Monday, September 17, 2001

Primary's results sign of change

Luken and Fuller going one-on-one for election

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The results of last week's mayoral primary change everything.

        In getting 54 percent of the vote, political newcomer Courtis Fuller proved that he can take on Charlie Luken, one of the most powerful names in Cincinnati politics, and win.

        The results also change nothing.

        Both candidates said they expect the Nov. 6 general election to be close. Both said their campaigns will proceed the same way they have been.

        Still, the primary election signals a new phase in Cincinnati's first direct election for mayor in 76 years.

        The seven weeks leading up to the general election are likely to be quite different from the warm-up campaign.

        Here's why:

        • It's one-on-one. The two independent candidates, Bill Brodberger and Michael Riley, are out of the way. While neither was a strong contender, they did provide a buffer between the two party-endorsed candidates in debates.

        Now, it's a head-to-head race in which the differences between Mr. Luken and Mr. Fuller will become more clear.

        Mr. Luken said he plans to capitalize on those differences. “We're going to tell people we have a better program, I'm a better leader, I understand how to get things done. Courtis is pie-in-the-sky,” he said.

        Mr. Fuller, on the other hand, said he will emphasize that he is the candidate of change.

        • It's no longer a “referendum on the riots.” The primary election was seen by many voters as a referendum on one question: Do you approve of Mr. Luken's handling of the April riots?

        The general election will decide who will be the next mayor, a somewhat more complicated issue.

        Even before the primary, Mr. Fuller seemed to be easing up on his criticism of Mr. Luken's leadership. The challenger had once suggested that Mr. Luken could have averted the riots if he had not walked out of a raucous committee meeting on April 9.

        Now, Mr. Fuller doesn't bring up the issue unless asked — and even then he seems to address it only reluctantly.

        On the day before the Tuesday primary, Mr. Fuller seemed to signal that the meeting issue was, as far as he was concerned, dead.

        In a radio debate on WKRC-AM (550), he said he “probably” would have handled the April 9 meeting differently — but also seemed sympathetic to Mr. Luken's dilemma.

        • Both candidates will be targeting swing voters.

With no other races or issues on the ballot, the primary election was a test of which candidate had more core support. Only voters who felt strongly about the mayor's race — mostly African-Americans — showed up at the polls.

        In November, turnout will be higher, with swing voters deciding the race.

        Gene Beaupre, a political science instructor at Xavier University, said Mr. Luken finds himself in a difficult position.

        When Mr. Luken ran for mayor in the current system — in which the top vote-getter in the City Council race got the top job — he could count on support from a large number of black voters.

        Last Tuesday, three quarters of voters in black neighborhoods voted for Mr. Fuller.

        “Remember that a majority of the Democratic voters in the city of Cincinnati are African-American. If I were advising the Luken campaign, I would tell him he needs to restore some of the partisanship in the campaign,” Mr. Beaupre said.

        “He needs to appeal to voters as being a Democrat — and yet he still needs to reach a constituency that only he can get, and that is Republican voters who stayed home on Tuesday.”

        Mr. Luken conceded that he needs to do a better job of getting that message out to African-American voters.

        He said that message is: “I've been fair. Every time, whether it was fairness in the police division, or racial profiling, or in budgeting for neighborhoods, I have been fair, and I've delivered.”

        • The attention of voters is focused on terrorism.

Both candidates have effectively suspended campaigning since last Tuesday.

        They'll probably resume this week, but continuing coverage of the events in New York and Washington — and a possible U.S. military action in the Middle East — will likely dominate the headlines for some time.

        When the campaigns continue, however, both candidates say their strategies won't change.

        “We're going to remain centered on the issues the same way we've been. The more we get our message out, the more people enjoy that message,” Mr. Fuller said.

        Mr. Luken used almost identical language, saying: “I only know one way to do this, and I will advance with the girl that brung me. You have to stay on message — get the message out and hope that it resonates. That part of politics I don't think has changed.”


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