When I was first told by a friend Sunday morning that former Cincinnati City Councilman and Vice Mayor David Crowley had passed away at age 73, I was taken aback by how much the news affected me.
After all, I knew that David’s prostate cancer, which he successfully battled in 2005, had returned last year and he had begun chemotherapy.
When I last saw David two months ago on Election Night with his wife, Sherri, outside the Blue Wisp Jazz Club downtown, his appearance was altered by the treatment and he didn’t seem to have the same jaunty spring in his step. Despite looking pale and weak, though, he still was his always-friendly self and stopped on the sidewalk for a few moments of conversation.
Before we shook hands and went our separate ways that night, we talked about getting together for coffee sometime soon, an appointment that regrettably never happened amid the rush of the holiday season.
And, of course, David was a politician who I covered for years, first as City Hall reporter for The Cincinnati Post, and later as a writer and columnist for CityBeat. I try to retain a professional distance from the people I report on and opine about, knowing that it makes it easier to see them with some sense of objectivity. That way, I don’t feel badly when I write something harsh or feel embarrassed when I dole out some praise.
But David Crowley was a little different.
It wasn’t just that his twinkling eyes and mischievous smile always brightened my day when I saw them, no matter what mood I’d been in earlier. And it also wasn’t just that, on a personal level, I agreed with many of David’s policy stances. There are several local politicians who, while I might agree with their latest proposals for one thing or another, I can’t stomach their personalities.
It took me awhile to figure out why David’s passing, though expected, had such an impact. I soon realized that he was one of those rare people that I admired both professionally and personally.
At City Hall, David never shied away from a fight on the floor of council chambers. Even if he was the only person who held a particular point of view, which was somewhat common as City Council’s most progressive member, he would rise to the occasion and make his argument calmly and intelligently, without resorting to personal attacks or histrionics.
After the meetings, he would invite his colleagues up to his family’s business, Crowley’s Irish Pub on Pavilion Street in Mount Adams, to grab a few drinks.
On a personal level, I admired David for his close relationship with his family. He had four children — two of whom are gay — and he seemed to genuinely love and support them all. You could sense his pride as he talked about them and, whenever council was on break, he often was flying to one state or another to visit his six grandchildren.
Whenever I’m feeling exhausted or cynical, I remember that David filled his long life with enough activity that puts most of us to shame and it usually ends my grumbling.
A native Cincinnatian, Crowley grew up in Mount Adams, an Irish Catholic who was one of eight children in his family. He graduated from Purcell High School, then entered the U.S. Navy where he served two years on the cruiser the U.S.S. Northampton.
Crowley received degrees from Ohio State University and George Washington University. He began his professional social work career as a children’s services caseworker in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, and later served as executive director of Santa Maria Community Services.
Then-Gov. John J. Gilligan chose Crowley to be the first executive director of the Ohio Commission on Aging.
Also, Crowley was selected executive vice president of the American Association of Homes for the Aging, in Washington, D.C., from 1975-82. The following year — when he was well into his mid-forties — Crowley joined the Peace Corps and served in Jamaica and Cameroon. After that experience, he directed international relief and development projects in West Africa, Central and South America, Nepal, Thailand, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Crowley returned to Cincinnati in 1995 to help manage his family’s pub. A Democrat, he was elected to City Council on his first attempt in November 2001 and reelected three times, the maximum amount of consecutive terms allowed under Cincinnati’s charter. In August 2007, he was appointed vice mayor by Mayor Mark Mallory.
Whew. Just reading that list makes me tired. But it also inspires me and makes me want to do better. That’s pretty much the same effect that David had on everyone who knew him well. It’s true for Rocky Merz, who was David’s legislative aide and right-hand man at City Hall for 6 1/2 years.
When Merz first met David in 2000 while working on another politician’s campaign, all he knew about him was that they were both Democrats and both had families that owned bars.
“Once I went to work for him, I realized he was one of the good guys,” Merz says. “In politics, some of the conversations that go on behind-the-scenes make you want to take a shower. That wasn’t the case with Dave. Even if you disagreed with him on a policy matter, you never questioned his motives. He was very sincere and very clear.
“His whole life was about public service, it wasn’t about political ambition,” Merz adds. “Some people thought he was naive, but he was keenly aware of politics. He drew on a large cache of life experiences and knew what was important, what really mattered.”
For example, David introduced a resolution in February 2003 asking his fellow councilmembers to take a stand opposing the impending war in Iraq, but he couldn’t muster enough votes to ensure passage. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and paranoia about terrorism, some other high-profile local Democrats weren’t willing to take the political risk, even though the same resolution had been passed by 93 other cities.
“It didn’t deter him, he knew it was important to speak out,” Merz says. “As a Navy veteran, he knew the whole (rationale for the war) didn’t feel right. It’s through things like that that you learned to really respect him. He wasn’t influenced by the blowing of the political winds.”
Among David’s proudest accomplishments while on City Council were helping to repeal Article 12, the charter amendment that prohibited anti-discrimination efforts for gays and lesbians; and passing the enviornmental justice ordinance in 2007, which requires an environmental assessment be done for certain types of projects proposed in neighborhoods that are deemed already adversely affected by toxins and pollution.
“He wanted to make Cincinnati a better place to live, and he did,” Merz says. “I think that’s the void we’re feeling now.”