Cover Story: Life After Luke

Luken's withdrawal changes everything -- or does it?

Aug 11, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes and Jerry Dowling

Mayor Charlie Luken is not dead, as he reminded well-wishers at the Aug. 4 Cincinnati City Council meeting. Yet since announcing Aug. 2 he won't seek re-election in 2005, the longest-serving mayor in Cincinnati history has been subject to a crush of political obituaries.

If Luken says he isn't dead, he must be taken at his word. He has, however, left the city in the position of following a lame duck for the next 15 months.

Luken's withdrawal spurred speculation about its cause: Was it opposition from his fellow Democrats? Was it the latest report finding excessive force by police in the death of an African American? Other speculation concerns the political fallout: Will Judge Mark Painter still run? Can Councilman David Pepper's money make him mayor? Will the mayor's son, Sam, take up the family business?

But the most important question is what happens to the city.

Does Cincinnati stand to benefit or to suffer because of Luken's withdrawal from the race — and at such an early date?

Luken's Aug. 5 guest column in The Cincinnati Enquirer opened with what he presumably thinks is the most pressing political issue of the day: "The question I am asked most often this week: 'What are you going to do next?' " Because his tenure stretches for more than a year, unless he resigns, the answer is essential to the city's immediate future.

Unfortunately prospects for the short term appear to be as bland as Luken's past leadership.

"The answer: Keep our great city moving in a positive direction," he wrote.

Rah rah.

'There's nothing new'
Luken's timing has always been somewhat skewed. He chose precisely the wrong time to walk out on a Law Committee meeting in April 2001, going missing during the final minutes when rioting could have been averted. Then he waited through three days of violence before imposing a curfew.

If Luken had paid attention Sept. 11, 2001 — yes, that 9/11 — he could have left office with acclaim. The day that has become a touchstone for U.S. history marked a more personal disaster for Luken. In the first mayoral primary under the new election system, he got his ass kicked by Courtis Fuller, a last-minute candidate, and finished second in the three-way race.

Luken went on to win the runoff. But he might have won so much more by bowing out after that first electoral thrashing. (See "What If Charlie Luken Up and Called It Quits? ," issue of July 5-11, 2001.) Instead he lingered three years — and plans to linger a year and a half longer.

"There's a long way to go before the election," says Jeff Cramerding, executive director of the Charter Committee. "It will be interesting to see how Charlie performs in the next year and a half. He's got all these strong-mayor powers, but he's been reluctant to use them."

Ohio 1st District Appeals Judge Mark Painter, prospective Republican candidate for mayor, has made his name as practitioner of jurisprudential plain talk. But he mixes fowl metaphors when asked about Luken's withdrawal from the race, calling it "chickening out." Its effect?

"A lame duck mayor is a problem," Painter says. "But if Luken resigned, a caretaker mayor would be worse."

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece would succeed Luken if he resigns, according to the city charter. But Luken says he hasn't even considered it.

"No," he says. "Why? No. I have a full plate, and secondly the campaign can proceed in a lot more orderly and understandable fashion without that kind of shenanigan."

State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-West End), whose decision to run for mayor preceded Luken's withdrawal, if not precipitating it, won't call for Luken to resign. But he emphasizes the urgency of Cincinnati's problems.

"I would hope the mayor will spend the remainder of his time charting the course for the future and start the city in a new direction," Mallory says. "I don't feel we have time to wait. I don't think the issues that face the city will allow us to wait."

Luken says the city should expect more of the same in the next year, citing his efforts to reduce crime and encourage people to live downtown.

"There's nothing new," he says. "I'm going to continue to do things like pursue state authority to have a casino in Cincinnati."

His guest column in The Enquirer gave no hint of a man looking to sit on his haunches. (He hasn't any laurels to rest on.)

"So what am I going to do next?" he wrote. "Put more cops on the street to partner with our newly created citizen army that is mobilized to fight crime. Look for new attractions to come to our city that will add to our outstanding complement of arts, sports and cultural venues (including a casino). Fix and re-retail Fountain Square, without moving the fountain. And keep investments in our neighborhoods as strong as money will allow."

Luken has always been the best friend of the status quo. He wants to "fix," "keep" and re-thisandthat. He insists, however, that his administration has been dynamic.

"I have been one of the great change agents of this city," he says.

His declaration in 2002 that reviving Vine Street was the priority for his mayoralty seems, in retrospect, wasted rhetoric; the street is, if anything, more dangerous today, not less.

But Luken says some storefronts and buildings have been renewed and the street is generally cleaner than it had been.

"Vine Street — the greatest exasperation of my current term," he says. "It's been difficult to change the environment. Vine Street's a hangout place for many people who don't even live in Over-the-Rhine. There's been some progress, much slower than I would have liked."

When he named repealing Article 12 of the city charter as his 2004 mayoral priority, he threw his support for protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination behind a campaign that had already done most of the legwork necessary to put it on the ballot. Yet he now lays claim to the strength of the campaign.

"I consider the repeal of Article 12, if it can happen, to be one of the great successes of my administration," he says.

The repeal measure will be on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Like Luken himself, Painter doesn't anticipate much new in the remainder of the mayor's term.

"Luken's remaining tenure probably won't be any worse than what it's been so far," Painter says. "We could continue to drift — or maybe, not having to please everyone, Luken could take a statesman-like approach."

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, who has sometimes clashed with Luken's laissez-unfair style of governance, hopes Painter is right.

"Charlie has said essentially that this is going to free him up as mayor to not have to worry about political considerations and concentrate on what truly is in the best interests of the city," Portune says. "It can work in ways that are very positive and beneficial for the city."

He's seen it happen, Portune says. When his fellow county commissioner dropped out of the race in 2002, good things resulted, he says.

"When Tom Neyer had announced that he was not going to run to retain his seat, he then became much more of a statesman, and we were able to forge some good bipartisan initiatives on several fronts," Portune says. "I think it can work in a very positive way. I don't think anyone should react to this in a negative way."

For his part, Luken thinks the lame duck has plenty of way to waddle.

"I think my ability to move things forward will be enhanced as a result of my non-participation in the political campaign," he says. "Lame duck — it's meaningless to me, and I think my leverage will be enhanced in the next 16 months. The proof of that is we'll find out."

'Enormous challenges'
"Statesman" isn't a word often used to describe Luken. He is, after all, the mayor who called supporters of a civil rights boycott "economic terrorists." He's the mayor who said Nathaniel Jones' 350-pound girth made his very body a "deadly weapon" that justified deadly force by police against the unarmed man. He's the mayor who appointed the city's most ardent critic of the police department, the Rev. Damon Lynch III, to a racial reconciliation commission, only to fire him a few months later for criticizing the police.

Where the city goes from here obviously depends largely on who's elected mayor in Luken's stead. Since voters decided in 2001 to give the mayor additional power as a "strong mayor," the new mayor's priorities and leadership style carry more heft than in the past eight decades under Cincinnati's city manager form of government.

Those in favor of electoral reform hope to grant the mayor even more power, effectively abolishing a council-manager dynamic (see "Strong, Stronger, Strongest," issue of June 23-29).

Who's elected to that role depends first on who's running.

Mallory, the incumbent state senator and, until last week, co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, is in. Asked what Luken's withdrawal means, Mallory's answer was to the point.

"It means I'm going to win," he says. "It doesn't change anything in terms of my campaign. The issues that face Cincinnati are bigger than any single individual."

Pointing to the exigencies of Ohio law, Painter won't say whether he'll run.

"Luken's chickening out makes the race much more fluid," he says. "Because of my present position, I am limited in what I can do. I cannot run for another non-judicial office without resigning from the court. It's much too early to do that. It's much too early for a mayoral campaign by anyone. We don't even elect a president for three more months. I've said I would decide by the first of the year. Surely a 10-month campaign is more than enough."

Pepper quietly announced his candidacy Aug. 3. in The Cincinnati Post. He says he's saving a more formal announcement until after the Nov. 2 election.

"I'll just say that, by almost any measure, the city has enormous challenges, and the list of things we have to do better is very long," he says.

Topping his list is education. He spoke to CityBeat while waiting for a flight to Chicago to meet with Mayor Richard Daley, who, he says, has pushed aggressively for early childhood education to retain families. Pepper also says empowerment in the community and safety are key issues.

"We need to have an overall long-term plan of success for the city," he says. "I don't feel we have one right now."

The city needs a team of people comprising both the mayor and council, working together toward a shared vision, according to Pepper.

"The way to get on the same page is you agree to a certain direction," he says.

In fact, since the field has opened wide, the newly elected mayor will have a clear mandate from the city, according to Councilman Pat DeWine, a Republican.

"I think there's going to be a variety of visions outlined, someone's going to go into office with a mandate to do some things," he says.

'A radical change'?
Other council members also kick around the idea of running.

"I have not ruled out running for mayor," says Councilman Christopher Smitherman, a Charterite in his first term on council. "I have to consider running for mayor in light of what I consider a tremendous void of leadership in this city," he says.

He thinks the city panders to big business and ignores small businesses, which he says drive the American economy but "are very much lost in the sauce." Small businesses such as those that surround the now-vacant Huntington Meadows community desperately need economic relief plans, he says.

Smitherman also wants to see the city pay more attention to basic services such as sidewalk repair.

"I don't believe right now that the basic services and the taxes people pay are in direct correlation," he says.

He'll only support a candidate who demonstrates balance dealing with the Cincinnati Police Department, not somebody who would see a situation like the one that resulted in the 2000 death of Roger Owensby Jr., an unarmed black man, "and not say anything."

"When there's unjustified homicides, we will hold them accountable," he says.

He's unimpressed by Pepper's voting record. He has yet to see Pepper take a strong stand on either economic inclusion or in dealings with the police department, Smitherman says.

Nor has he heard anything impressive from Mallory, noting that during Mallory's tenure as co-chair of his party, the Democrats left gaping holes on the ballot by failing to run candidates for some key city positions, including county prosecutor.

"I'm not going to support (Mallory) just because he's black," Smitherman says.

He expects a mayor to be aggressive with his ideas and to be able to say no to corporations like Convergys that come begging city money.

If he were mayor, Smitherman says, he'd again televise the public comments that precede council meetings. He'd also allow citizens to speak before committee meetings instead of after, when decisions have already been made, and remove the intimidating podium in council chambers, seating city officials in metal chairs on level with the citizens they represent.

"It's the whole lack of respect for citizens," he says.

He'll base a decision on running on the level of support he receives.

"It's up to the citizens for that," Smitherman says. "Citizens are really going to have to want a radical change in the city."

The outspoken and controversial councilman says that means citizens must be unafraid of tension and lively discussion, which creates the dynamic necessary in a democratic society.

"I'm not an easy choice," he admits.

At least two other council members also bat around the notion of running for mayor.

Councilman John Cranley, a Democrat and close friend of Luken, announced this week he's in the race.

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece didn't return phone calls, but according to Democratic Councilman David Crowley, "Alicia says she'll consider it."

Another player in the speculative scenarios is City Manager Valerie Lemmie, who is hired and fired by the mayor with majority council approval. She's now open to less enviable speculation on whether she'll keep her job under the new administration.

City spokeswoman Meg Olberding says, "I think she and the mayor are still very focused on the work they have to do here, in the areas of economic development and safety and neighborhood development and making this a clean city and a safe city and a friendly city for visitors. That's what they're really focused on right now."

Olberding says she's doesn't know if Lemmie is hedging her bets by looking around for other positions, in case the new mayor decides to fire her.

Pepper wouldn't comment on Lemmie's role in his prospective administration.

Potential Democratic candidates for mayor have been more visible than Republicans. But Painter isn't the only potential GOP candidate. DeWine points to former Councilman Charlie Winburn and State Rep. Tom Brinkman (R-Mount Lookout).

"I'm sure the party will come up with a good candidate," DeWine says. I think it's critical that we do that. I think that the direction the city's been going cries out for real change in leadership, not just in personality but in political parties."

DeWine, who's running for county commissioner this fall, isn't interested.

"Two elections in two years is enough for me," he says.

Regardless of whom they endorse, the Hamilton County Republican Party can't sit out the race as it did in 2001, Crowley says.

"Certainly the Republicans are going to be under a lot of pressure to decide on a candidate," he says. "I think if they got the right candidate and the Democrats split ..."

He lets the possibilities hang in the air.

In fact, Crowley was one of the only council members willing to speculate openly on the ambitions and the winning odds of his colleagues. Pepper has a "very high probability of being elected mayor," he says. Crowley suspects that Smitherman has mayoral aspirations, but thinks the odds are against him, while he's almost assured of getting re-elected to council.

Council members can either file for re-election or for the mayoral race, but not both. That means Smitherman would have to abdicate his seat after just one term on council to run for mayor.

"I don't know whether he'd want to do that," Crowley says.

He gives Cranley little chance for success.

"I think he knows he can't beat Pepper," Crowley says.

Luken warns that Democrats have no lock on the mayor's job.

"I think that it is a volatile electorate," he says. "I think it can move rapidly in one direction or another, as I saw in my own circumstance when I lost the primary by 16 or 18 points and won the election by 10. I think Democrats (in Cincinnati) are very conservative. Some people say a Democrat here would be a Republican in New York City, so I wouldn't be surprised if the right Republican here could be elected."

'I hope we don't sit around'
Even council members without immediate mayoral ambitions don't hesitate to offer prescriptions for a new mayor. DeWine sees an "unaddressed, skyrocketing crime problem." He's not pleased with the administration's attitude toward the most recent homicide numbers, which he describes as, "Gee, this is really bad, we're doing everything we can now, there's not much else we can do. If people want to kill each other, they're going to kill each other."

He wants the city to follow New York City's example in focusing on quality of life issues, the so-called "broken windows" theory of fighting crime, implementing a CompStat system to track crime trends (see "Glass Houses," issue of Jan. 21-27).

City development is still in shambles, DeWine adds. The Department of Community Development and Planning continues to blunder about, while the "economic strike force" the city created a year ago still consists of just one person.

Crowley and Democratic Councilwoman Laketa Cole also eschew the job of mayor, but have plenty of ideas for those who run. Cole wants the new mayor to focus on economic inclusion and fulfilling the city's obligations to the Empowerment Zone. She thinks repealing the panhandling ordinance and the entertainment tax are crucial for the city's progress.

Crowley hopes for a more harmonious racial relationship and more determined efforts to curtail Cincinnati's rapid population loss. Working closely with the Board of Education for the Cincinnati Public Schools is paramount, he says.

"If the mayor's doing that, I think that'll say a lot about our commitment to our future," he says.

An attitude of collaboration and cooperation is key, according to Crowley. Citizens want someone who says, "I can't do it all by myself. You gotta give me a hand here."

Councilman Jim Tarbell, a Charterite, thinks the winning mayoral candidate will ask for those hands before the election by forming a coalition with council candidates that'll be ready to go as soon as they're sworn in.

"If there is a slate of candidates, mayor and council candidates, that are all dedicated to the same vision and the energy it's going to take to execute that, that to me is the single most important goal right now," he says.

Tarbell wants that collective vision to boost city redevelopment, as it's outlined in the Center City Development Corporation's mission statement.

"I think we need more energy to really promote and execute that mission statement," he says. "Whether the two announced candidates have the combination of vision and energy that's necessary, I don't know."

Luken doesn't seem pleased with the outpouring of political eulogies and retrospectives on his long career. He's not even gone for 16 months, which was the first observation out of most of the five Democratic council members' mouths.

"First of all, Charlie still has 16 months left in his tenure," Cranley says. "I think he'll be very strong and liberated from the political nature of running for re-election."

During the Aug. 2 press conference announcing his decision, Luken said the next 16 months will be "business as usual" for him. Republican Councilman Sam Malone thinks the same.

"I don't think it'll be much of an impact," he says. "I think we're going to stay the same course."

Luken's early announcement enables him to "be more firm on his positions," Malone says.

"I think the political angles have disappeared because I don't think there are any now," he says.

Luken himself alluded to a new license to act.

"In fact, I might even try to ratchet up some things," Luken said Aug. 2. "It might be easier for me to take a proactive role in some things I might otherwise not be involved in."

Finally feeling free to take strong stands is all well and good — if not somewhat late — but DeWine has concerns about Luken's mitigated influence.

"I'm a little worried about what's going to happen the next (16) months," DeWine says. "It's a long time to have a lame duck mayor. I hope we're not just going to sit around and wait for the election." w