Saturday, February 16, 2002

Boycott's sting gains intensity

Strong mayor's new powers put to the test

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Eleven weeks into his new term, the boycott against Cincinnati poses the biggest challenge to date for Mayor Charlie Luken's political leadership.

        To be sure, the boycott issue is not the immediate, all-consuming crisis of last April, when the police shooting of a fleeing African-American suspect led to several days of rioting. Mr. Luken said he spends only a third of his time on boycott-related issues.

        But it is a crisis that could have its own, different set of consequences. Mr. Luken said the decision by comedian Bill Cosby to boycott the city has transformed the boycott debate into a long-term battle for the city's economic future.

        It's a crisis that has brought the mayor — long known as a City Hall consensus builder — into a rare conflict with a key African-American member of City Council.

        And it's a crisis that, the mayor says, could help define the role of the mayor's office for generations to come.

        With the additional levers of power in the new strong mayor position — including the veto and added influence over the city manager — political leadership may be the most important, political scientists say.

        “What we've been seeing over the past decade is more separate attention to the political leadership part of the way the process works,” said James Svara, a North Carolina State University professor and expert on municipal government structures.

        That element of leadership is a central feature of Cincinnati's new form of government. Mr. Luken has put it on the line in a fight against a loose coalition of civil rights groups urging outside conventions and performers not to come to Cincinnati.

        Even boycott supporters understand that the mayor feels his moral authority is at stake.

        “He's playing the role of strong mayor,” said the Rev. James W. Jones, a Baptist minister who is a leader of the boycott effort. “Somebody has probably told him to look strong and be strong. He must act strong and that means not dealing with people who seem to be pressuring him to do what's right, just and legitimate.

        “But I would hope he would reconsider his stance,” he said.

        The Rev. Mr. Jones and others have criticized Mr. Luken for reneging on a promise to meet with boycott groups.

        The mayor told leaders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention last week that he would be willing to sit down with anyone. But three days later, he wrote Baptist ministers saying he would not agree to “unconditional negotiations.”

        Mr. Luken stands by both statements. “I make a distinction between meeting with people and negotiating demands,” he said.

        The boycotters have also roundly criticized Mr. Luken for using his position to denounce the boycott as “economic terrorism.” They said the remark was hypocritical for a mayor who has accused his opponents of name-calling.

        “Let me clarify that,” Mr. Luken said in an interview Friday. “I do regret that people believed that I was comparing the boycotters to what's going on in the world. But I wanted to be clear that people's economic lives are being threatened by this my-way-or-the-highway approach.”

        Mr. Luken's reluctance to talk with boycotters apparently extends to national television. He did not participate in a live interview on CNN Thursday night.

        Instead, Councilman Paul Booth and the Rev. Damon Lynch III — the head of the Black United Front and another key boycott leader — appeared on the program, with both calling on Mr. Luken to come to the table.

        “I don't think the city is well-served by having Damon and me go toe-to-toe on national TV,” Mr. Luken said. “But as April comes, I understand that I'll have to go out and do those national press things. Nobody else — except for the vice mayor (Alicia Reece) — is making the case for all the things the city has done.”

        The boycott conflict may have permanently damaged Mr. Luken's relationship with Mr. Booth.

        Tensions had been building between the two Democrats since the Feb. 7 meeting between city officials and the Baptist ministers. Mr. Booth, whose father was a founder of the group, arranged the meeting.

        By all accounts, it did not go well. The ministers were an hour late, and were outraged that Police Chief Tom Streicher Jr. did not attend.

        Through a telling exchange of e-mails this week, Mr. Luken and Mr. Booth made clear that they don't see eye-to-eye on a key issue: whether the city should negotiate the boycotters' demands.

        Mr. Luken said he feels Mr. Booth is not a “team player,” and that the councilman's attempts to mediate a negotiation have undermined his authority as mayor.

        “I told you on one occasion that I did not think your idea had merit. You know that,” Mr. Luken wrote. “I also asked for an agenda before our meeting with the Baptist ministers, and you never gave me one. I was trying to avoid just this kind of thing.”

        After Mr. Booth told reporters that Mr. Luken's failure to negotiate could threaten the Baptist convention, Mr. Luken had this to say:

        “If your comments in the paper are accurate, I think you are inviting them to cancel. ... I will have to think long and hard before I accept another invitation from you for a private meeting.”

        Mr. Booth responded on a more conciliatory note. “It is unfortunate that there may now be a broken trust between us as a result of occurences surrounding the (Progressive National Baptist Convention) meeting that were beyond my control. ... My conscience is clear. How and if PNBC comes is now up to them.

        “If a majority of my colleagues on council do not agree I will continue to stand up for what is right and will bring meaningful and lasting change — even if I have to stand alone. It wouldn't be the first time.”


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