News: He's No Hard-Ass

But Luken likes to talk about change

Mar 14, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Sometimes Mayor Charlie Luken doesn't seem to understand why African Americans, gays and lesbians are angry.

Mayor Charlie Luken says he wouldn't mind being black. He also thinks the police chief is doing a good job and people outside Cincinnati don't much care about the city's discrimination against gays.

Luken, who wanted to give an escaped cow the key to the city, refuses to negotiate with citizens organizing the boycott of Cincinnati. But more important, he doesn't seem to understand what all the fuss is about.

Streicher can stay as long as he likes
In the 100 days since being sworn in, Luken says his proudest accomplishment is his selection of a new city manager, Valerie Lemmie, current city manager of Dayton.

"Valerie's done a great job in Dayton," he says.

Ironically, Luken, a Democrat, picked a city manager who got along better with the former Republican mayor in Dayton than she does with the Democrat who unseated him. Lemmie worked well with former Dayton Mayor Mike Turner, a Republican. Her relationship with Mayor Rhine McLin, a Democrat, is less productive, according to Luken.

"After you go through a political campaign, it's hard to stay with a different boss," he says. "It didn't seem like that chemistry was really strong (with McLin)."

Luken gives a curious reason for liking Lemmie's record: She included average citizens in the search for a new police chief in Dayton. That impressed Luken, he says.

"Cincinnati right now needs that kind of community involvement," he says.

But Luken says he has no plans to get rid of Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. Civil-service reforms approved by voters last fall apply only to future chiefs, and Luken likes Streicher's work.

"Under Issue 5, Tom Streicher can serve as long as he wants," Luken says. "I'm not urging him to leave. I think he's done a good job."

A new police chief is one of the boycott demands. But Luken says he will not negotiate with Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, the Black United Front, Stonewall Cincinnati or other boycott groups.

"Obviously I'd like the boycott to go away but I'm still not willing to negotiate demands," he says. "The demands are so numerous and the people who have different demands so numerous it's an impossible task."

Then Luken makes a surprising claim.

"The original list of demands we've pretty much done," he says.

His refusal to negotiate isn't only about tactics. Asked if people at least have a reason to be pissed off, he says no.

"I will put Cincinnati's record of change in the last two years against any city in America," he says.

Although Cincinnati is not necessarily as progressive as other American cities, Luken says, the city has demonstrated a commitment to get things done.

But this talk of change doesn't mean he is willing to lead. For example, if Cincinnati is to repeal its ban on laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination, citizens will have to do it on their own. Luken says he is not considering asking council to put the repeal of Issue 3 on the ballot.

"I think Issue 3 should be put on the ballot the same way it was passed," he says.

If council put a repeal measure on the ballot only to have it defeated, the city would suffer even more embarrassment, Luken says.

But then he claims the issue doesn't get much attention anyway.

"Most people outside of the city aren't focused on that," he says.

Luken says he wants public input on any agreement the city makes with the U.S. Justice Department, which has proposed more than 90 changes in the police department. City council's Law and Public Safety Committee will hold hearings, he says.

"It's really gong to be hard for the city to agree with the Justice Department on a solution if there's not community support for it," he says.

Improvements in the police department are already underway, according to Luken.

"They are moving from a kind of historical 'arrest the bad guys' approach to a community-oriented, problem-solving approach," he says.

'I was over the top'
Luken is trying to be more accessible to the public. He's opened his office from 5-7 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays for citizens who want to talk to him.

"I think I'm most disappointed about the divisiveness that the city faces right now," he says. "Some people seem hell-bent on keeping us that way."

Luken admits he made a mistake last month by calling the boycott "economic terrorism."

"I acknowledge I was over the top when I made my 'economic terrorism' remark," he says. "But I'm just trying to reflect the fact that it's the little guy who's getting hurt."

Luken says concern for the little guy is what makes him a Democrat. Being a Democrat means "to care about the more vulnerable people in society and to care about more average citizens who may not have a lot of voice or influence," he says.

Cincinnati is the only city in the country participating in a police-community relations collaborative, he says. Of course, that effort is meant to settle a lawsuit over racial profiling by Cincinnati Police.

Would the mayor himself, given the situation in Cincinnati, want to be black and live in this city?

"I don't think I'd mind," Luken says. "I just don't think that's a question I'm equipped to answer. There is no question that being African American in Cincinnati or any place is in America is more difficult."

Luken says he picked Lemmie as city manager because of her skills.

"What we talked about mostly was just having her come here and be the boss of 6,400 employees," Luken says. "She does have a good record of working with council and the mayor in terms of implementing their policy directives."

But her personal characteristics didn't hurt.

"I didn't pick her because she's African American and female, but from my point of view that is an important part of what she is and what she brings to the job," Luken says.

It's the African Americans refusing to come to Cincinnati who have lately worried the mayor. Bill Cosby's cancellation of performances, at the request of boycott organizers, forced Luken to pay attention. People regard Cosby as a pioneer, Luken says. Through stand-up comedy and television series, he was one of the first African-American entertainers to appeal to black and white audiences.

"I think Bill Cosby, from the city's point of view, is probably the worst person to honor the boycott," he says.

Luken says he wishes Cosby had allowed him to explain the city's side of the story. What would he like Cosby to hear?

"We've made progress and meaningful changes and we were working on it and the community was participating in it," Luken says.

But even Luken concedes his initiative for improving racial relations, Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN), has been a disappointment. Luken formed CAN after the April 2001 rebellion.

"The verdict is still out on Cincinnati CAN and I wish, like many people, they had moved faster and could point to more," he says.

Luken does not like the image many have of him since the rebellion.

"I think the whole portrayal of me as some kind of a hard-ass is really over the top," he says. "I think in politics you get put in situations where you have to draw the line. I just think there are some things you have to stand for. I'm not going to let people run over me or run over the city."

Luken says he is unsure what to expect next month. April 7 is the first anniversary of the fatal police shooting of Timothy Thomas and the civil unrest that followed.

Luken says he knew on election night the job wouldn't be easy.

"The good news is you won," he says. "The bad news is you won. I understand it's not going to be an easy couple of years for the city." ©