Mayoral race underlines rift among Cincinnati Democrats

Cincinnati’s 2017 mayoral primary will pit incumbent first-term Democrat Mayor John Cranley against party mate and second-term Cincinnati City Council member Yvette Simpson.

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Jesse Fox
Jesse Fox
Cincinnati City Hall

Two-thousand-sixteen is shaping up to be an intense year for politics. But if you’re a Cincinnatian looking for a respite come Nov. 9, you’ll have a while longer to wait. As you cast your ballot in a historic and strange presidential election, one of the most interesting and potentially competitive local races in recent memory will just be getting started.

Cincinnati’s 2017 mayoral primary will pit incumbent first-term Democrat Mayor John Cranley against party mate and second-term Cincinnati City Council member Yvette Simpson. That battle illustrates not only the candidates’ different styles when it comes to politics, but also a wider ideological schism in the city. Simpson’s challenge to Cranley underscores a rift between the mayor and more liberal progressive Democrats who want increased emphasis on transit, different approaches to tackling poverty and new ways to address violent crime in city neighborhoods.

Simpson kicked off her campaign with an Aug. 10 event at the Carl Solway Gallery in the West End, where she lives. The 38-year-old, who grew up in subsidized housing in Lincoln Heights before winning a scholarship to Miami University and becoming an attorney, was surrounded by transit and historic preservation boosters, advocates for the poor and racial justice advocates, a show of her support among progressives.

Cranley has been a polarizing figure with that group — a bare-knuckle brawler of a mayor unafraid to fight for his sometimes-centrist policy priorities, express occasionally unpopular opinions and engage in competitive political maneuvers. 

Simpson, meanwhile, has often led pushback from Democrats on Council to many of Cranley’s moves — from his attempt to block the city’s streetcar project in the opening days of his term to efforts to change the way the city sets funding for human services organizations to a recent push to give the city’s unionized employees pay raises outside the usual collective bargaining process. 

As she campaigns to take the big desk at City Hall, she has stressed what she says will be a more collaborative approach to overseeing city government.

“I certainly have things that I value,” Simpson said during an hour-long sit-down with CityBeat the day after the announcement of her candidacy last week. “Council members have things they value. The community has things they value. But more important than any initiatives we might advance is the idea that we’re going to be an administration that listens to people and that their vision will become a part of ours in a real way.”

But Cranley says Simpson will be a throwback to the administration of Cincinnati’s previous mayor, Mark Mallory, a mentor of sorts to her. He’s called Simpson an “insider” for her close ties to the Mallory administration, which Cranley has often derided during his tenure. 

Cranley himself has spent more than a decade and a half in various political roles, sometimes under the wing of former Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken. Despite that, he argues that his administration has benefitted everyday Cincinnatians by focusing on basic services like road repairs and increasing the number of police and firefighters on the city’s payroll instead of special projects.

“She wants to take City Hall back to the way it was,” Cranley said during an Aug. 10 news conference in Mount Auburn. “We’ve been fighting to change City Hall to make it work for everyday Cincinnatians. The previous administration was focused on major projects like the streetcar at the expense of paving roads and putting cops on the street and reducing crime.”

Crime is one area where the two candidates diverge noticeably. Violent crime has been a big political issue this year. Though the city’s 33 homicides as of the end of July represent a 12 percent decrease over the city’s three-year average, gun crimes have risen 16 percent this year from the level they were at during the same time frame in 2014. 

Cranley has made his push for increases in both the number of police officers the city employs and how much they are paid a centerpiece of his time in office. That’s a push he’s continued with his proposal to give unionized city employees, including police officers, two five percent raises in the next two years and a four percent raise in 2018. That move comes as the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #69, which represents Cincinnati police officers, negotiates its next labor contract with the city.

The push for that raise has caused contention within City Hall from City Manager Harry Black as well as Council members like Simpson and former Cincinnati police officer Wendell Young. 

During her time on Council, Simpson has framed violence prevention somewhat differently. While she says she’s supportive of law enforcement and isn’t against more officers, there’s a deeper root she argues the city should do more to address. Earlier this year, she unveiled an initiative that frames neighborhood violence as a public health issue through her Violence Prevention Working Group, which convened 36 leaders from nonprofits, community groups and local government at meetings in the city’s most troubled areas. That, she says, is just the start.

“It’s about changing the mind frame to say it’s not about getting the bad guys,” Simpson says of past and upcoming initiatives around violence as a public health issue. “It’s about realizing the bad guys are people. They weren’t born wanting to be bad guys. This is a communicable disease. People who are impacted by violence are more likely to commit violence. We want to intervene — inoculate, vaccinate. 

“Look, law enforcement is important, and for the type of policing we’re doing, we need more officers than most places if we want community policing,” she continues. “But even they would say they would feel much more comfortable in their jobs if we could see the types of results we want to see.” 

Another issue likely to make a prominent appearance in the coming campaign will be the region’s transit systems. The defining issue of 2013’s mayoral election between Cranley and former mayor and councilwoman Roxanne Qualls was the city’s streetcar project. Qualls supported it, while Cranley was dead set against the 3.6-mile rail loop through downtown and Over-the-Rhine. 

Cranley held up his victory in the election as proof that voters didn’t want the streetcar, and a dramatic showdown between his office and City Council ensued, ending only when Councilman Kevin Flynn provided a decisive vote blocking Cranley’s attempt to shutter the project. 

Simpson was a vocal proponent of the streetcar, a potential liability for her among moderate voters and African-Americans who backed Cranley in 2013. Black voters have shown a general dislike for the streetcar, which is seen as a factor in Over-the-Rhine’s shift toward a whiter and more well-to-do demographic. 

But Simpson says her focus is bigger and more inclusive these days.

“My frame now is around, ‘Let’s talk about regional, multi-modal transportation,’ ” Simpson says. “I don’t want to talk about the streetcar anymore.”

Black voters could be big deciders in the contest. Cranley won their vote decisively in 2013 and has remained popular with them. He has fronted a number of initiatives that look to address income and racial disparities, including the creation of the Office of Economic Inclusion, which looks to extend more city contracts to minority businesses, and a push to provide $2 million to preserve affordable housing in Over-the-Rhine and another $2 million for similar projects elsewhere in the city. 

Simpson, who is African-American, also has strong ties with the black community and has done prominent work on the city’s poverty problems. That work has included continuing to fight Cranley over the city’s United Way-overseen human services funding process as well as money for neighborhood-level community development in the city budget. In the past, Cranley has worked to move money from those funds toward other projects both related and unrelated to poverty initiatives. 

Simpson’s announcement is just the start of what looks to be a long contest leading up to the city’s May 7, 2017 open mayoral primary. So far, Cranley has the edge as the incumbent. His campaign has almost $440,000 on hand, including more than $214,000 raised since the beginning of this year. Simpson has about $84,000, according to filings released prior to her announcement. She raised nearly all of that in 2016.  

The mayoral race is just the tip of the iceberg, with other political tussles between the city’s urban progressives and more moderate or conservative candidates possibly on the horizon. 

All nine City Council seats — including those held by urban progressives like Councilman Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld — go up for re-election next year, meaning the overall direction of city government will hang in the balance. ©

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