Did a Cincinnati City Council member threaten a colleague during a meeting last week? And if so, should he apologize?
The messy debate about comments made by Cincinnati Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman to councilman Greg Landsman has touched on discussions around civility, heated political rhetoric and violence — as well as the growing politicking around the city's potential 2021 mayoral election match up.
A Nov. 2 letter signed by 22 prominent local Democrats and others decries a Smitherman statement made during an Oct. 29 council committee meeting calling five of his fellow council members "evil." The letter, signed by Hamilton County Democratic Party Co-Chair Connie Pillich, State Sen. Cecil Thomas and council members Tamaya Dennard and Wendell Young, among others, also alleges that Smitherman threatened Landsman during council's Oct. 31 meeting and that an ally of Smitherman's sent an "anti-Semitic" email to the council members.
Smitherman has called the allegations a distraction from an ongoing lawsuit brought by conservative activists Mark Miller and his attorney Brian Shrive, both Smitherman allies and members of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes. That lawsuit centers around texts between Dennard, Landsman, Young and fellow Democratic council members Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld.
Smitherman is running for mayor in 2021, and Sittenfeld is widely thought to be his most likely opponent.
Miller and Shrive contend texts sent between all five council members regarding the controversial ouster of former Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black this spring constitute violations of open meetings laws. Hamilton County Judge Robert Ruehlman has ordered texts between any of the five sent from Jan. 1, 2018 through this spring released to Shrive as part of the lawsuit.
Shrive has given various responses about whether or not he will release the messages once he receives them. Attorneys for the City of Cincinnati have appealed Ruehlman's ruling.
In that ruling late last month, Ruehlman also swatted down a request from former Democratic City Council candidate Derek Bauman and his attorney, Paul DeMarco, to intervene in the lawsuit so that it would include texts sent by Smitherman. Bauman is a close ally of Seelbach's, and DeMarco once worked for a political action committee supporting Sittenfeld's unsuccessful run in the 2014 Democratic Party primary for U.S. Senate.
The attempt to bring Smitherman — who responded to texts sent to all council members by Black before his ouster — into the lawsuit angered the conservative-leaning independent, and led to his comments calling his Democratic colleagues "evil." Smitherman blames the five council members for Bauman's attempt to bring him into the suit. He has pointed out that his wife Pamela is suffering from possibly-terminal cancer and claims a legal fight would drain financial resources needed for her care, despite council legislation hiring outside attorneys to represent him and other council members in any legal action around the texts.
"I pray to God none of my colleagues have said anything about me," Smitherman said during that meeting. The Nov. 2 letter alleges that after turning his microphone off, Smitherman then turned to Landsman and continued, "You don’t even know what I’m capable of."
The letter further alleges that on Oct. 31, Smitherman ally and political operative Tracy Gragston emailed council members and made a remark about Landsman, who is Jewish.
"You all did evil towards the vice mayor and his family," Gragston's email says. "Councilmember Landsman shouldn't hide behind Star of David and synoguage (sic) shootings as a cover for evil. The Bible says not to use your freedom as a cover to do evil. Taxpayers deserve better."
The same day Gragston sent that email, Landsman and Smitherman tangled over the latter's comments at that week's council meeting.
“Mr. Smitherman is my colleague, not my enemy," Landsman said. "And I am not evil. It’s important to say this has gone too far.”
Smitherman fired back, again blaming Landsman and the rest of the so-called "gang of five" for the attempt to bring him into the text-messaging lawsuit.
"That to me is outrageous," he said. "That to me is wrong. I think it has to do with a lack of understanding of life. I defined that and my wife defined that as evil.”
On Nov. 2, Smitherman tweeted that his wife was receiving in-home hospice care.
"Our faith in God remains steadfast and we remain hopeful," Smitherman wrote in a short statement.
In their letter released that morning, Democrats and local progressive leaders called Smitherman and Gragston's comments " extreme words that set the stage for extreme actions," mentioning recent acts of political violence against politicians, minorities and the media, including the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 people.
"Here in our own City Hall, this is the kind of unacceptable rhetoric that poisons the discourse," the letter reads. "We call on Vice Mayor Smitherman to immediately apologize to Councilmember Landsman — and to denounce the anti-Semitic words of his team member."