Cover Story: Year in Review: Strange Change

Polls defied, voters mobilized, janitors victorious

Sean Hughes

What's old was new again in 2007 as Greater Cincinnati voters returned all of the same politicians to city council, kept debating what should be built along the city's riverfront and again rejected a sales tax increase to build a new jail. But the year did contain a few surprises along the way.

Although 2007 might best be remembered for the American public's growing unease over the Iraq War and President Bush's approval rating hitting an all-time low, local voters sent mixed messages at the polls.

Defying conventional wisdom and some early polls, voters in November returned nine incumbents to Cincinnati City Council for another two-year term — shutting out 16 other challengers (see "Same Old, Same Old," issue of Nov. 7). Although council members had been roundly criticized early in the year for a bitter budget battle over the city's priorities, the incumbents quickly discarded their anger and displayed a more civil tone as campaign season crept closer.

The election's outcome means city council will continue to include five Democrats, two Republicans and two Charterites. Among those politicians is Roxanne Qualls, a popular Democratic mayor in the 1990s who was appointed as a Charterite in September to replace Jim Tarbell, who couldn't run again due to term limits.

Qualls, who left office in late 1999 due to term limits, spent a few years teaching and studying at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Boston before returning to Cincinnati in 2003.

Political observers expect the older, more seasoned Qualls to serve as a calming influence on council, which consists of several younger, inexperienced members who completed their first terms this year, including Democrats Jeff Berding and Cecil Thomas, Republican Leslie Ghiz and Charterite Chris Bortz.

Banks yes, jail no
Perhaps hoping to bolster their records of accomplishment, city council and Hamilton County Commissioners finally approved a contract with developers just one week before the Nov. 6 election to begin work on the long-delayed Banks project along Cincinnati's riverfront.

After months of haggling and missed deadlines over the contract details, city and county officials finalized a deal with AIG/Carter and Harold A. Dawson Inc., the Atlanta-based developers who will build the housing and shopping district in phases over the next 15 years.

Initial work on The Banks, which includes building a street grid and parking garages, will begin by the first quarter of 2008. Construction of its first phase, which will include 70,000 square feet of retail space and 300 apartments, will begin by the third quarter of next year. When completed, The Banks will cover eight city blocks and contain up to 2.8 million square feet of space. City and county officials still have to hammer out where much of the estimated $200 million in public money needed for the $800 million project will be generated.

While many area residents were anxious to see progress on The Banks, they put the brakes on another proposed project for the second time in two years. Voters overwhelmingly defeated a county sales tax increase at the polls, rejecting it by a 56 percent margin (see "Jail Tax Loses in Landslide," issue of Nov. 7). If approved, the tax hike would've raised $736 million over 15 years to build a new jail and pay for other law enforcement programs.

Opponents disliked the tax, known as Issue 27, for various reasons: Some questioned the efficiency of the county's criminal justice system and whether some of the jail-overcrowding crisis was due to red tape and poor policy decisions, while others noted it would've provided funding for treatment programs that hadn't yet been identified.

Regardless, all factions were angered that county commissioners Todd Portune and David Pepper used their authority in May to enact the tax without putting it before voters. As a result, opponents circulated petitions this summer and gathered enough signatures to force a referendum.

A year earlier, voters had defeated a different proposal to raise the sales tax and build a jail by a 57 percent margin. Faced with a second defeat, county officials now are looking at other funding options.

Republicans split
The jail and public-safety tax issue fractured the already fraying Hamilton County Republican Party. Although two Democrats proposed the tax, the local GOP decided to endorse the issue, as did Sheriff Simon Leis Jr., a popular Republican. But their party members didn't exactly line up behind them — among the Republicans opposed to the tax hike were County Commissioner Pat DeWine, State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. and County Treasurer Robert Goering.

Reflecting the divide that's plaguing the national party, the local GOP's endorsement angered its already disgruntled conservative wing, led by people such as Brinkman and lawyer Christopher Finney. Rumors abound that DeWine could face a Republican primary challenger when he runs for re-election, and the philosophical discord has spilled over into surrounding counties. Brinkman and former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich are challenging U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt in the GOP primary for Ohio's 2nd Congressional District seat, stating Schmidt is too moderate on a host of issues.

Significant events also occurred this year on the labor front.

Capping a two-year organizational effort, the Service Employees International Union helped janitors who clean downtown office buildings unionize and win a labor contract. By the end of the "Justice for Janitors" campaign in July, some 1,200 area workers increased their wages and got better access to health-care insurance.

Also, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed several large fines this year against Mason-based Cintas Corp. for workplace safety violations at its facilities nationwide (see "Dirty Laundry," issue of July 18). A Congressional committee is calling upon regulators to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the firm next year.

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