase on the ballot, Seasongood and other reform-minded lawyers fought against it and won.

        The next year, Seasongood, Taft and others formed the Charter Committee. They pushed for passage of a sweeping reform package that included a complete city charter, eliminating the old ward system and replacing it with a nine-member, at-large city council and a professional city manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city. Voters passed the reform package by a better than 2-1 margin.

        In 1925, Seasongood was elected to council and was chosen by fellow council members to be mayor, a title that, until now, was largely ceremonial.

        Through the 1920s, the 1930s and most of the 1940s, the Charterite slates of council candidates dominated city elections through a system of voting called Proportional Representation. The weighted voting system helped elect black Charterites like Frank A.B. Hall in 1931, and later, Theodore M. Berry.

        Under PR, voters ranked their choices for council one through nine. The nine candidates who reached a prescribed number of first-place votes were elected to council.

        That system lasted until 1957, when a Republican-backed charter amendment replaced PR with the “9X” system, an at-large race in which each voter marks as many as nine names on the ballot.

        Charter's influence waned on council until 1971, when Charterites and Democrats formed a coalition that lasted until 1985.

        But since the Democrats broke up the coalition, Charter's influence on council has been minimal. Since then, the Charterites have had only one or two members on council. The present council has only one: Jim Tarbell.

        Many in Cincinnati political circles were shocked two years ago when the Charter Committee, after decades of defending the status quo, endorsed the charter amendment calling for direct election of a mayor with enhanced power.

        Bobbie Sterne, who held a Charter seat on council for 25 years before retiring in 1998, said Charter's backing of the change was not such a leap.

        “The new system gives the mayor no executive powers, just more power over council,” said Mrs. Sterne. “There will still be a city manager, and that city manager will have to work with a majority of council.

        “What Charter has always been interested in is not having partisan politics decide who is hired and fired at city hall,” Mrs. Sterne said. “We can still do that.”

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