News: Berding Endorsed but Damaged

Democratic committee revolt bodes ill for incumbent

Jeff Berding

Jeff Berding: party problem?

The power of incumbency might not be enough to help Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding in the Nov. 6 election.

A meeting of the Cincinnati Democratic Committee (CDC) last week, held to decide which candidates to endorse, erupted into a rank-and-file revolt against Berding. After a tumultuous debate sparked by his record during his first year in office, a motion to separate the slate and hold individual votes on each candidate failed by a close 64-59 margin. Some claimed party leaders rigged the process.

During the vote, a visibly nervous Berding scanned the room and had a campaign worker, Miles Lindahl, count along with party leaders to ensure the tally was accurate.

After the motion to hold individual votes failed, the CDC voted 75-43 to endorse the full slate. It includes Berding and fellow incumbents Laketa Cole, John Cranley, David Crowley and Cecil Thomas; former Councilwoman Minette Cooper; and challengers Brian Garry, Greg Harris and Wendell Young.

During a private meeting two weeks ago, Berding barely received the nominating committee's recommendation; the tally was 9-8, with some members abstaining. Among those voting then to support Berding was Lindahl, whom Berding plans on hiring as his campaign manager and who previously worked for Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper.

Some critics allege that Berding's supporters, who include Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke, stacked the deck in Berding's favor.

The party recently approved the appointment of 33 new precinct executives, many of them Berding supporters. They included Berding, Burke, Pepper, Cole and Thomas. Pepper defended his addition, stating he and some others previously were precinct executives but forgot to vote for their reinstatement during the primary election and had to be re-added.

Also, some Berding opponents questioned the way the votes were tallied at the meeting, using a quick count by party leaders of people standing in the crowded room.

'Why are we afraid?'
Before the vote, Berding told the CDC that perhaps he hadn't always worked well with Democrats on city council in the past but said he's learned from his mistakes. In recent weeks, for example, he voted to add two African-American members to include more diversity on The Banks Working Group, a position he opposed last fall as unnecessary.

Stating that some of his missteps on council were due to his "urgency and passion" for wanting to make the city better, Berding said, "I have tried to work with any and all members of council and our mayor to get the job done. I admit sometimes I have done well in that area, and other times I've been less successful. But I've been working hard and doing my best to improve our city."

Asked by CityBeat to comment after the meeting, Berding said, "Why? You're just going to write whatever you want to write." Pressed to clarify if that meant "no comment," he said, "That's a 'no comment' to you, yes."

Earlier in the meeting, former Congressman Tom Luken, a Berding critic, proposed splitting the decision into votes on individual candidates, igniting a bitter debate about whether Berding has supported fellow Democrats on city council and has remained true to core Democratic principles.

Tom Schuermann, a nominating committee member, said the CDC should support individually voting on each candidate.

"What I'm trying to figure out is," he said, "if everybody here is a Democrat, why are we afraid if these people cannot survive this room by being voted on individually? What is the point?"

Berding was so worried about the vote that he held an impromptu private meeting earlier in the day with Mayor Mark Mallory. Berding, who has often clashed politically with Mallory over the past year, tried to win the mayor's support, but the outcome was unclear. At the CDC meeting, several Mallory supporters, including his chief of staff, Carla Walker, voted to decide on candidates individually.

If Berding had lost the vote, it wouldn't be the first time that the CDC pulled an endorsement from an incumbent. It also did so two years ago with Cincinnati School Board members Melanie Bates and Rick Williams after they didn't support a school levy. Ironically, Bates now is running for city council as a Charterite. Despite her endorsement from that party, she remains a Democratic precinct executive and voted at the CDC meeting on the Democrats' council slate.

Many rank-and-file Democrats are upset at Berding because of his extensive ties to Republican candidates and campaign contributors, his proposal last winter to cut $3 million from the city's health department, a tendency to cut deals outside public meetings and his frequent clashes with some Democrats on council.

'Dysfunctional family'
As the crowd spilled into the parking lot after the meeting, some precinct executives vowed to create a group called "Democrats Against Berding" and actively oppose his candidacy this fall.

Burke downplayed the discord, describing it as characteristic of the party's transparent endorsement process.

"Welcome to the Democratic Party," he said. "Greg Harris referred to us as a family (in his speech). We are sometimes a dysfunctional family. I'm satisfied we have a strong slate. In the Democratic Party, there will always be people who object to something. Some people will object to certain members on this slate. I believe this slate will succeed in retaining a majority of Democrats on city council."

Berding's supporters noted that many of his actions were taken to demand greater accountability about how city funds are spent.

Opponents, however, have countered that Berding and the Fiscal Five included funding in the municipal budget for several questionable items, such as the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Closing the Health Gap in Greater Cincinnati. The latter group is headed by former Mayor Dwight Tillery — who, critics say, has no health care experience and got the lucrative job based solely on his political connections.

Berding, 40, is sales director for the Cincinnati Bengals. He managed the successful campaign in 1996 to increase Hamilton County's sales tax by a half-cent to build new stadiums for the Bengals and Reds. He later was hired by the team.

Seeking re-election to his second city council term, Berding touted his West Side roots at last week's meeting but never mentioned during campaign appearances his job with the Bengals or that he now lives in Mount Lookout. ©

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