If 2016 was a mind-melting year on the national political scene, 2017 has been the year it all got weird and crazy locally. Here are some of the highlights of a very eventful 365 days in the world of Greater Cincinnati politics and social issues.
2017 Local Election — Meet the New Bosses, (Mostly) the Same as the Old Bosses
After a hard-fought campaign and a bruising mayoral primary defeat, Mayor John Cranley handily won a second term in Cincinnati’s 2017 mayoral election, besting opponent Councilwoman Yvette Simpson with 54 percent of the more than 60,000 votes cast.
All Cincinnati City Council members seeking re-election also got the nod from voters, though vacancies mean three new faces — Republican Jeff Pastor and Democrats Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman — will be taking seats come January.
Cranley's win came from big turnout in precincts that also went to the mayor in the May mayoral primary. Other precincts Simpson won in that contest didn't lean as hard toward her in the general, including some in places like Pleasant Ridge, College Hill and one representing Clifton that ended up a dead tie.
The mayor's victory wasn't assured — he lost the primary to Simpson by almost 11 points. But after that defeat, his campaign upped its ground game, fanning out across the city to knock on doors. The campaign also hired a new campaign manager, Chandra Yungbluth.
"This comeback city has made me the comeback kid,” Cranley said at his election party downtown at Americano Burger Bar. He claimed victory early, with 77 precincts and more than 10,000 votes still uncounted. Most of those votes were in West Side districts that leaned heavily for Cranley in the 2013 election and the primary.
What fueled the victory after Cranley's primary defeat? In addition to a huge monetary advantage — he broke fundraising records on his way to a $2.3 million war chest, compared to Simpson's $600,000 — Cranley's campaign pressed hard on a few key issues that may have swayed more moderate voters.
Beginning this summer, Cranley focused in on Simpson's move in council asking Children's Hospital to pitch in more money toward community development in Avondale as it sought city land, zoning changes and other items from the city for a $550 million expansion. Cranley and his supporters likened that ask to a "shakedown" of the hospital and ran negative mailers and TV ads about the issue. Simpson has said she was just trying to find a win-win between the hospital and community groups, who opposed the expansion as it was planned.
We probably haven’t seen the last of Simpson, who on election night pledged to stay active and fight for her vision for Cincinnati. And of course, those new faces on council promise to shake things up at City Hall.
The struggles many Metro riders face came briefly into focus during this year’s mayoral and city council elections. But as the campaigns closed up shop and winning candidates prepare for swearing in, it’s unclear what solutions are coming for those who depend on Metro. In the meantime, officials have warned that things could get worse before they get better.
The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which oversees the city’s buses, has warned of possible major route reductions and fare increases if Metro’s sagging budget isn’t shored up soon. That comes ahead of a ballot initiative next year that would ask Hamilton County residents to pay for bus service for the first time in decades.
SORTA recently unveiled plans it says could dramatically improve bus service across Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
But there’s a cost — and the higher the price, the better the improvement will be, SORTA says. The transit authority’s sales tax levy next year could, under state law, range anywhere from .5 percent to 1 percent. That money would go toward shoring up the region’s struggling Metro bus system.
The .5 percent tax — the plan supported by Mayor John Cranley during his re-election bid — would result in bus service staying the same due to coming deficits and looming needs for the system.
But with a .6 percent or .8 percent sales tax increase, Metro says it could expand access for people with disabilities, add new crosstown and circulator job access routes, increase the frequency and hours of weekday and weekend service on existing routes — including 24 hour service on major routes — extend some routes further into the county, and, if voters pony up for the .8 percent increase, even provide some so-called bus rapid transit. Those are routes that mimic light rail with dedicated lanes and fewer stops, speeding up commute times.
Metro, which provided 15 million rides last year, has already planned on reductions and restructuring of several routes to save money. Changes to those lesser-used routes are expected to save about $500,000 a year.
“Unless we find additional funding, we’re facing significant deficits that could require major service reductions beginning in 2019,” Metro CEO Dwight A. Ferrell said when SORTA released its 2018 budget. “At the same time that we’re working aggressively … to improve service and get people to jobs, funding for our current system is not keeping pace with costs. The old model is broken, both in terms of service delivery and funding.”
FC Cincinnati Pitches to MLS — and to Local Taxpayers
The $200 million plan for a soccer stadium in Oakley funded entirely by FC Cincinnati is out. The team’s request for $75 million in infrastructure help from the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and lower counter-proposals from both governments are in.
But the fight over another major stadium in Cincinnati is far from over. Should FC Cincinnati win its bid to Major League Soccer for an expansion franchise — something that seems imminently possible after the team presented to the MLS earlier this month — a number of issues may need to be decided by the incoming Cincinnati City Council.
And there are other unanswered questions. The team could still select a location in the West End instead of Oakley, or even leave the city entirely and cross the river for Newport. And will the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority strike a deal with municipal officials and the team on the stadium? It all remains to be seen.
Though council passed the deal by Mayor John Cranley five to three last month, some council members haven’t signaled a lot of willingness to welcome the stadium, and three new council members in the mix mean more uncertainty.
"The question to our community, and specifically to Cincinnati’s elected leaders, is whether or not to involve the city and its taxpayers in the building of a new soccer stadium," councilman P.G. Sittenfeld wrote in a lengthy statement Nov. 22, citing timing, lack of community engagement, unanswered questions about the deal and other concerns as reasons for his opposition. "The goal is great. The timing, lack of due diligence, specific financing arrangement, and location are, at minimum, questionable, and, at worst, wrong."
There are also bigger questions opponents of the deal are asking. Is the public money spent on infrastructure for the private project worth it? Cranley says the stadium will spur the local economy, and boosters say another major league sports team would be a huge boon to the region.
“I’m willing to promise that thousands of jobs will follow this public infrastructure when completed,” Cranley said at a Nov. 17 news conference. “FCC is part of our city’s renaissance, and it’s an amazing opportunity to expand this big-league city from two major professional franchises to three — the Reds, the Bengals and FCC.”
But experts disagree on the economic impacts of sports stadiums, and it’s worth considering that FCC’s owners, who stand to benefit from the public spending, are big donors to local political campaigns.
Cranley dealt the last of the major cards left to be played in the ongoing stadium drama when he proposed $36.8 million in spending on infrastructure around the stadium site to support FC Cincinnati’s plan for a 21,000-seat stadium on the former CastFab site near Oakley Station.
Cranley wants to pull the money from multiple sources, including $2.5 million from next year’s city budget, $7 million from existing tax increment financing districts in Oakley, $7.3 million from the city’s 2015 sale of the Blue Ash Airport and proceeds from the city’s portion of the Hamilton County hotel tax up to $1.5 million a year and up to a total of $20 million for as long as 30 years.
Hamilton County Commissioners have offered up as much as $15 million for a parking garage, albeit reluctantly. They would have rather seen FCC pursue an MLS bid involving use of Paul Brown Stadium, but the team and the league have demurred, saying MLS must be able to control revenue and scheduling at an expansion team venue.
Ray Tensing Walks Free
One of the nation’s most high-profile police shooting cases came to an uneasy conclusion in 2017, two years after a white University of Cincinnati Police officer shot an unarmed black man in Mount Auburn.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced July 18 that his office would not seek a third trial for former UCPD officer Ray Tensing in the shooting death of motorist Sam DuBose.
The announcement came during continued scrutiny around racially charged police-involved shootings across the country, and just a day before the second anniversary of DuBose’s death during a traffic stop.
Tensing says he feared for his life and was dragged by DuBose’s car during that stop. Footage from his body camera does not appear to show he was dragged, but two juries could not reach a verdict in the case. One jury deadlocked on the murder and manslaughter charges in November last year, another this June.
Deters said his opinion of the case — that Tensing murdered DuBose — hadn’t changed, but that he doesn’t believe he can win a conviction.
“After vigorously prosecuting Ray Tensing twice, speaking to some of the jurors and consulting with my assistant prosecutors, I do not believe there is a likelihood of success at trial,” Deters said in a statement.
“I don’t like it,” Deters said during a news conference announcing his decision, “but two juries haven’t been swayed.”
DuBose’s family said they are devastated by the prosecutor’s choice.
"We’ve got to stand up and say ‘enough is enough,’ ” Audrey DuBose, Sam DuBose’s mother, said immediately after the announcement. “Our people are not just going to die by the hands of cops or anyone else. Our system doesn’t give a black man a chance.”
Racial justice activists also expressed anger.
“What does this say to us? What does this say to our children?" activist Iris Roley asked after the decision was announced. Roley was instrumental in Cincinnati’s 2003 Collaborative Agreement, which came after the April 2001 shooting of unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas.
Cincinnati NAACP Vice President Joe Mallory decried the decision and laid heavy blame on Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Leslie Ghiz, who ruled that certain evidence — a T-shirt Tensing was wearing under his uniform that featured a Confederate flag, and statistics showing Tensing pulled over a much higher percentage of black drivers than other UCPD officers — would not be admitted into the second trial.
Mallory also called for the firing of UCPD officers Philip Kidd and David Lindenschmidt, who originally corroborated Tensing's story before admitting they didn't see him being dragged, as well as Cincinnati Police Sgt. Shannon Heine, the lead investigator in the killing. Prosecutors raised questions about Heine's gentle treatment of Tensing during initial questioning about the shooting.
An hour after Deters’ news conference, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman announced that the Southern District of Ohio U.S. Attorney’s office will investigate DuBose’s shooting for possible federal civil rights violations.
Tensing's attorney Stew Mathews told local media that his client is somewhat relieved and doesn't believe anything will come of the federal inquiry. UCPD fired Tensing shortly after he shot DuBose.
Police Reforms — Refreshing or Regressing?
Cincinnati in 2017 launched a refresh of its historic Collaborative Agreement, which was put into place with oversight from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002 following the police shooting death of an unarmed black 19-year-old and subsequent civil unrest in the city.
The refresh effort, long pushed by activists and officially launched by the city in January, started with much fanfare. But the process has been shadowed by tensions between the city, activists and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 69 President Dan Hils.
Advocates who were part of the original Collaborative say it has brought positive change but also point to deep and remaining distrust and disparities — reasons they've called for a refresh in the first place. It will take efforts beyond policing to address community problems and fulfill the promises of the original agreement, they believe.
Central to the refresh effort is a taskforce headed by Saul Green, an attorney whom federal courts tapped to monitor the original Collaborative Agreement in 2002. He and others, including University of Cincinnati criminal justice professor John Eck, will produce a report detailing the efficacy of the agreement thus far and making recommendations for further reforms.
Among the focuses of the effort: ramping up community engagement with the Citizens Complaint Authority. The CCA was created by the Collaborative to give citizens an independent place to lodge complaints about police misconduct. But it has struggled with funding woes and leadership changes in the recent past.
So far, so good. But cracks in the coalition of groups working on refreshing the collaborative started this summer with testimony from Cincinnati Police detective Shannon Heine during the trial of former UCPD officer Ray Tensing. Prosecutors trying Tensing were critical of Heine, asserting that she went easy on Tensing and wasn’t as aggressive as she could have been during questioning following Tensing’s shooting of unarmed black motorist Sam DuBose. Activists also criticized the CPD detective, angering police union president Hils.
That rift spilled over into the Collaborative refresh, with the FOP voting to leave the effort this summer. Eventually, members of the police union voted to return to the table, but more drama was just around the corner.
In October, Hils requested a restraining order that would delay testimony of two CPD officers before the CCA while a man who accused the officers of racial profiling and excessive use of force underwent a criminal trial for assaulting the officers. That prompted an angry late-night phone call to Hils from Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black, who said the police union was inappropriately intervening in the city’s police accountability processes.
Following Hils’ moves seeking to delay testimony from the officers, the Sentinels, an association representing the city’s black police officers, made a unanimous vote of no confidence in Hils.
This month, experts interviewed by The Cincinnati Enquirer said that the body camera footage from the officers in question likely violated the department’s policy on Taser use during the incident the CCA was investigating.
The ongoing tensions around the CCA both illustrate the importance of police reforms and present difficulties for city officials and activists looking to update them. Expect this conflict to extend into 2018. ©