Berding Gets Blacked Out

It was an all-around bad week recently for Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding. He was unendorsed by the local Democratic Party after a long history of opposing initiatives proposed by Mayor Mark Mallory and other Democrats on City Council and critic

It was an all-around bad week recently for Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding.

As most political junkies know, Berding was unendorsed by the local Democratic Party after a long history of opposing initiatives proposed by Mayor Mark Mallory and other Democrats on City Council and criticizing them on radio and TV.

But even Berding’s day job caused him grief last week. After he managed the successful campaign in 1996 to increase Hamilton County’s sales tax by a half-cent to build new stadiums for the Bengals and Reds, Berding was hired as the Cincinnati Bengals’ sales director.

Sports fans were bummed last week when it looked like the Bengals’ regular seasonopener against the Denver Broncos wouldn’t be broadcast live on TV because the game wasn’t a sellout. In fact, it was far from it — with about 5,000 tickets remaining unsold in the 65,535-seat stadium.

Under NFL rules, teams usually have to sell out games 72 hours before kickoff to avoid a regional blackout. That’s when the team, WKRC-TV (Channel 12) and Kroger stepped in to buy the tickets. Of that amount, the Bengals donated 1,000 tickets to local members of the military and charities.

Without the intervention, it would have been the team’s first blackout since 2003.

(Note: No matter how many times it might be claimed otherwise, it’s not really a “sellout” if the team itself has to buy the remaining tickets.)

Public sentiment about the bungling Bengals is nearing an all-time low due to poor performance and what some say is team mismanagement. News about the possible blackout was greeted with an indifferent shrug on many Web sites. One fan wrote, “Cincinnati is just a sorry bunch of jail birds that will be on TV for nothing, put a good team on for us to watch!!”

On the political front, Berding has had trouble with his party since he first ran for council in 2005. Back then, some members of the party’s endorsement committee disliked Berding’s ties to the Bengals and the fact that he pushed for the sales tax increase to build a stadium for the team, a deal that later strained Hamilton County’s finances.

They were also angry that Berding was an unpaid adviser for then-Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, a Republican, against Democratic challenger Todd Portune in the heated 2000 campaign and advised Bedinghaus on strategies against Portune.

At the time, some observers questioned the relationship between Bedinghaus and Berding. That’s because Berding was a Bengals employee by this time and Bedinghaus had played a leading role in securing taxpayer funding for the team’s $458 million stadium.

After Portune beat Bedinghaus, the Bengals hired him as a consultant, a job he still holds today.

To gain Portune’s endorsement for his 2005 council run, Berding told the commissioner he didn’t personally campaign against Portune. That was disputed when an e-mail was found stored on a county computer once used by Bedinghaus.

The October 2000 e-mail from Berding to Bedinghaus gave advice on attacking Portune about a deal Cincinnati struck with the Bengals for a guarantee to buy unsold tickets. City Council passed the deal while Portune was a member and was trying to negotiate a plan to keep the Bengals in town.

Berding said Bedinghaus should compare the action to a similar deal between San Diego and the Chargers, in which the city nearly depleted $5 million in hotel tax revenues to buy tickets.

He wrote, “Could this news help Bob with the following spin … the city expended these dollars, but had nothing to show for them since they never had a stadium plan in place.”

When Berding sought reelection to City Council in 2007, he faced another endorsement battle because of his budget positions and frequent alliances with council’s Republicans. Critics also were upset that Berding told a crowd that Republican John Eby should be elected to City Council at a neighborhood meeting, allegedly promising to help Eby with campaign fundraising, attendees said.

During the campaign two years ago, Berding held a campaign fundraiser with a veritable Who’s Who of prominent Republicans on the host committee. They included financier Carl Lindner Jr.; Reds owner Bob Castellini; Jim Zimmerman, Federated Department Stores CEO; Stuart Dornette, Bengals attorney; and John Leffler, a major contributor to President Bush.

In that council race, Berding raised more than $222,000 yet finished eighth out of the nine people elected. Berding received 23,586 votes — meaning it cost him $9.43 per vote.

To win a party endorsement in 2007, Berding told a meeting of precinct executives, “I have tried to work with any and all members of council and our mayor to get the job done. I admit sometimes I have done well in that area, and other times I’ve been less successful,” before vowing to work better with fellow Democrats.

A month later, Berding publicly criticized Councilman David Crowley for wanting more time to review details in the case of a convicted cop killer before sending a letter to state parole officials. Later still, Berding went on Bill Cunningham’s radio show to criticize Democrats for passing a climate protection plan.

During this year’s campaign, Berding relied on fear-mongering to oppose a budget plan by Mallory and fellow Democrats. They had told the Police Department to expect 138 layoffs unless the police union agreed to $2.6 million in other cuts. The cuts were needed to help avoid a $28 million deficit, the council majority said.

Berding, however, tried to convince his colleagues to accept a “no layoffs pledge” for police this year and in 2010, when the city is facing a possible $40 million deficit. Mallory’s team said the pledge made no sense unless the union agreed to some concessions, adding it would undermine negotiations.

Ultimately, the union agreed. Before it did, Berding proposed his own budget cuts that included delaying a promised $2.5 million payment to Cincinnati Public Schools. The annual payments were pledged to help win voter support for the stadium tax that Berding pushed in the mid-’90s. Shameless.

That was the final straw. Democratic precinct executives voted 47-17 on Sept. 12 to rescind Berding’s endorsement.

By the way, voters also were told years ago that the sales tax hike would pay for the stadiums’ construction debt. The reality is tax revenues have been far below estimates, and in the next few years county commissioners will either have to end a property tax rollback or dip into its general fund and cut services to residents to keep paying for the facilities.

Berding is trying to trumpet the fact that he still has the endorsements of the police and firefighters unions. Nowadays, that means little as — once the unions won the right for their members to live outside city limits — many of them moved and cannot vote in municipal elections.

In recent years, the police union has endorsed numerous candidates who never made it onto City Council.

Councilman Chris Bortz, a Charterite who is a Berding ally, was quoted in The Enquirer as saying he might try to get Berding endorsed by the Charter Committee, the city’s de facto third political party.

When asked about Bortz’s comment, one prominent Charterite responded, “That will happen over my dead body.”

Karma, as many people say, is a bitch.

PORKOPOLIS TIP LINE: 513-665-4700 (ext. 147) or [email protected]

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