Sunday, September 09, 2001

Strong mayor, weak race

Choice vital for our region, but new system doesn't excite voters

By Tony Lang
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Opponents of Cincinnati's new “stronger mayor” system warned voters two years ago it was a Republican plot to take over City Hall. Here we are, about to hold the first election, and the Republicans couldn't even field a candidate for mayor. So much for conspiracy theories.

        For the first time in 76 years, voters get to act like real grown-ups and directly elect their mayor. But first, next Tuesday two of the four candidates for mayor have to be “voted off the island.” The top two vote-getters from the Sept. 11 primary then go head-to-head to decide who gets to be Cincinnati's first “stronger mayor.” The new mayor will have new powers to hire and fire the city manager, appoint committee heads and set the city's agenda.

        This city and region have been muddling too long for lack of a strong political leader at the center. But already many here are underwhelmed by the Feckless Four candidates offered them: Democratic Mayor Charlie Luken, Charter Committee candidate Courtis Fuller and independents Bill Brodberger and Michael Riley. The last two would need the upset of the millennium to win.

        Thank God, Mr. Fuller jumped in at the last minute, or it would have been a coronation instead of an election. Some sniping is unfair, but grumblers are right about the precedent-setting nature of this first election: What the candidates, voters and first mayor do could define the office for years to come.

        So far, stronger leadership is not the image emerging from the campaign. Is what we see now what we get in December? Former Councilman Charlie Winburn called it a gentlemanly “volleyball game.” Others don't see a strong challenger with “a sharp enough stick to poke in Charlie's eye.” A stronger energetic leader matters to this entire region: Other cities are picking off new businesses, conventions and talent from us because they are better organized to take fast, decisive action.

        Let's look at the precedents being set in our mayor's race — good and bad.

        Choice of candidates: The Republican failure to field a candidate testifies to the power of the Luken name, incumbency, business backing and campaign dollars. Charter reformers expected the race would attract high-profile political names and executive talent from private industry. (See sidebar.)

        “A candidate like Charlie Luken, with a household name from a political dynasty, is not the norm,” said former councilman Nick Vehr. “A very strong candidate like that may be skewing our current perspective on the new system.”

        Mr. Luken insists, “This is a very difficult race.” He is the only veteran politician running. Some voters see the others' lack of political experience as an asset. Perhaps. But we didn't change the Charter to elect a leader who needs lengthy on-the-job training.

        Primary campaign: Tuesday's nonpartisan primary election — open to all eligible voters — will list candidates on the ballot without party affiliation. Theopenprimary was expected to be good for independents. Instead, some debate organizers didn't bother to invite the independents. Michael Riley says he was a union member for 27 years. The AFL-CIO wouldn't let him speak at their forum. “I want my union dues back, then,” Mr. Riley said. Courtis Fuller has ducked some debates, but is still expected to pull many black votes. It would be Cincinnati's loss if debate organizers focus exclusively on front-runners, and some candidates dodge debates in hopes of juking safely past the sudden-death primary.

        Councilman Pat DeWine, who co-led the strong-mayor Charter change, says the primary is to narrow the final choice down to two, assuring that the new mayor is elected by a majority of voters. We have enough problems without a mayor trying to lead without a mandate.

        Agendas: This is the first time in 76 years Cincinnati voters can choose a mayor and a specific plan of action. Candidates' agendas have been slow to emerge and often sketchy.

        Give Mr. Brodberger credit at least for getting in early in February. The security-firm owner is promising safe streets, development and jobs.

        Former TV anchorman Mr. Fuller outlined a broad seven-point “covenant with voters,” but has been regrouping after challenges: He now says his free college tuition for “B” students would be privately funded, he's rethinking his plan to kill the city subsidy to the bus system, and reconsidering how to fund neighborhood revitalization.

        Mr. Luken complains that his call for more police and riverfront parks was ignored by the press, and that his backing is long-standing for The Banks riverfront neighborhood, convention center expansion, 1,000 units of housing and neighborhood development.

        Michael Riley, a long-time City Hall protester a.k.a. Mikal Ali, says a “house divided will fall.” He favors affordable shops downtown, investing in neighborhood businesses and more jobs to keep young people here, “Unless you want a town made up of senior citizens.”

        It's up to all of us to demand specifics, especially how to finance various proposals. Councilman Phil Heimlich thinks the biggest payoff from Charter reform could come four years from now: “People can ask the mayor, "What did you do?' and he can no longer make excuses or hide in a field race. I'm looking forward to that kind of accountability.”

        Turnout: Political bean-counters think this historic primary will be lucky to draw 20 percent of city voters. Mr. Brodberger, a registered Republican not endorsed by his party, said, “We Republicans vote and pray for rain.” Others expect “protest votes” going to the long-shot candidates. But not voting is no way to encourage better candidates next time. “Debates” haven't helped to light a fire. A weak primary turnout could establish the wimpish precedent that city residents just don't care.

        Manager/council: Mr. Fuller says he wants a city manager strong in strategic planning and economic development, using biblical language: “I would want the city manager to lead through stewardship.” Mr. Brodberger says he already has a commitment from a woman manager at the “federal level” to serve as interim manager. Mr. Riley says the manager's skin color is irrelevant. Mayor Luken, who advises other cities on development, wants a manager focused on growth, able to handle large projects. He says at first the new system looked “kind of goofy” to him. “But if I'm right in interpreting that the manager serves as the mayor's right hand,” he said, “then the mayor is driving it with the advice and consent of council.”

        Managers manage, mayors lead. A strong mayor can lead this entire region. Many Charter reformers wanted an executive CEO-like mayor. We ended up with a compromise. Many of us want the first directly elected mayor to define the job expansively. He can propose and introduce legislation. He sets the city's direction. If the next mayor plays it safe and uses council coalitions to deflect criticism, that could choke every mayor that follows. In any case, more will be expected of the first strong mayor than any mayor in seven decades. It's not too soon to demand results — today, Tuesday and after. We need stronger leaders, not stronger talkers.

        Tony Lang is an Enquirer editorial writer: (513) 768-8528, email


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