News: Strong Mayor Divides

Baptist Ministers say NAACP's support for Issue 4 failed to represent the African-American community, but black opposition evident at polls anyway

May 6, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

City Councilman Charles Winburn supported Issue 4

In addition to changing the way Cincinnati is governed, Issue 4, passed May 4 by the voters, has left a rift in the African-American community, which some leaders say won't go away overnight.

The NAACP supported Issue 4 — which in 2001 will allow for the direct election of a mayor who will have more power — arguing it would empower black voters. The Baptist Ministers Conference opposed it, arguing it would harm low-income citizens.

Issue 4 passed with 53 percent of the voters in favor. Only 18 percent of registered voters voted and the issue drew most of its support in predominantly white Republican wards. In predominantly black wards, Issue 4 was rejected 2 to 1.

"The executive board at the NAACP supported it but never asked many of its members what they wanted," said the Rev. Donald Jones, who campaigned against Issue 4 for the Baptist Ministers Conference. "The NAACP has not represented the black community in this particular issue. Many members did not get a chance to decide, and many in that organization did not support it."

Morris Williams, associate director of the Coalition of Neighborhoods, is one of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People members who said he got no say in the issue.

He said he thought that the NAACP might have had "underlying agendas" in supporting Issue 4.

"I don't believe color matters when you are talking about whether someone can be bought or not," he said. "Some people are thinking in terms of demographics and that, at some point, maybe they could direct who that mayor will be."

Other groups also were divided over Issue 4. Democrats were against other Democrats. The National Organization for Women and the League of Women Voters opposed it, while Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls supported it.

While Jones and the Baptist Ministers Conference argued that Issue 4 would harm blacks, the NAACP argued that it would empower blacks to elect a mayor that represented them.

While Issue 4 has raised a red flag, Jones said the ministers still would seek to unite African-American groups as well as the community.

"I think some on the opposition seek to divide the community," Jones said. "But they have not yet accomplished that. And the more our people hear from us, the more it strengthens us."

Williams said he did not think Issue 4 ultimately would divide the groups.

"The NAACP does not represent all of the African-American community, and the Baptist Ministers do not represent all of the African-American community," he said.

At issue for blacks, as well others who did not support Issue 4, is the power that the charter amendment will give the mayor. The mayor will be able to veto legislation subject to an override by six council members, initiate the hiring and firing of the city manager and appoint council committee chairs.

"It seems so strange that you have a democratic process to vote for a dictatorship," Williams said. "This is not good government policy."

That, former Councilman Dwight Tillery said, was precisely why he will never be caught running for the mayor's job as it is defined under Issue 4.

"I am not a yes man, and I think that position is right for someone who is," he said. "An independent person is going to have a hard time in that position."

The charter amendment does nothing to help the lack of leadership at City Hall, Tillery said.

He said he did not think that changing the way council is elected, as some council members want to do next, would help either.

"I think it would make more sense to do something (other than Issue 4) about the mayorship," Tillery said. "Having nine people, all with equal power, has given us a better representative government than one or two people in power."

Issue 4, he said, was sure to promote more divisiveness on council.

Issue 4 or not, division on council is likely to continue.

With the issue decided, some council members are looking at proposals to change the way council is elected. And no matter whether they were for or against Issue 4, likely mayoral candidates were not stating their intentions.

Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who many think will run for mayor in 2001, will not be able to run for council this year because of term limits. Qualls, who campaigned in favor of Issue 4, would say only that she would be looking for a position that she enjoyed and excelled at.

Councilman Phil Heimlich said he had been too busy gearing up for his re-election in November to picture himself as the mayor Issue 4 depicted.

But he has had time to think about what the city's next step should be.

"I think we have to take a long look at how council works and is elected," he said. "We need to put our heads together and see how it can be improved."

Heimlich said that some of the ideas in the works for council election reform included four-year terms and the creation of districts. He has not taken a position one way or the other, he said.

"I'm willing to listen to arguments and have an open mind on both issues," Heimlich said.

Although he said he did not agree with everything in Issue 4, Councilman Charles Winburn thought it was a move in the right direction.

"But it's not a complete job," he said. "We need to go a step further."

Winburn wants to see four-year terms for council members on the ballot in November. It will help stop increasing campaign spending, he said.

Winburn, like Heimlich, said he had not thought about being mayor under Issue 4.

"I live everything day-by-day," he said. "I haven't given it much thought."

But whoever is in that position will have to be careful with the power, Winburn said.

"The least attractive thing to me about this issue was the mayor appointing committee chairs because when you are forced into something, it builds up animosity," he said. "I think it's wonderful in terms of the veto power. If it's used as a threat, though, it could backfire."

The mayor's power to appoint committee chairs is one of the most harmful things about the mayor defined by Issue 4, said Councilman Paul Booth.

"I think Issue 4 is a working document," he said before the votes were tallied "Let's take it and delete the harmful provisions."

The African-American community and more of the council members needed to be involved in creating Issue 4, he said.

"We need to bring a consensus of people together to form a plan," he said. "Too many groups were left out."

Booth said the current council election process did not need tweaking either.

"I think the council we have is fine," he said. "All the discussions of problems revolve around this perception there is bickering. There is always going to be different opinions. Council is not the problem."

Council terms and Issue 4 are both the problem, Vice Mayor Minette Cooper said before the May 4 election.

"The first thing is to get rid of the way we elect the mayor because council members are always trying to outshine each other to be in that position," she said. "Another thing is to have four-year terms."

But Cooper said Issue 4 was not the way because it was created in a "flurry."

She said that a better plan would not give the position of mayor so much control over legislation and the city manager.

"All this power does is close the doors to average citizens," Cooper said.

Councilman Todd Portune thought that Issue 4 opened the doors to better opportunities.

Although he said he did not want to speculate on whether he would run for mayor, Portune said he thought it would be a great position.

"There's an attraction for whoever would run for it," he said.

But now, Portune said, he wanted a focus on campaign finance reform instead of the way council is elected. He said he would begin circulating petitions this summer.

"I think (campaign finance reform) passes any other reform because there is such an influence of money out there," he said.

While he said he would be open to discussions about reforms calling for district elections, he said it would be more appropriate to wait for year 2000 Census data before crafting plans. ©