Saturday, August 11, 2001

Race for mayor is off to a quiet start

With primary a month away, campaigns keep grass-roots focus

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Later on, after Labor Day, there will be debates, endorsements and wall-to-wall television ads.

        But today, one month before the Sept. 11 primary election, the first direct race for Cincinnati's mayor in 76 years is a quiet, grass-roots contest.

        It's perhaps the most contentious and critically important race in Cincinnati politics in decades, and yet the campaign for mayor is largely between two remarkably civil candidates.

        The worst thing Mayor Charlie Luken has said about his chief opponent, former television news anchor Courtis Fuller, is that he's a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. (“I was going to hold that back until later in the campaign, because it's so devastating,” Mr. Luken joked.)

        The low-key campaign is due in part to the calendar. The primary will only narrow the field of candidates from four to two, and create a Nov. 6 runoff election. Though both major candidates want a strong showing in September, they both know the real prize is in November.

        So for now, it's a campaign of handshakes and five-minute stump speeches. At church festivals and community centers, such as the one in Sayler Park the candidates visited this week, Mr. Luken and Mr. Fuller try to win over voters a few at a time.

        And yet they're encountering citizens with strong opinions of what they're looking for in Cincinnati's new stronger mayor. Even in terms of the mayor's most basic function — running meetings of City Council — voters are divided.

        On the one hand, there are voters such as 67-year-old Don Kamuf, who doesn't think the city should have to put up with activists who disrupt City Council meetings.

    Monday is the last day to register to vote in Cincinnati's Sept. 11 mayoral primary.
    The nonpartisan primary — the first under the city's new strong-mayor system — will determine the two finalists for the Nov. 6 general election. It will be the only election on the primary ballot.
    New voters may register at the Hamilton County Board of Elections, 824 Broadway, or at public libraries, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and many social service agencies.
    Registrations must be received by 9 p.m. Monday.
    For more information, call the Board of Elections at 632-7000.
    • Direct election of a mayor for a four-year term, following a nonpartisan primary election to determine two candidates.
    • Mayor shall preside over but not be a member of council, and shall have power to veto legislation. Vetoes can be overridden by six members of council.
    • Mayor appoints the city manager with prior approval of council and may start removal of the manager with the advice of council. Removal requires approval of council.
    • Mayor appoints and removes chairmen of council committees and assigns all agenda items to committees.
    • Mayor shall be the official head and representative of the city for all purposes, except as provided otherwise in the charter.
    • Mayor shall review the annual budget estimate prepared by the city manager and submit the estimate, with comments, to council within 15 days.
    • Mayor's salary shall be twice that of a council member.
    • Mayor limited to two consecutive four-year terms.
    • Mayor selects a vice mayor, who is a member of council. Vice mayor acts in the absence or disability of the mayor but does not have the power to veto, appoint or remove.
    • In the event of the death, removal or resignation of the mayor, the vice mayor becomes mayor with all the duties and powers of the mayor. If the vice mayor assumes office before June 1 in the year of a council election, an election will be held for the unexpired term of the mayor.
    Four candidates are running in the Sept. 11 mayoral primary in Cincinnati. The top two will move on to the Nov. 6 general election. The candidates are:
    • Bill Brodberger, 39, owns a private security firm in Roselawn. It's his first run for public office. A Republican running as an independent, he lives in Madisonville.
    • Courtis Fuller, 44, was a news anchor at WLWT-TV (Channel 5), where he worked for 13 years — six of them with Mr. Luken. A native of Pittsburgh, he is running with the endorsement of the Charter Committee. He lives in College Hill.
    • Charlie Luken, 50, has been a lawyer, a councilman, a mayor, a congressman, a news anchor, and then a mayor again. The son of former congressman Tom Luken, he lives downtown. He is the endorsed candidate of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
    • Michael D. Riley, 52, an independent, is a community activist who frequently attends City Council meetings. Formerly known as Mikal Ali, he lives in Evanston.
        “I want a mayor to be forceful. I don't want him to bow to blackmail,” he said.

        And then there's Willis Baker, who sees something completely different when he watches Channel 23, the cable access channel that televises City Council meetings.

        “I just see such disrespect for the citizens,” he said.

        “I've known the Lukens since 1959, and I'm tired of them. I'm tired of their arrogance,” he said, adding quickly that he wasn't talking about Shirley Luken — mother of Mayor Charlie Luken and wife of former Congressman Tom Luken.

        Face-to-face contact with voters is particularly important in a place such as Sayler Park, 12 miles west of downtown along the Ohio River. Perhaps the city's most remote neighborhood, residents joke that city officials went to Sayler Park with annexation papers in 1911 and never came back.

        At the Sayler Park Village Council meeting this week, the two major candidates waited an hour for the privilege of speaking to just 30 people.

        When they finally spoke, their remarks did little to outline their differences on issues. In fact, the candidates are speaking not so much about issues as they are broad themes.

        For Mr. Luken, those themes are economic development, community-oriented policing and fighting calls for a boycott of Cincinnati.

        And for Mr. Fuller, the campaign is about building neighborhoods, working together and rebuilding Cincinnati's tattered national reputation.

        The themes are sometimes similar, but at meetings such as Sayler Park, the difference in the candidates' approaches were unmistakeable.

        “Actually, I came to listen,” said Mr. Fuller, whose order in the alphabet determined that he would speak first. But then he launched into what sounded less like a campaign speech and more like a pep talk.

        He told the audience that he's inspired to see people working together in their neighborhoods, and said he supports police officers.

        Using sports analogies, he urged people to rally around their city.

        “We all get behind the Reds when they're winning,” he said, “and we need to do the same for our city. It's a world-class city.”

        More than once, he told them, “the city will get through this.”

        And though he spoke generally of his plans to invest more in neighborhoods, he offered few specifics.

        Joe Hoffecker, a 37-year-old advertising representative, said he doesn't expect Mr. Fuller to be as up-to-date on issues as the incumbent mayor is. Still, he'd like to hear more from the television anchor-turned-politician. “If I were his campaign manager, I would be telling him to be more specific. What are you going to do?”

        Mr. Fuller said he's heard the criticism that he's been too vague, but insisted he's running his campaign on his own timetable. Last week, he released his plan to revitalize neighborhoods, and plans to soon launch a seven-point pledge to voters.

        “I don't want to say something just to throw it out there. There's no reason to be haphazard,” he said. “What is important is listening to people. It's interesting that people have criticized me for that.”

        Indeed, just six months ago it seemed there wouldn't even be a challenger for Mr. Luken, who at last report had $200,000 in the bank for campaigning and benefits from daily news coverage. Even after the April riots that followed the police shooting of a fleeing black man, the Republican Party couldn't field a candidate and Mr. Fuller jumped into the race as the Charter Committee's candidate just hours before the deadline.

        Mr. Fuller acknowledges that he got into the race late — too late to have a fund-raising machine; a strategy; or even a ready-made, point-by-point platform.

        By contrast, a major part of Mr. Luken's campaign for mayor seems to be just being mayor. And as the incumbent, he immediately demonstrated his grasp of neighborhood issues at the Sayler Park meeting.

        He spoke in depth about the most pressing issue facing the neighborhood: Lone Star Industries' plan to build a new cement plant along the Ohio River. He spoke of his vision for a series of parks all along the Ohio, and talked about the airport's plan to expand, possibly bringing more air traffic over Sayler Park.

        He ended his speech on a note of accord with Mr. Fuller, saying, “I certainly agree with him on one thing. It is absolutely time for us to stop running down our own city.”

        That's a message Mr. Luken delivers everywhere, even at the Clermont County Chamber of Commerce. There, Mr. Luken spoke Friday about the need for regional cooperation.

        And though there are no Cincinnati voters in Milford, he made a point of defending his first television ad of the campaign, in which Mr. Luken pledges to fight the call for a boycott.

        Mr. Fuller has criticized those ads as being “overly combative.”

        “I think it set the wrong tone,” Mr. Fuller said. “I would have preferred to see him say something that would bring people together.”

        Responded Mr. Luken: “When the issue is jobs and economic development and the boycotting of city businesses, I will be combative. I will not be conciliatory.”

        With name recognition that comes with 20 years in politics and journalism (Mr. Luken) and 13 years on Cincinnati television (Mr. Fuller), the two party-endorsed candidates are considered the front-runners in the September primary.

        Though hampered by a lack of money and media coverage, the campaign tactics of the independent candidates, Bill Brodberger and Michael D. Riley, aren't that much different than the two major candidates — at least for now.

        Mr. Brodberger, of Madisonville, was the first candidate to enter the fray. He said that's given him a head start, as he's been making the rounds of the city's 51 community councils — some visited twice or three times — since February.

        He said there's nowhere he won't go to meet voters.

        “Anytime, anywhere, that's my philosophy,” said Mr. Brodberger, a Republican who has not been endorsed by his party. “This is a grass-roots campaign.”

        Mr. Brodberger's theme: “Jobs, Progress, Safety.”

        Mr. Riley, too, has been waging a quiet, neighborhood campaign. An African-American activist, his campaign has largely been limited to predominately black neighborhoods.

        “In the black neighborhoods, most people know me,” said Mr. Riley, a frequent speaker at City Hall meetings who has gone by the name Mikal Ali. “But most white people I meet don't live in the city. Where are the white people in this city? Where are they living?”

        Mr. Riley said blacks and poor whites aren't being represented. A former city employee, he said he wants to make city hall more accessible to citizens.

        That's a theme that's come out of almost every campaign thus far, and it's one that resonates for voters like Mr. Hoffecker in Sayler Park.

        “If you look at the history of Charlie Luken, he hasn't had a lot of competition,” he said. “I haven't made up my mind, but I'm glad there are choices. Because if there weren't, I doubt whether Charlie would even be here tonight.”


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