Careful: Streetcar Petitions Can Be Deceptive

It’s certainly true that good people can come to different conclusions and disagree on an issue. Sometimes, however, good people are led astray by those with ulterior motives. For more than a year, an unusual coalition of arch-conservatives, civil rights

It’s certainly true that good people can come to different conclusions and disagree on an issue. Sometimes, however, good people are led astray by those with ulterior motives.

For more than a year, an unusual coalition of arch-conservatives, civil rights groups, Libertarians, Green Party members and others have joined together to mount several petition drives that have made the ballot and let voters decide on issues that otherwise would have been made by elected officials.

Known collectively as “We Demand a Vote,” the coalition successfully opposed a county sales tax increase to build a new jail in 2007 and last year blocked Cincinnati City Council’s plan to install automated cameras at intersections to catch motorists who run red lights. It also tried and failed to convince voters to revive the Proportional Representation system for electing council members.

At the heart of this coalition is a growing alliance between the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), a conservative group led by attorney Chris Finney, and the NAACP’s local chapter, led by ex-Councilman Christopher Smitherman.

The pair is so enamored of one another that Smitherman (once considered a left-leaning firebrand on City Council) has appointed Finney (an opponent of affirmative action and minority set-aside contracts ) as legal advisor on the NAACP’s executive committee. Old Neil Simon plays be damned, this is truly an odd couple.

Maybe hell has frozen over, but the true reason for this unlikely pact is that there’s something in it for both Finney and Smitherman.

For Finney, it’s a chance to turn around COAST’s waning political influence, which has seen voters increasingly reject the group’s advice on property tax levies for schools, the group’s main issue in the past. It also gives the uber-white, mostly suburban COAST some much-needed street cred within city limits to show it can work with African Americans and not merely be seen as outside interlopers into Cincinnati’s affairs.

For Smitherman, it provides free legal representation by someone who’s adept at finding bureaucratic loopholes that can trip up the best-laid plans of elected officials. Before Smitherman became its president, the local NAACP largely was inactive and forgotten, and the one-time politician surely knows his new buddy will garner media attention.

Acting as modern-day Pied Pipers, Finney and Smitherman have lured others to follow them — and not just on the political fringe. For example, the Proportional Representation effort included former Mayor Bobbie Sterne, former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan, former Vice Mayor Marian Spencer, State Rep. Tyrone Yates and others. Not a shabby bunch.

But like all effective political movements, the coalition has relied on grassroots activists at its core, those who put in the time and do the necessary but unglamorous grunt work of campaigning. They include people like Young Republican leader Jeff Cappell, anti-jail tax crusaders Ed Rothenberg and Michael Earl Patton and bloggers Jason Haap and Justin Jeffre.

If you’re involved in politics at all, you probably dislike one or more of this passionate group. However irritating, though, they represent democracy in action.

Now there are signs that the grassroots base is unraveling.

Haap and Jeffre, who operate the popular Cincinnati Beacon Web site, recently withdrew their support from the ongoing petition effort to force a vote on the city’s streetcar plan on the fall ballot.

As most CityBeat readers know, City Council last year approved the initial planning stages for a long-discussed $102 million streetcar loop through downtown and Over-the-Rhine as well as an initial $35 million connector link to the uptown area near the University of Cincinnati. Eventually, a loop also would be built in the uptown area for another $48 million.

The city’s financing plan calls for obtaining at least $31 million in contributions from private sources along with generating $25 million in debt financing through bonds that would be repaid using the city’s capital projects budget. Another $25 million would come from taxes generated by new development along the streetcar route.

Supporters say the streetcar project would have a $1.4 billion economic impact as it helps spark residential and commercial redevelopment on blighted and vacant properties along the route as similar systems have done in other cities.

Opponents counter that it would be far cheaper to expand bus routes and, with the city facing a $40 million deficit due to stagnant tax revenues, it’s more prudent to focus on providing basic services.

Some opponents, like Haap and Jeffre, are realizing that the overly broad wording used on the NAACP’s petitions would require a public vote on every rail-related project that goes through the city, not just the streetcar system — including any regional light-rail system and the proposed high-speed rail connector with Columbus and Cleveland touted by President Obama.

In all likelihood, Finney wrote the petition for the NAACP. It’s no coincidence that COAST is rabidly anti-mass transit and opposes almost every rail project.

“We believe the NAACP was mistaken to think opposing the streetcar was only possible by petitioning against all forms of passenger rail transit,” the Beacon wrote. “This could have been either an oversight by the NAACP, or an anti-transit political maneuver. Either way, we acknowledge the petition drive has the right intent, but the wrong language and we hereby call on all interested parties to act now.”

Was Smitherman manipulated by Finney and will he change the wording on the petitions, or does he truly want to stymie all rail projects? His actions in the next few weeks will tell the tale.

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