Cover Story: Meet the New Boss

Same as the old boss, or motivated to change?

Nov 8, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

Mayoral hopeful Courtis Fuller wraps up the evening at Swifton Commons.

What a long, strange trip Cincinnati's city elections have been.

The year began with political pundits predicting Mayor Charlie Luken's coronation in his "strong mayor" bid, and then all hell broke loose — literally and figuratively — in early April. Second-guesses abounded, from Luken's leaving a crucial council committee meeting after the Timothy Thomas shooting to his handling of the subsequent curfew to the police force's work slowdown during the summer.

Despite the cloud of confusion and anger hanging over Cincinnati, the Republican Party washed its hands of city government by not coming up with a mayoral candidate. Sensing an opportunity, WLWT-TV anchorman Courtis Fuller jumped into the race at the last minute and walloped Luken in the Sept. 11 non-partisan primary.

The mayoral race, however, failed to generate widespread interest. Maybe the terrorist attacks dampened enthusiasm. Maybe Fuller's unconventional campaign threw off a public used to TV-commercial-driven elections. Maybe the fact that the city's two most experienced political reporters didn't cover the race — The Post's Sharon Maloney retired and The Enquirer's Howard Wilkinson was reassigned to another beat — allowed the candidates to get fat and lazy.

Whatever the reasons, the race limped to the finish line, with Luken cruising to victory.

He'll now serve four years under the new structure for the mayor's office.

With a super majority of six Democrats on the newly elected city council, Luken should be able easily to implement his strategy for governing Cincinnati, including hiring a new city manager. The big issues he'll face include:

· Getting control of the Cincinnati Police Division. Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman suggested and then condoned this summer's Cincinnati Police slowdown, and Chief Thomas Streicher's silence on the issue spoke volumes. The FOP then declined to endorse either Luken or Fuller, saying in its newsletter that whoever is elected mayor "will be put on probation in this first term." In the same newsletter, Fangman said that if the new mayor "takes an adversarial approach" to the police department, "we will fight publicly ... to paint them as 'anti-police' in the minds of the voters."

The battle lines are clearly drawn — the police vs. any detractors — and public safety is at risk. We've already seen the police force deliberately slow down patrolling Over-the-Rhine with deadly results. Now the FOP leader, with the chief's silent consent, threatens Luken with political war if the mayor dares question department policies and activities.

All this, of course, comes in the wake of the U.S. Justice Department's preliminary report that strongly criticizes several Cincinnati Police Division policies. At least the passage of Issue 5, against which Fangman and Streicher campaigned, shows public support for substantial changes in how the department operates.

The next few months will determine who controls the police force — Luken via his new city manager or unelected, unaccountable police officials. And much of the success in turning around Cincinnati depends on who wins that struggle.

· Gaining the trust of the city's African-American community. Blacks overwhelmingly backed Fuller, and Luken will need to work hard to prove that he's interested in them and their plight.

Black Cincinnatians live in a city that convicts two men for photographing dead people while acquitting a police officer whose own lawyer said punched a dead black man in custody. A city in which the same judge convicts a black man for disrupting a Luken speech and acquits an officer for shooting an unarmed black man.

Does Luken understand or appreciate this depressing situation? Better yet, does he have answers for those problems? We'll see.

· Bringing fundamental change to Cincinnati. Shortly after the April riots, Luken pledged that "fundamental changes" were coming to Cincinnati. He's been unsuccessful so far at making good on that promise — which was the main reason CityBeat endorsed Fuller for mayor.

Now that Luken has been re-elected, however, he has the council backing and the powers of the new "strong mayor" system to affect change. Does he have the personal and political will to do what has to be done? Again, we'll see.

Based on Luken's campaign platform, Cincinnatians should expect the city to:

* Hire additional police officers over the next two years;

* Build no additional low-income housing;

* Form a Housing Court to require landlords and property owners to properly maintain their buildings;

* Revitalize neighborhood business districts;

* Revamp the development department;

* Press Hamilton County to keep its funding pledge for The Banks;

* Expand the downtown convention center;

* Appoint a permanent arts committee to city council;

* Make no move to repeal Article 12 of the City Charter, which prohibits legal protection for gays and lesbians; and

* Withhold support for the proposed light rail system.

At least Luken will be a full-time mayor in his new term, as he pledged during the campaign to give up his consulting practice to focus on the task of rebuilding Cincinnati.

But with the pitiful turnout on Nov. 6 — only 40 percent of registered voters in the city bothered to participate — and the re-election of all seven incumbent council members, Luken certainly has no public mandate for change. We can only hope he'll be guided by his campaign promises and by his well-articulated love for his hometown. ©