News: No One But Qualls

Tarbell says he wouldn't have quit for any other

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At least two factors nearly kept Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell and the Charter Committee from delivering the first shock of the city council campaign.

The first obstacle to the Aug. 8 announcement that former Mayor Roxanne Qualls would return to City Hall was that Tarbell — who can't run again due to term limits — wouldn't give his seat to anyone but her. The second — and potentially most important — obstacle was that Qualls wouldn't take it.

As recently as late May, Qualls was continuing to red-light those who courted her back into electoral politics, a request that had been recurring for years.

Despite Tarbell's own attempts to pull her back into Cincinnati political life during the past year — joking that he had asked her "37 times, last count" — she was committed to her job as director of public leadership initiatives at Northern Kentucky University, a job that specifically opposed her entering into the fray.

"A variety of people have approached me about running," she wrote in an e-mail, saying local Democrats had periodically asked since 2000. "That had trailed off of late because I had made it clear that, as long as I worked at NKU, I could not become overtly involved in politics.

"It was a 'condition of employment' that emerged after the (John) Kerry campaign and after I had early on endorsed Mark Mallory (for mayor)."

Tarbell's concern about handing his seat to any other candidate from his party — a not-uncommon practice in the waning months of a councilman's tenure — was about leaving projects he supported while on council to someone who "did not have council experience." When Qualls finally agreed, he had his woman.

"I was concerned about protecting some of the things I am working on," Tarbell says. "I had not considered giving up my seat early on. I felt the impact of bringing Roxanne on provided a whole different response on my part."

In an interview a few days after the announcement, Qualls credited Tarbell and Charter Committee Chair Michael Goldman with finally convincing her.

"It just evolved," she says.

An alumnus of Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills, Qualls attended Thomas More College and the University of Cincinnati's DAAP program. A house painter in 1980, she was hired three years later by Cincinnati Citizen Action, a non-partisan consumer lobby. She became director in 1985.

She lost her first two attempts at a seat in City Hall in 1987 and 1989. She won a seat in 1991, finishing eighth out of nine.

By 1993, after less than a full term on council, the cover of the May edition of Cincinnati Magazine asked, "Why shouldn't this woman be mayor?" She became mayor in November of that year and again in 1995 and 1997.

After leaving the mayor's office in 1997, Qualls was accepted as a Loeb fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design. She then received a fellowship at the Kennedy School Institute of Politics before being accepted into Harvard Kennedy School's mid-career program in 2001.

She has been characterized throughout her career as focused, with a no-nonsense demeanor. She goes "for the jugular," a former colleague said in the 1993 magazine article. Her experience since leaving Cincinnati has added new perspective to her disciplined ethos, she says.

"What I know, which perhaps I didn't know then, is if you really want to see systemic change, someone really has to give single-minded attention to it," Qualls says. "You can't assume something will happen. When you realize that the fundamental health of the neighborhood is at stake, the city has to give unqualified attention to it."

She lists her points of focus as rebuilding Interstate 75 and "correcting damage done with the original design and construction," random violence in the city and the social diversification of the city.

Despite the unpopularity of the issue, Qualls maintains that her decision to be "centrally involved" in the passing of the sales tax for the Reds and Bengals stadiums in 1997 was correct.

"It was never about the stadiums," she says. "It was about cities and development. What is so challenging (about The Banks) is the flood plane. The stadiums provided the opportunity to support The Banks."

Qualls' endorsement as a Charterite has sent reverberations through the Hamilton County Democratic Party. She has, however, made it clear with many of her Democratic colleagues that she's a Democrat in county, state and federal issues. Charter thrice endorsed Qualls when she ran as a Democrat in the 1990s.

Councilman Chris Bortz says Qualls fits the mold of a Charterite and will hold a seat for the party in the next election in a "high-profile way." Charged with making the official selection to replace Tarbell, Bortz says he was surprised by Tarbell's decision to step down. ©

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