A Year for the Ages

Obama’s presidential election, with historic help from Hamilton County, led local news in 2008

1776, 1865, 1945, 1968 and now 2008. There are some years that stick out in American history as significant turning points, with events occurring that are so momentous even those living through them know they’re witnessing history.

At times both exhilarating and exasperating, the presidential campaign of the past year was one of those moments. With the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African- American president, a majority of voters put aside prejudices that seemed insurmountable just 30 or 40 years ago and entrusted the nation’s welfare in the hands of a black man. George Wallace and Strom Thurmond surely are cussing in their graves.

Perhaps a bigger factor than Obama’s race, however, was the nation’s weariness with eight years of greed, incompetence, fear-mongering and an unrealistic, cowboy-style foreign policy that’s left the United States weaker at home and abroad. The near-collapse of the U.S. financial markets in September put the final nail in the coffin of President Bush’s reckless, short-sighted policies and gave Obama the boost needed to carry him into the White House.

Even Hamilton County, long a stronghold for Republicans and credited with giving Bush the winning edge in the 2004 presidential race, went for Obama. It was the first time since 1964 that a majority of county voters — 53 percent — selected the Democrat for president, and the first time since 1912 that Hamilton County went Democratic in an election that was strongly contested.

Compared with a barely literate president and a secretive, power-hungry vice president currently in office, Obama’s mix of intelligence, calm demeanor and inclusiveness resonated with the American people, swelling the ranks of registered voters hungry for change. Whether Obama delivers on those promises will no doubt be the top story of 2009.

Obama’s victory wasn’t the only noteworthy election this year.

After several close calls in recent years, U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Westwood) could no longer resist the national trend toward Democrats and was defeated. Steve Driehaus, a Price Hill resident who was a term-limited member of the state legislature, won Ohio’s 1st Congressional District seat with 52 percent of the votes cast.

Chabot first won election in 1994 as part of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” crowd, a group of politicians who promised to reform Washington politics but never quite managed to do so. Part of Gingrich’s so-called contract was a push for term limits, but Chabot — like many of his GOP peers — decided they liked walking the halls of power once elected and ran for re-election time and again.

Driehaus’ positions might have been a better fit given the mood of the electorate, even in Greater Cincinnati.

Chabot supported launching the Iraq War and opposed any timetables for troop withdrawal, while Driehaus opposes the military action, calling it a drain on resources needed in the United States. Also, both men are Catholics who personally oppose abortion but, while Chabot wanted lawmakers to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, Driehaus has said he prefers reducing the number of abortions performed through means other than legislation.

Voters on the far eastern edge of the city, though, sent a different message at the polls by reelecting U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Miami Township) for Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District. Faced with competitors that included an erratic Democrat (Victoria Wulsin) and a conservative-leaning independent (David Krikorian), Schmidt squeaked by to victory, capturing just under 45 percent of the vote.

Since first taking office in 2005, Schmidt hasn’t demonstrated much of a coherent legislative agenda but was a firm Bush supporter who’s known for her blunt, straight-shooting style. Seeing how she fares after Bush leaves office and with Democrats controlling the presidency and both chambers of Congress will be one of the stories to watch in the coming year.

Capitalizing on their momentum, Democrats also won a state representative’s seat (Connie Pillich) and two common pleas judgeships (Jody Luebbers and Jerry Mertz) that had been in the Republican camp for a while, along with the county recorder’s office.

Although elections dominated the news in 2008, other noteworthy events occurred as well.

They include Cincinnati City Council taking the controversial first steps toward building a proposed $137-million streetcar system in downtown, Over-the-Rhine and near the University of Cincinnati. Council approved a plan to begin preliminary engineering work for the system, which would be built in phases, and have the city manager attempt to raise up to $60 million of the cost from the private sector.

If the fund-raising attempts are successful, the streetcar system would include a $102-million loop through downtown and Over-the-Rhine, a $35-million connector link to the uptown area near the university and local hospitals and eventually a loop in the uptown area for another $48 million.

The city’s financing plan calls for generating at least $31 million from private sources and possibly more with the addition of the uptown link, along with $25 million in debt financing through bonds that would be repaid using the city’s capital projects budget.

Another $25 million would come from tax increment financing (TIF) revenues, taxes generated by new development along the streetcar route; $11 million from the sale of Blue Ash Airport, which was owned by the city; and $10 million from state grants.

A city feasibility study in 2007 concluded the streetcar project would have a $1.4 billion economic impact as it helps spark residential and commercial redevelopment on blighted properties along the route. Critics, however, say the plan is a risky gamble and the funds could be better spent in neighborhood business districts.

Also, a groundbreaking was held in April on land between the Bengals and Reds stadiums, part of a publicity push by Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials to prove that work finally was beginning on the long-discussed Banks housing and shopping district along the Ohio River.

Discussed since at least the mid-1990s to entice voters into approving a sales tax increase to build the new stadiums, The Banks project involves creating a mix of condominiums, offices, shops and a hotel next to a large new riverfront park. Since that time, the mammoth project has been delayed due to funding and jurisdictional issues.

With most of those problems resolved, much of the spring and summer was spent doing underground construction work needed to lift The Banks area out of the flood plain. Crews cleaned up old debris left from the old Cinergy Field and drilled 80 feet down until they hit bedrock so concrete pilings could be installed to support the garages and other structures built above ground.

More support columns were installed this fall, and onlookers should be able to see the basic framework of structures rise next spring, with the first buildings slated for completion in 2010. The first phase will include about 300 apartments and 80,000 square feet of retail space.

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