Often during political campaigns, some of the most interesting stories occur behind the scenes and are only told long after voters have cast their ballots, if at all. One such incident involving the current mayoral and City Council races in Cincinnati almost fell into that category.
For the last few weeks, prominent leaders in the local Democratic Party have been privately talking about a dispute between Mayor Mark Mallory and first-time council candidate Tony Fischer (pictured) that could have serious consequences for Fischer’s campaign.
Well-connected sources at City Hall and within the Democratic Party say Mallory and Fischer recently had a stern confrontation during a meeting of the party’s slate of candidates for City Council. Mallory told Fischer — a one-time political protégé of sorts — not to mention Mallory’s name or use the mayor’s image on Fischer’s Web site or in any campaign literature.
Also, while Mallory typically does radio commercials for his fellow Democratic candidates closer to the election, the mayor let Fischer know he shouldn’t expect one.
Although most council incumbents — both Democratic and Republican — usually fare well at the polls without any extra help, non-incumbents need any advantage they can get in staid, change-adverse Cincinnati, especially with only one open seat this time. (Vice Mayor David Crowley can't run again due to term limits; his eight colleagues all are seeking reelection.)
Fischer’s excommunication happened after he publicly criticized budget cuts proposed by Mallory and a Democratic majority on City Council to avoid a $28 million deficit this year.
The majority asked the city’s unions to accept six-day, unpaid furloughs for their workers. When the police union balked, officials said they might lay off 138 people in the Police Department beginning in September, unless the union agreed to forego a 2 percent pay raise next year and make other cuts to save $2.6 million.
That’s when City Councilman Jeff Berding, a controversial Democrat who often sides with the group’s Republicans, began going on radio talk shows to oppose the layoffs. Berding organized a City Hall press conference in July to tout a pledge not to layoff any cops through 2011. Besides Berding, it was attended by City Councilmembers Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel, both Republicans, and newbie Fischer.
Mallory and a council majority were angered, stating Berding’s pledge undermined the city manager as he tried to negotiate concessions from the union. But that wasn’t the end of it.
About a week later, Berding distributed a memo on the city’s official letterhead to the mayor and council. It asked council to hold public hearings on the possibility of police layoffs.
Mallory and the council majority were chagrined. Public hearings already were scheduled, they said. Additionally, the memo included signature lines for Berding and Fischer, making it appear like Fischer was a City Council member.
Some Democrats warned Fischer he should stop publicly opposing the majority. Not long after, though, he held a City Hall press conference to unveil his plan for saving the police jobs.
In his press release, Fischer wrote, “City Council talks but does nothing. Since City Council won’t make tough calls, I will. Having walked door to door in neighborhoods throughout Cincinnati, I know that the people of this city want more police, not less. But is City Council making the tough political choices to do what the citizens want and save our cops? No.”
As part of his plan, Fischer proposed cutting funding for local travel, tuition reimbursement, merit pay and cost-of-living (COLA) salary adjustments. Further, he wanted to block the hiring of the city’s climate protection coordinator, eliminate the city’s contract with the Chamber of Commerce, close two recreation centers and make other changes. All told, it would save about $17 million, Fischer said.
Except it wouldn’t.
City Councilwoman Laketa Cole, a Democrat who heads the Finance Committee, noted that council had made $16 million in cuts. As a result, it reduced the total number of citywide layoffs from 902 to 319, a savings of 583 jobs. More importantly, council already cut money for local travel and tuition reimbursement and is prohibited by state law from axing COLA increases for classified employees.
Rubbing salt in Fischer’s wounds, Cole pointed out that his proposal included “fuzzy math” and the numbers simply didn’t add up.
An irritated Mallory had enough by this time; sources close to the mayor described him as “shocked” and “disappointed.” He addressed a meeting of the party’s council candidates where he chastised Fischer and broke ties with him. The message was clear to other non-incumbents: Cross us at your own peril.
Mallory’s snub is a far cry from how Fischer began his campaign. Fischer announced early, in January, so he could get ahead of the pack. To gain more attention, he snagged an endorsement from Mallory. The nod came after Fischer helped campaign for Mallory in 2005 while he was stationed as a soldier in Iraq.
Fischer, 31, is no slouch: A graduate of Walnut Hills High School and Georgetown University, he ran against the better-known Republican Robert Schuler for an Ohio Senate seat in 2002. A fresh-faced 24-year-old at the time, Fischer was the party’s sacrificial lamb in a race that Democrats were fairly certain to lose ... and they did.
Still, Fischer was willing to accept the unenviable task at the time to gain experience campaigning, and party leaders remembered. Since then, Fischer, who lives in Madisonville, was active in the Obama campaign last year and volunteers with the Cincinnati Preservation Association.
Mallory declined comment for this column, but Fischer downplayed the incident.
“The mayor and I had a difference of opinion regarding the police layoffs and what I thought was a legitimate policy difference,” Fischer says. “We didn’t have any literature out (with his name yet). I understand his position.”
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke says some disagreements among candidates — even of the same party — are natural.
“There is no doubt that the economic times have created tensions over the best public policies to address the shortfalls in city revenue,” Burke says. “It is not unusual that there would be disagreement on those issues. But the mayor is the leader of our city. I support his efforts across the board.”
Burke adds, “There is a long history of disagreements on issues among Democrats. While the possibility of police layoffs has not been universally supported by Democrats, that disagreement is far from the most difficult or divisive situation encountered in the last couple of decades when there has been a Democratic majority on council and a Democratic mayor. Recall then-Mayor (Roxanne) Qualls’ coalition with (Republican) Nick Vehr or, more difficult still, the ‘Gang of Five’ (a tri-partisan voting block on council years ago).”
I wonder, however, if party leaders get so blinded by impressive pedigrees like those of Berding (the Bengals executive) or Fischer (the Iraq War veteran) that they ignore important policy differences. It might be worth considering during the next endorsement process.
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