Sunday, June 8, 2003

Young majority on council shifting city's focus

35-and-unders wield power, pay attention to their generation

By Amy Higgins
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Why is Cincinnati's establishment finally paying attention to the flight of young adults? Partly because new, younger leaders with new ideas have taken over power.

A younger generation of leaders now heads such venerable establishments as the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, Xavier University, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the NAACP, the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Perhaps most significantly, six of the nine members of the Cincinnati City Council are now 35 or younger. To them, attracting Generation X is more than just good policy. It's personal.

Cincinnati City Council member Alicia Reece, 32, addressed young professional flight in her first council campaign in 1999.

Of several friends who went together to Grambling State University in the early 1990s, she was the only one who returned to Cincinnati. Then, other friends at the University of Cincinnati told her they were eager to graduate so they could leave.

Reece made "brain drain" part of her campaign platform. Then age 28, she found it difficult to get herself or her issues taken seriously. Some told her she was too young for council and to "come back in 10 years."

"People actually told me, 'I wish I could close my eyes and have you be 10 years older,' " she says.

But she was elected, as was then-31-year-old Pat DeWine.

In their footsteps, three more Gen Xers were elected: John Cranley, 29; David Pepper, 32, and Chris Monzel, who turns 35 today.

This spring, Y. Laketa Cole became the council's sixth Gen Xer. The 29-year-old political rookie was picked over former State Rep. Sam Britton, 69, to replace the resigning Paul Booth, 48.

Council now has a median age of 35. Only the 1979 council - which included a 35-year-old Jerry Springer - came close to that median age in modern times.

"It's like night and day," says Jim Tarbell, 60, who joined council in 1998 when the group's median age was closer to 46. "All of a sudden we ended up with this collection of youth, energy and vision."

Minette Cooper, 55, the council member who's served the longest, says the age difference is making a political difference. Today's youthful council is more aware of young professionals leaving Cincinnati and is more dedicated to solutions than ever before.

"The council I was on originally would not have paid attention to that," she says. "They don't deal with people that have these urges and needs."

Mayor Charlie Luken, 51, agrees.

"Council members support the things that will help get it done," he says. "It's a good team, and the right time for Cincinnati."

E-mail ahiggins@enquirer .com

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