Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Fuller, Luken debate details

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The first and only television debate in the Cincinnati mayor's race began and ended with Charlie Luken presenting himself as the candidate of steady experience and Courtis Fuller presenting himself as the candidate of leadership and vision.

        In between, they argued about the details. On race relations, neighborhoods, downtown, safety and the city budget, the candidates squared off in a substantive debate punctuated by occasional style points.

        The two men who want to be Cincinnati's first directly elected mayor since 1925 met Tuesday night at the Cincinnati Museum Center for an hourlong debate televised by WLWT-TV (Channel 5).

        Standing just 2 feet from each other, the candidates were mostly cordial, although there were some sharp exchanges.

Courtis Fuller
    “Next week, you really have to ask yourself a couple of questions: Which candidate sets the tone for this city for tomorrrow? Which candidate will help heal the racial divide? Which candidate will treat every citizen with respect and dignity? Finally, you have to ask yourself who was chosen and who was called.”
    “One week from tonight, Cincinnatians will ask themselves a very important question: "Where do we go from here? You'll have to ask yourself why have we reached a point in time when good citizens don't even feel safe walking down their own street.
    “Are we satisfied with what we are creating for our children's future? Or will we choose a vision that will produce a city that children will want to inherit. Will we accept business as usual? Or will we move forward into the future.”
Charlie Luken

“I think some of the ways we approach people, and some of our understanding of life comes from experiences early in our own lives. And I think many of those experiences of hard work and working to get an education and move forward shaped my life.”
    “Cincinnati ... is poised for a rebirth. It is very much going to be a rebirth first and foremost at City Hall without regard to whether Courtis or I get elected. We have a new system. We're going to have a new city manager, a mayor with new and enhanced powers, a new City Council, new department heads really all across City Hall.
    “And you can look at that in a couple of different ways. You can look at that, and you can say this city has got a lot to do and it's really awful. Or you can look at like I do, and you can say the decks are clear, the agenda is clear, the focus is there, and now, with the new system. .. the accountability and responsibility for producing results is there.”
        Mr. Fuller, 44, responded angrily to a question about character, calling coverage of his decade-old financial problems “insulting.”

        He urged the media to “roll out a report on my opponent,” and he challenged Mr. Luken to a “character test.”

        Mr. Luken, 50, responded by saying he just wants to talk about the issues.

        But for the most part, the candidates stuck to the same themes they've been talking about since the beginning of the four-month campaign.

        And on some questions, a trend emerged wherein Mr. Luken talked about details while Mr. Fuller talked about vision.

        Asked whether he supports a proposed city ordinance that would steer federal block grant money away from new affordable housing, Mr. Fuller said he was concerned it would force urban poor out of the city.

        “I don't want to see anybody moving outside the city,” he said. “I want to make sure everyone has a neighborhood with dignity.”

        Mr. Luken responded: “With all due respect, I'm still not sure whether he supports the ordinance. I want to make clear that I do.”

        Then, when Mr. Luken was asked whether responsibility for development should move from the mayor to an independent commission, the tables turned.

        Mr. Luken said the problem was in the city's charter. Often, the mayor and the city manager are at cross-purposes, he said.

        The “new and enhanced powers of the the new mayor” that take effect Dec. 1 will change that, he said, by making the city manager more accountable to the mayor.

        To Mr. Fuller, that answer was unacceptable.

        “The city has been stuck in neutral, and we hear that "no one is accountable,' and "it's the system's fault.' Well, we've been paying people to run this city, and the only answer we get is that when the system changes, things will be OK. I agree. Things will be OK — not when the system changes, but when the people in that system change,” he said.

        In the final minutes of the debate, each candidate had the opportunity to ask his opponent a question directly for the first time.

        Mr. Luken asked Mr. Fuller about the curfew following the acquittal of Officer Stephen Roach in the death of Timothy Thomas. “Do you still believe the curfew was a bad call, and why?”

        “I was there, I never felt threatened,” Mr. Fuller responded. “I think a lot of people questioned — and I do, too — that the curfew was called when everyone was at home.”

        Then, Mr. Fuller asked his opponent to imagine he was looking into a little girl's eyes and assure her that the city will move forward on race relations.

        Mr. Luken recited a list of steps he's taken this year: passing an anti-racial profiling ordinance, requesting a Justice Department investigation, and establishing a race relations commission.

        “So many people — and, Courtis, I think you, too — only started paying attention when the events of April happened.”

        In their closing statements — what may be their last opportunity to make an impression on such a large audience — the candidates returned to familiar themes.

        Mr. Luken talked about his Cincinnati roots (in contrast, perhaps, to Mr. Fuller, a Pittsburgh native) and said his experiences — “of hard work and working to get an education” — shaped his life.

        “Cincinnati is my home. It has always been my home. This is the place I care about. This is the place that I want to see better.”

        Mr. Fuller also struck a personal chord, thanking his wife, Marla, and his mother in the audience.

        “Imagine that — I'm running for mayor, Ma,” he said. He said his mother “really taught me what a walk of faith is all about.”

        “This city cannot afford to take the tranquilizing drug of "do-nothingism' anymore. We have to turn this city around. Together we can make Cincinnati better. Together we can say that history, despite its wrenching pain, need not be lived again.”


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