Sunday, September 09, 2001

Luken foes focusing on his leaving key meeting

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Charlie Luken has been in public life in Cincinnati for 20 years.

        The son of a congressman and heir to a proud political name, he's spent a term in Congress, six years as a news anchor and 12 years on City Council — eight of them as mayor. He was often the top vote-getter.

        Yet when voters go to the polls Tuesday in Cincinnati's first direct election for mayor in 76 years, Mr. Luken's opponents would have them reduce those 20 years down to one week in April — perhaps one moment, 4:34 p.m., April 9, when Mr. Luken walked out of the council's Law and Public Safety Committee meeting.

        The meeting has become a flash point of the 2001 mayoral campaign. His main opponent, Courtis Fuller, talked about it on the first day he filed to run as a Charter Committee candidate.

        “I watched the video of Charlie Luken walking out of that meeting and thought to myself that if he had taken charge, maybe that meeting wouldn't have gotten out of hand,” he said that day. “That's what leadership is about.”

        Over time, Mr. Fuller has stepped up his criticism, suggesting that Mr. Luken could have averted the riots if he hadn't left his chair.

        The leadership question has put Mr. Luken on the defensive for most of the campaign.

        “It's the first thing he said, and he's pounded it into the electorate, particularly on African-American radio stations,” Mr. Luken said. “He wants to blame everybody for the riots but the rioters. Not once have I heard him talk about personal responsibility of the people engaged in that activity.”

        Mr. Luken said he's tired of talking about it.

        “I get myself in a defensive position. I'm answering something that's ludicrous.”

        Nonetheless, Mr. Luken has answered it, in this way:

        He was not a member of the Law and Public Safety Committee, where hundreds of protesters converged two days after the police shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American man who was fleeing police. He attended anyway, as he does many of the committee meetings.

        Exactly halfway through the meeting, Mr. Luken left for five minutes — perhaps 10 — and went to his office downstairs to check his appointment calendar and get phone messages. Then, he said, he came back up. He found that one of the protesters had taken his seat and he decided to stand in the back of the chamber.

        But the issue of where he was for five minutes on April 9 obscures what Mr. Luken did do that week and in the months that followed, he said. With little legal authority to do so, he declared a state of emergency and pressured the city manager to call a citywide curfew. He asked the governor for 100 state troopers. He walked the streets of Over-the-Rhine. He formed a race-relations commission.

        In short, he said, he stepped forward from what is now a weak mayor system to become, in his words, “the face of the city.”

        Still, Mr. Fuller has used Mr. Luken's empty chair as a symbol of what he says is empty leadership. The race relations commission formed the month after the riots should have been formed two months before, he said. And the mayor should have been more responsive to protesters' threats to boycott the Taste of Cincinnati in May.

        But he keeps coming back to the meeting.

        “That was really just a microcosm of his leadership qualities,” Mr. Fuller said. “That was just telling. It revealed more than the mayor ever wanted to reveal about his leadership ability.”

        In a survey of 1,200 people across the Tristate conducted last month by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research for the Cincinnati Enquirer, blacks and whites had differing opinions of the mayor's handling of the April crisis.

        Overall, half the respondents said they were satisfied with Mr. Luken's leadership during the April riots, while 45 percent said they were not. Five percent had no opinion.

        However, much of that support comes from white, suburban residents.

        Black respondents and city residents were much more critical. Only 34 percent of blacks said they thought Mr. Luken did a good job, and only 41 percent of city residents.

        (The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points overall, and plus or minus 5 percentage points for city residents and African-American respondents.)

        Is it fair to judge Mr. Luken on a single moment?

        Democratic Councilman John Cranley, who chaired that historic committee meeting, says no.

        “The whole thing is a cheap shot, and it's unfair,” he said. “The same people who are most critical of him leaving the meeting are the same people who were disrupting the meeting.”

        But Charlie Winburn, a Baptist minister and former Republican councilman, says it is fair.

        “I judge Bill Clinton on one moment, when he stood up and said, "I did not have sex with that woman,'” he said. “All it takes is one moment to make a big mistake and hurt people.”

        The two independent candidates for mayor also disagree on the significance of that event.

        In fact, candidate Michael Riley, a longtime City Hall protester, said Mr. Fuller “stole” the meeting issue from him.

        “I was there, and I watched when Charlie Luken walked out,” he said in a debate last week on WLW-AM (700). “Charlie Luken ran with his tail between his legs, just as he did in Congress.”

        But independent Bill Brodberger, a fourth mayoral candidate, said the criticism of Mr. Luken amounts to “armchair quarterbacking.”

        “Enough is enough,” he said. “I'm going to set the record straight: First of all, Mr. Luken did not walk out of a City Council meeting. It was a committee meeting. ... Don't look back. Learn from the past, but look forward.”

        For his part, Mr. Fuller continues to talk about the meeting incident, and continues to give it new interpretations.

        “At the heart of this is not so much his leaving, it's his response afterward,” Mr. Fuller said in late August.

        Case in point, he said: a candidates' forum in Westwood last month, in which Mr. Luken defended his actions during that week in April.

        “If I made a mistake, and I don't think I did, I think it was listening too much,” Mr. Luken said then, noting he had thrown more than 40 people out of City Council chambers for being disruptive.

        Said Mr. Fuller: “What kind of arrogance is that, to say I've listened to people too much. That's what happens when you try to sound tough. But that's not tough. That's being insensitive.”


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