Last week's surprise announcement that former Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls is jumping back into local politics and will replace Jim Tarbell on city council is just the latest wrinkle in a contentious election season that a private poll suggests could be full of surprises — and see some incumbents booted from office.
Sources in both the local Democratic and Republican parties say a tri-partisan faction of city council incumbents have pooled some campaign money and conducted a poll that shows some council members could face a tough time retaining their seats. Poll results indicate city councilmen Jeff Berding and Cecil Thomas, both Democrats, might not make it back onto council — and the poll was taken before the popular Qualls entered the race, meaning their rankings likely would be pushed even lower.
A telephone poll of 400 registered city voters was conducted a few weeks ago and was reportedly paid using campaign funds from three incumbent city council members — Democrat Berding, Republican Leslie Ghiz and Charterite Chris Bortz.
The sharing of campaign resources across party lines isn't that surprising for the council trio, although it's angering some party loyalists.
Berding, Bortz and Ghiz led a faction nicknamed "the Fiscal Five" that tried to force its priorities into the 2007-08 municipal budget during negotiations last winter, sparking a bitter council debate. The proposals included a $3 million cut for the city's health department and handing the city's social services funding over to the United Way and letting that agency decide how to allocate the money.
Also, many rank-and-file Democrats already are upset with Berding because of his extensive ties to Republican candidates and campaign contributors and his attacks on some fellow Democrats. Bortz, meanwhile, has ducked questions about persistent rumors that he is seeking to be cross-endorsed by the local Republican Party.
Berding and Bortz didn't return repeated calls for comment, but Ghiz acknowledges the polling was done.
The next set of campaign finance reports will clarify how it was funded, she adds.
"It's internal polling. That's campaign stuff, and I don't discuss that," Ghiz says. "You can see the finance reports when they come out."
Conducted prior to Qualls' announcement, the poll indicates the top five vote-getters in the Cincinnati City Council race retain a solid lead above other candidates, sources say. If the election were held now, poll results show the rankings would be, in order: Democrats John Cranley and David Crowley, both incumbents, in first and second place; Republican Charlie Winburn, a former councilman seeking a return to office after several years, in third place; followed by Democrat Laketa Cole and Republican Chris Monzel, also both incumbents.
The poll indicates Ghiz ranks in sixth place and Bortz in seventh, although their support isn't as strong as the top five finishers.
Here's where the poll gets the most interesting.
Poll results indicate six candidates are highly competitive for the eighth- and ninth-place rankings to fill the final two council seats. Bunched together and within a statistical throwing distance of one another are Berding and Thomas, Democrat Minette Cooper, Charterite Melanie Bates, Republican Sam Malone and Green Party candidate Christopher Smitherman.
Cooper, Malone and Smitherman are all former council members seeking a return to office.
A source who's seen the detailed cross tabulations of the results say the controversial Berding ranked 12th, despite incumbency.
Also, the poll asked respondents several questions about specific issues facing Cincinnati to gauge the topics resonating with voters.
Berding, a sales executive with the Cincinnati Bengals who has deep ties to the business community, is known for his fundraising abilities. As of early July, he'd raised more than $133,000 so far this year, the second-highest amount among declared candidates. That amount will increase as campaign season heats up, sources say, and Berding's showing should improve once he begins airing TV commercials this fall.
"It shows a snapshot of where they are now," says one campaign worker privy to the results. "Once they start spending money, others will move up. But it's obviously good for the candidates who are starting from a position of strength."
Still, a prominent local politician — who asked not to be named for fear of angering friends and colleagues in both parties — says the city council race is unusually volatile this year because of the number of former council members running.
"You basically have 13 incumbents running for nine seats," he says (now 14 with Qualls). "There's a lot of people with name I.D. It's much more competitive than usual."
The Qualls factor
Ghiz agrees the rankings probably will fluctuate wildly in the weeks ahead.
"The rankings don't mean a lot in July," she says. "We do it for our own benefit. It shows us who we need to reach. This is a rough year, there's no doubt about it. You've got to watch out for your rear end."
Qualls' entry into the race further upsets the council field. Tarbell, a Charterite who cannot run again due to term limits, personally selected Qualls as his replacement beginning Sept. 3. Campaigning from a council seat gives a major advantage to a candidate, and some Charter insiders grumble that Qualls — who was mayor for most of the 1990s — doesn't need the assistance as much as the committee's other candidates, Bates and Joan Kaup.
When the selection was announced, Charter President Michael Goldman praised the decision, stating, "Obviously, we think she can win and keep this seat." Intentional or not, the remark was perceived by some as a criticism of Bates and Kaup.
Privately, some insiders say Qualls was asked to run to bring her government experience and skills at consensus building to city council. Four of the nine current council members are serving their first terms and are under age 45, as is Mayor Mark Mallory. That's led to a City Hall known recently for bickering and gridlock.
"I love this city. I think it's a very good place," Qualls says about her decision. "While it still has challenges, there are tremendous opportunities right now, and I want to be a part of making sure we take advantage of them."
For her part, Qualls says her announcement shouldn't be taken as a signal she's preparing to run for mayor in two years. She's happy to serve on council, Qualls adds, and was among the first politicians to publicly support Mallory in his mayoral campaign in 2004.
Among the top issues facing Cincinnati, Qualls cites the upcoming rebuild of Interstate 75 that she views as a chance to reconnect the city's east and west sides as well as spur development in the Mill Creek Valley. Also, she wants to expand mass transit options to include streetcars and rail and continue improvements to the region's stormwater management system.
A registered Democrat, Qualls, 54, previously served on city council from 1991 to 1999. She was mayor during the final six years under a since-discarded system where that position was mostly ceremonial.
Qualls left office in November 1999 due to term limits and went to teach and study at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Boston. After returning to Greater Cincinnati in 2003, she helped establish Northern Kentucky University's Institute for Public Leadership and Public Affairs, which she headed until she left that post Aug. 1.
Asked about the current rancor among council members, Qualls says, "People have disagreements. It's unrealistic to think people will always agree. ... It's mostly a matter of focusing on the issues and keeping the focus there. I believe everyone on council right now truly cares about our city." ©