The year 2001 started without much fanfare, with Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken a sure bet for election to the new position of "strong mayor."
The talk at the beginning of the year was about new housing in the city. But in April the talk turned to riots.
By mid-year, calls for major change were coming from the streets, from City Hall and, it seemed, from voters. Courtis Fuller, jumping into the mayor's race as a Charterite candidate at the last possible moment — after the Republicans failed to produce a candidate — defeated Luken in the primary election (see The Curiously Absent Mayor issue of Sept. 13-19).
By the time of the general election, however, all incumbent council members were reelected, and Luken handily beat Fuller.
But voters didn't completely throw aside the call for change. Issues 5 and 6, charter amendments enacting civil service reform and campaign finance reform, won approval.
If Cincinnati wanted the major changes that the two amendments bring, why did they elect the same people back into office?
"You like to think that the electorate is this monolithic, rational kind of entity," says Xavier University political science professor Gene Beaupre.
But voters don't always pay the same amount of attention to the candidates and issues that those who work in or around politics do.
"I think most people vote more from their guts than they do with their head anyway," Beaupre says.
The civil unrest in April influenced politics in Cincinnati, as people started to take notice about who was running the show, according to Beaupre.
"I do think that April raised the level of interest," he says. "You don't pay any attention to your car until there starts to be a noise in it you don't recognize."
After the terrorist attacks on the United States in September, the national political tone changed. According to Beaupre, adversarial statements were toned down, even in places like Cincinnati — where, he says, politics are already usually very civil.
"Campaign strategists were very reserved about their messages," he says.
Voters tend to separate the people they vote for from the issues they're voting on, according to Tyrone K. Yates, Cincinnati's vice mayor from 1993 to 1997.
"I don't think it was a fluke," he says. "I think typical voter behavior is to return incumbents generally. I think a lot of the 'activism' is often surface level that doesn't generate into votes at the polls. There were really not what I would call powerful voter shifts or movements for change."
Issue 6 allows candidates for mayor or city council to receive partial public funds for their campaigns if they agree to limits on campaign spending and other restrictions (see Paying for Democracy issue of Oct. 25-31).
According to the League of Women Voters of the Cincinnati Area, supporters of campaign finance reform say big money needs to be taken out of politics and citizens need control of the election process. Supporters believe the charter amendment gives a chance to candidates who lack access to substantial funds.
"Campaign finance reform in some form seems to resonate very strongly with citizens," Yates says.
The conservative push
In the past two months, and especially since the election, city council has taken a more conservative — some would say "reactionary" — approach:
· Council has barred CitiCable from broadcasting public input at the end of committee and council meetings.
· Council has threatened to withdraw from the Cincinnati Police-Community Relations cooperative, which is working to settle a lawsuit accusing Cincinnati Police of racial profiling (see Bad Faith issue of Dec. 13-19).
· Council voted to restrict the development of new low-income housing within the city.
· Luken and council are talking about ways to restrict panhandling.
In a motion introduced Dec. 4 in the Law Committee, Luken doesn't specify what kinds of restrictions he wants, but they should be tough.
"I move that the solicitor's office draft an anti-panhandling ordinance that sets panhandling restrictions as strict as possible, consistent with constitutional guarantees," Luken wrote.
In August, Luken said the new executive powers given the mayor's office would change city government dramatically, eliminating the "firewall" between the offices of mayor and city manager.
"If it works the way it should, the mayor and the manager will be a team," Luken said
Luken is already using his new powers. He's dismissed the Rev. Damon Lynch III as co-chair of Cincinnati Community Action Now, given council budget recommendations and started an arts committee on city council.
The passage of Issue 5, which ended civil-service protection for new hires among 100 city department heads and administrators — including the fire and police chiefs — seems to be influencing Luken's decisions. In his 2002 budget recommendations, he called for the elimination of the Safety Department.
"With the passage of Issue 5, it is clear that the citizens want direct accountability in the police and fire departments," Luken wrote.
He proposed, and council approved, an ordinance to elevate police and fire chiefs to the department heads who will report directly to the city manager.
"The Safety Department is an unneeded bureaucracy in city government and should be eliminated with the passage of this budget," Luken wrote.
The strong mayor needs to keep a sense of order and priority in council, according to Beaupre.
"I think what's essential is some predictability in city council," he says.
The joining factor used to be party loyalty, but today those lines of loyalty are fading.
"It's sort of a closer marriage, if you will, between the legislation and the administration," Beaupre says.
Already a debate has arisen over whether the mayor has veto power over motions and resolutions. The city charter gives the mayor veto power over ordinances. Motions can become ordinances but are not the same thing. Beaupre says the city solicitor's interpretation is the mayor cannot veto motions.
Yates believes Luken will have to contemplate his moves as the new strong mayor (see Curiously Strong Mayor issue of Aug. 23-29).
"I think that Mayor Luken has a great deal of experience in government," Yates says. "I think the mayor's posture will probably have to be methodical and careful as he moves forward in molding the new office. I think he will be as careful as George Washington was as the first president.
I hear that there is a sense of hopefulness that this council and this mayor will take the lead in terms of this city. I think this will be a legislative assembly and a mayor that will make the ultimate decisions — and a lot of the decisions won't be made as much in business offices, as happened maybe before." ©