Cover Story: Raising the Bar

Cincinnati City Council challengers offer ideas and energy but face an uphill battle against 'comeback' candidates and no open seats

Oct 3, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jacob Drabik

Raising the Bar

They're responsible for making sure potholes get filled and garbage gets picked up, as well as guaranteeing police and fire protection are available when you need them.

To do all of that, of course, they also decide how best to spend your taxes and whether they need to dip more deeply into your wallet or purse.

Cincinnati City Council has more direct impact on the lives of the 368,000 people who make their home in the Queen City than do Ohio's governor or the President, but council elections rarely get the same level of media attention other than a slew of annoying TV commercials and a few sound bites on the TV news in the weeks leading up to Nov. 6.

And this year's city council elections are especially noteworthy.

All nine seats on council are up for election in a citywide field race, just as they are every two years. This time, however, the race is far more competitive than it has been in years.

Nine incumbents are seeking re-election, but four of them —Democrats Jeff Berding and Cecil Thomas, Republican Leslie Ghiz and Charterite Chris Bortz — are just completing their first terms. Because the current city council is widely viewed as contentious and full of in-fighting despite campaign promises to bring harmony to City Hall, their spots are considered unusually vulnerable, a contention that's borne out by poll results.

One of the incumbents is Roxanne Qualls, who was appointed to council in September to finish the remaining three months in the term of Jim Tarbell, who couldn't run again due to term limits.

In 1991 city voters approved an ordinance limiting council service to four consecutive two-year terms, for a total of eight years in office, and made the limit retroactive.

Subsequent court rulings deemed the retroactivity clause unconstitutional, though, which resulted in council members first being affected by the law in 1999. Under the ordinance, council members must sit out at least two terms (four years) before running for a council seat again.

Although some former council members could have began running again in 2003, this is the first year that's seen a flood of old-school politicians clamoring for a return.

Qualls, a former councilwoman and mayor who's returning to politics after stepping down because of term limits in 1999, is endorsed by the Charter Committee, Cincinnati's de facto third political party. Tarbell, also a Charterite, wanted to give Qualls the advantage of incumbency in this fall's elections — although it's unlikely the longtime politician really needed the extra help.

But Qualls isn't the only familiar face seeking a return to City Hall.

Of the 26 candidates seeking election to city council, there are three other former council members vying for a comeback: Democrat Minette Cooper and Republicans Charlie Winburn and Sam Malone.

Malone lost his seat in 2005 after serving one term, but Cooper and Winburn are seeking a return to office after sitting out for a few years due to the local term limit law.

The unusual turn of events essentially means that there are 12 "incumbents" crowding the field, making it even more difficult for challengers to rise above the political noise of campaigning and have their messages heard by a broad audience.

"This is the result of, in part at least, the consequences of the term limit law," says Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University who studies local elections. "This is really the first time we're seeing it happen. Nothing in my memory can recall when there are so many non-incumbents who have served before running again."

Familiarity often can connect with busy voters in a way that other qualities cannot, he adds.

"In a 9X race with 26 candidates, name recognition is a very important factor," Beaupre says. "I think some voters rarely think in-depth about any of the issues, but maybe a little bit more about character. They feel they know something about the character of people who have served before."

With that obstacle in mind, CityBeat is again providing its traditional forum for non-incumbent candidates to express their views and let readers get to know them better.

Non-incumbent candidates featured in this article are Democrats Minette Cooper, Brian Garry, Greg Harris and Wendell Young; Republicans John Eby, Patrick Fischer and Charlie Winburn; Charterite Joan Kaup; Green Party candidates Justin Jeffre and Michael Earl Patton; and independents Mitch Painter and George Zamary.

CityBeat had difficulty contacting some candidates and didn't get a reply from others by deadline. They were Republicans Andre Harper and Sam Malone, Charterite Melanie Bates and independents Sean Robert Lackey and Steve Pavelish.

For 'everyday' folks
On the Democratic side, Cooper previously served on council from 1995 to 2003, including two years as vice mayor. Formerly a schoolteacher and owner of a rental property management firm, she currently works as a community activist and a political consultant.

Since Cooper left council, she believes the political body hasn't worked to adequately help the city's poorer residents.

"I was able to observe council from the outside for the past four years," says Cooper, 60, of Avondale. "I can see, more clearly than I ever could before, the good decisions and the bad decisions that council makes and its subsequent impact on the community. I don't think that the current council has done a great job in looking at the long-term needs of our city, nor has it been effective in meeting the needs of the whole community.

A one-time protégé of ex-Mayor Dwight Tillery, Cooper says, "I firmly believe that there is a need on council for someone to be a liaison for the greater community, as well as be able to see what's in the best long-term interest of the city."

Another Democratic candidate, Brian Garry, is a longtime social justice advocate who previously ran for city council two years ago as an independent. Garry, 42, lives in Clifton. He's employed as a music teacher at two area Montessori schools and also owns a small construction company that specializes in environmentally friendly materials.

In recent years, Garry has been a vocal critic against police brutality and urban gentrification that displaces poor residents, particularly in Over-the-Rhine. Some more centrist Democrats dislike that he once supported an economic boycott of downtown Cincinnati that was called by civil rights groups, but he believes such efforts give voice to people disenfranchised by the political system.

"I feel that many people, especially our underserved population, are not being adequately represented on city council," Garry says. "I will represent our neighborhoods and the 'everyday' people in Cincinnati."

Greg Harris is making his first run for city council after trying unsuccessfully in 2002 and 2004 to unseat Republican Congressman Steve Chabot. In his last campaign, Harris received 116,000 votes and won the city portion of District 1 with 63 percent of ballots cast. He hopes that support translates to the council race.

"It is my firm belief that Cincinnati has been mired in cynicism for too long, and we need to resurrect a 'can-do' attitude," Harris says. "My governing philosophy is grounded in strategies that leverage and inter-connect our region's existing assets. Through modernizing and streamlining government and targeted economic development, we can bring new wealth to Cincinnati, combat population decline, and garner the resources needed to conquer our most pressing problems."

Harris, a 36-year-old Northside resident, works as a public policy officer for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation and is a former Miami University instructor. If elected, he wants to focus on neighborhood development and help reestablish the city's Planning Department.

"Cincinnati has not had a strategic plan since 1948," Harris says. "The time has come to empower Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods to prioritize and leverage their cultural, architectural and environmental assets as part of a long-term comprehensive economic development and neighborhood revitalization strategy for this city."

Wendell Young is mounting his second city council campaign. In 2005 he also ran as a Democrat and placed 13th out of 31 candidates.

A retired Cincinnati police officer who now teaches at Aiken Career & College High School, Young says he's looking for additional ways to serve the city he once patrolled for decades.

"My city needs help moving toward the future," says Young, 62, a North Avondale resident. "I just cannot stand by and watch Cincinnati struggle with issues I believe I can help to solve. I know that my many years of public service and my undying love for Cincinnati provide me a unique perspective to help lead my city and work to solve her problems."

Making the city livable
Perhaps the best-known name on the Republican ticket is Charlie Winburn, who left city council in 2001 after serving seven years. He was the local GOP's mayoral candidate in 2005, finishing a distant third in the primary with 21 percent of the vote.

"I am tired of sitting on the sidelines," Winburn says. "I want to help my city address these major issues of crime, schools and economic development. ... I want to return to help improve the quality of life for all Cincinnatians."

Winburn, 56, of Mount Airy, is a pastor who founded the Encampment, a College Hill church where he often performs exorcisms and once advertised a prophecy school. A staunch conservative, he was criticized during his mayoral campaign for once writing, "We Christians must clean up politics. It is our job to elect only born-again believers to public office."

Also on the GOP slate is John Eby, a longtime Westwood neighborhood leader. He serves on the boards of the city's Citizens Complaint Authority and the Community Action Agency, which develops strategies to solve local poverty issues by seeking to provide educational and job training opportunities.

This is Eby's second council campaign; in 2005 he finished 15th out of 31 candidates. On the campaign trail, he often shows a photograph of his 1976 class at St. Williams School in Price Hill, with blue dots covering the faces of every classmate who's since moved out of the city. Out of 115 students, only seven remain residents, pointing to the urgency of the city's problems, he says.

"Our largest firms like Proctor & Gamble, General Electric and American Financial do a great job of attracting young talent to our city. The city, on the other hand, does a terrible job of keeping them within the city limits," says Eby, 45, an electrical engineer. "There are three non-negotiables for any young family when they move to a city: clean and safe streets, market-rate affordable housing and schools. If any one of those three is missing, then people will move.

"We have to make our streets clean and safe. We have to embrace smart-growth strategies to create viable, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, and we have to provide quality educational opportunities for all in our city."

Eby believes council can help create jobs by embracing the basic tenets of the Catholic Bishops Economic Pastoral, which poses fundamental principles about economic development including that the economy should support and promote the general good, such as helping those in greatest need.

"During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt put this country back to work," Eby says. "City council can do the same thing if we work closely with labor unions, educators, community leaders and business leaders."

Making his first run for city council is Patrick Fischer, a Republican lawyer who is the former head of the Cincinnati Bar Association. He also previously served as president of the Pleasant Ridge Community Council.

Due to his extensive connections, Fischer is among the top fund-raisers so far in the council race, raising more than $135,000 by a filing deadline earlier this summer.

"I believe the strategies we employed in Pleasant Ridge, particularly as it relates to reducing crime, can be translated to the city as a whole and I want to be a leader in making that happen," says Fischer, 49. "I believe 'pinpoint policing' is a strategy that works across our entire city.

"This system utilizes computerized data mining and modeling and predicts the location and time a crime would occur, without profiling based on race or past action. The system then uses 'real time' movement of police officers to the location where crime is predicted to occur. It worked so well in Pleasant Ridge that in some months police runs were down 50 to 70 percent."

Opportunities to use expertise
Running as a Charterite, Joan Kaup is also making her first attempt at serving on city council. A resident of Prospect Hill, located in Mount Auburn near its border with Over-the-Rhine, she's a vice president with Iacono Production Services.

Kaup was inspired to run partially because of her support for local arts institutions. For years, she worked closely with Tarbell on promoting arts and cultural events and wrote the funding criteria used by city council's Arts & Culture Committee. She also helped devise Live.Buy.Design, a program that promotes homeownership by artists in Over-the-Rhine.

If elected, Kaup would focus on marketing the expertise of city departments to create new sources of revenue.

"Many of our city departments are very good at what they do, and we can outsource our expertise to surrounding communities and private industry," says Kaup, 54. "For example, Cincinnati Water Works sells more filtered water to residents living outside the city of Cincinnati than to residents living inside the city. We have other similar opportunities."

For the first time, the Southwest Ohio Green Party this year has endorsed two candidates for city council.

The first is Justin Jeffre, a former singer with the defunct late '90s Pop group 98 Degrees. Jeffre previously ran as an independent for mayor in 2005. Choosing not to purchase any TV, radio or print advertisements, he received only 708 votes in the primary election, accounting for about 1.5 percent of the total vote.

Since that time, Jeffre, a 34-year-old Clifton Heights resident, has become an independent media activist and co-publishes The Cincinnati Beacon monthly newspaper. He believes city council's current priorities are misguided and that corporate interests have too much clout at City Hall.

"We need to re-evaluate our inverted priorities. Bus-stop benches and curb appeal cannot come before health clinics and the basic needs of our people," Jeffre says. "City council's Draconian marijuana ordinance is too expensive, racially biased, and (County) Commissioner (Todd) Portune and several judges have said it is a major source of overcrowding in our jails. We should not be giving people permanent criminal records that will deny access to scholarships, housing and employment opportunities for this non-violent offense."

Further, Jeffre supports the city's previous policy of allocating 1.5 percent of its general fund budget for human services.

"This matches my campaign of putting people first, especially before corporate interests that benefit only a few," he says. "And before the fiscal malcontents start complaining about how the city cannot afford to take care of the least among us in times of economic crisis, I'd like to see the numbers about how much we hand out annually in corporate welfare that benefits nobody but the favored few."

Also running is Libertarian Party candidate Michael Earl Patton. He previously ran as an independent with grassroots campaigning in 2005, finishing 24th out of 31 candidates with 2,708 votes. An engineer who lives in Oakley, Patton, 52, is also active in the No Jail Tax political action committee, which is seeking to repeal a pending county sales tax increase.

Patton wants to push for what he calls responsible economic development.

"To attract industry, I intend to do multiple things, the first being not giving large government handouts to their competitors," he says. "It seems incredible to realize that a barge terminal company has been trying to locate here since 2001 but has been constantly blocked by the city."

Council needs to assert more control over the Police Department to reduce crime, Patton adds. "Bring back the community officers. Get the police out of their cruisers and meet the people in the neighborhoods. I don't care if they walk, ride bicycles, ride horses or use Segways. But crime is reduced when the people and the police know each other and work together."

Running as an independent is first-time candidate Mitch Painter, a Clifton housing redeveloper who is the nephew of Ohio First District Court of Appeals Judge Mark Painter. Like many candidates, Painter views rising crime rates as one of the top issues facing Cincinnati.

"We must approach our crime prevention in a much more creative and effective manner," says Painter, 27. "We must get to the root of what is causing people to turn into criminals and offer them alternatives. We must hold the parents responsible. We must add sheriff's deputies, foot police and police on Segways to all of the crime-ridden neighborhoods immediately. We can no longer ignore this issue and expect people to move back to the city."

The current city council is too obstructionist, Painter adds. "I feel that our current council has made some progress but the majority of members have not fulfilled their obligations to our city. We need new aggressive, action-oriented leaders that can bring new energy to City Hall. We need leaders that have not been politicians, but rather common men and women who understand that we are all one working together to reach a common goal."

Regarding council's often rocky relationship with Mayor Mark Mallory, Painter says, "I believe our current mayor has done a great job in pushing our city forward. I believe that many council members have worked against him instead of with him, and this has impeded our growth."

Another first-time independent candidate is George Zamary. At 34, he's an attorney and downtown resident who sits on the Know Theatre's board of directors and is former president of The Urbanists revitalization group.

Zamary says he's grown frustrated with city council's lack of leadership on certain issues, particularly with budgeting as spending continues to outpace revenue. Council should consider consolidating some services with other jurisdictions and offer more incentives for people to move into the city, he says.

"I believe council can do better," Zamary says. "I believe that the budget must be reduced and all options must be considered."

Despite the passion and drive of the non-incumbents, the council race's unusual dynamics this year means the obstacles they must overcome are even higher, Beaupre cautions.

"It's a difficult year for them, there's no way around it," he says. "I don't know how non-incumbents can compete without television (advertising). That means they're looking at raising at least $100,000.

"There are so many well-known names this time out, the number of votes needed to win the ninth and final spot on council will rise. The bottom line number will be higher than ever before." ©

More Candidate Interviews
Go to CityBeat's Porkopolis blog ( porkopolis) for additional interviews with these Cincinnati City Council candidates and others who didn't participate in this story. Kevin Osborne will post longer interviews in the coming days and weeks.