If you were around for the Cincinnati City Council race two years ago, you'd expect this year's campaign to be more impassioned, more fiery.
There are 31 candidates running for nine council seats, and at least two of those seats are sure to go to non-incumbents, because incumbents David Pepper and Alicia Reece gave up theirs to run in the mayoral primary.
Not only that, but one or two of the incumbent council members, usually so cozily ensconced in their seats, could get bumped this year. Councilman Sam Malone, a Republican, isn't so popular after being charged May 14 with child abuse for whipping his 14-year-old son with a leather belt. His buddy, the Rev. Charlie Winburn, didn't make it past the mayoral primary, so there went that incentive for voter turnout.
The value to voters of name recognition, media presence and experience makes it hard for incumbents to lose reelection. But it's not impossible. Republican Councilman Chris Monzel lost his seat in the last race but this year was reappointed to a vacant seat by the Hamilton County Republican Party. Democratic Councilman David Crowley barely squeaked into ninth place in the last elections.
While two to possibly four seats could open, leadership throughout City Hall is poised to shift.
Whoever gets elected to council will work with a new mayor, who will choose a new city manager to oversee all the city's actual work.
But with three weeks to go before the Nov. 8 election, this year's council race is pretty much still a yawn compared with the race two years ago.
It could be the mayor's race overshadowing everything. Mayor Charlie Luken, who decided not to run for re-election, has been around a while; whether State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-West End) or Pepper, a fellow Democrat, wins the mayor's seat, he'll have the chance to flex his powers under the city's relatively new strong mayor system.
But Over-the-Rhine activist the Rev. Damon Lynch III — running for the second time this year after missing a seat on council by 949 votes in 2003 — thinks the previous race spoiled voters. The civil unrest of 2001 was still fresh in people's memories and the last-minute introduction of a protest candidate got everyone fired up — Lynch himself, of course, being that protest candidate.
Two years later even his campaign isn't whipping up the same excitement, though Lynch says he's not doing a thing differently.
"My conversation with the community hasn't shifted," he says. "My goal is to shift the city's conversation."
'You would shit'
But if council candidates are hardly grabbing the spotlight, it's not for lack of reaching.
"For the candidates' part, we're saying, 'What more can we do, stand on our heads?' " Lynch says.
They're trying everything but. Council candidates are running themselves ragged bouncing from candidate forum to candidate forum across the city.
"Honestly? It's a nightmare," says first-time candidate John Eby, a Republican from Westwood.
"If you looked at my calendar right now, you would shit," says refreshingly candid second-time candidate Leslie Ghiz, who's likely rethinking that trait about now.
Among the 24 non-incumbents there are two former police officers, Democrats Wendell Young and Cecil Thomas. Both were also members of the city's African-American police association, the Sentinels.
Also running are two Over-the-Rhine pastors: Lynch, who ministers New Prospect Baptist Church, and the Rev. Bill Barron, the idealistic founder of Cincinnati Christian Church.
First-time candidates Samantha Herd and Jeff Berding, both Democrats, are veterans of behind-the-scenes campaign work. Herd worked for Luken and more recently has served as right-hand woman for State Rep. Tyrone Yates (D-Cincinnati).
Berding has thrown his weight behind numerous campaigns for both candidates and ballot issues, though some Democrats are upset that he gave campaign advice to the Republican whom Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune unseated in 2000.
The Bengals sales director has also drawn fire for helping push the countywide half-cent sales tax to build new stadiums that voters approved in 1996 and over which county commissioners are now suing the Bengals.
"I don't see people blaming me for that," Berding says. "I've been out now almost 10 months campaigning, and I've had maybe six people raise my position at the Bengals."
A couple of candidates are very young, such as University of Cincinnati student Robert Wilson. Closer to the winter end of the age spectrum is Thomas, touting his AARP card as a campaign endorsement. There's also the usual spate of community activists who have gotten just mad enough to throw in their hats. Independent Eric Wilson is making his third consecutive bid for council.
Herd notes that there are only five women among the 31 candidates — and none has children in her household.
"The one thing that has become very clear to me is that it's increasingly difficult for women who live in this city who have children to run for office because of financial responsibilities," Herd says.
Democrat Eve Bolton looks at the council race from the vantage point of having run unsuccessfully for county commissioner in 2004. The 33-year Wyoming High School history teacher is enjoying the city's blueness.
"It's wonderful, as a Democrat having run countywide, to go place to place to place and generally have people like you," she says.
The two non-incumbent Republican candidates, Ghiz and Eby, are much more moderate than the two current Republicans on council. Both got nods from the gay advocacy group Log Cabin Republicans and say they're open to the idea of making sexual orientation a status protected under the city's Human Rights Ordinance.
"You know, some Republicans are cool, believe it or not," says Ghiz, a labor lawyer who used to work for the city.
As a woman, Ghiz feels she can do more good in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party. Besides, she says, "Frankly, Democrats have been running the city forever, and the city's a mess."
All the non-incumbent candidates, of course, say there's too much bickering and grandstanding among current council members. But while the incumbent council members are pairing up to push new initiatives and endorsing each other right and left, there's less cross-endorsement among the non-incumbents.
Bolton, who's running an unusual co-campaign with Young, sees a connection between the two. She says the bickering is a function of council members having to campaign against each other every two years.
"It's no wonder that, when they get in city council, they're still fighting among themselves," she says.
She thinks a four-year council term could help.
Bolton's not alone in thinking council needs some retooling. Berding hopes to use a seat on council to implement some version of district council elections. He previously helped craft the new strong-mayor system voters approved in 2001.
"I think, if I get elected, it's with a mandate for serious reform," Berding says.
Charterite Chris Bortz thinks the current system would be just fine if council members would just stick to doing the jobs they're supposed to do. Council members are only charged with acting as the city's board of directors, he says.
"None of them is qualified to direct departments," Bortz said during an Oct. 6 non-incumbents' forum at Christ Church Cathedral. "If only council would do their job and not everyone else's job."
Bortz, the nephew of former Cincinnati Councilman and Mayor Arn Bortz, later drove home that point when an audience member asked his position on women's reproductive rights. With preternatural calm, Bortz said that's his private opinion and that such questions contribute to divisiveness in city politics.
"That's an issue for our national politicians, our statehouse politicians," he said. "It's important to focus on what is relevant."
Micro-management and disrespect of city administration by the current council are recurring themes for non-incumbents. Many also make a point to note they're not aiming for higher office.
But incumbent or not, the council race's top issue is clearly crime. Closely tied to that are police/community relations.
Opinions on the Cincinnati Police Department run the gamut from Eby's boosterism for under-appreciated cops to Charterite and second-time candidate Nick Spencer's carefully balanced criticism to overt disapproval of current city policing from Lynch and many independent candidates.
Spencer, who co-owns the Over-the-Rhine bar alchemize, pledges that as councilman he'll ride along with police one night each week. No word yet on how police feel about that, though Spencer didn't receive the police union's endorsement.
Young, one of the former cops, has an interesting perspective on tensions between police and African-American communities.
"I understand the police culture, I understand my culture," he says. "I know why we distrust police, and I know why police are uncomfortable in our neighborhoods."
Young believes the police hierarchy needs more minority representation before anything will change.
Other favorite issues during this campaign include the city's population loss, the lack of new or affordable housing, poor performance by city schools and a development process that stalled on the Banks and excluded true citizen input on Fountain Square.
Criticism is the bread and butter of non-incumbent candidates going up against status quo, but a few make a consistent point to shine some ray of hope for Cincinnati.
Of these, brightest is Thomas' opinion of the riots that rocked the city four years ago.
"There are a lot of cities that are on the verge of experiencing what Cincinnati has already experienced," says Thomas, who took over as head of the city's Human Relations Commission after retiring from the police force in 2000. "Now we know what we did wrong and we know how to approach our city from a holistic standpoint of everybody working together, as opposed to everybody doing their little part apart from each other. Cincinnati's way ahead of the game now."
Whatever game that is, the next round takes place Nov. 8. Spread across the next few pages are the non-incumbents in their own words. Read them, visit www.smart voter.org for more information, drop in on an upcoming candidate forum (there are plenty), study CityBeat's upcoming endorsement charts — then, for the love of Cincinnati, go vote. ©