Puttin' Out the Bone

Mayoral Race Could Pit Democrats Against Each Other

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Let's analyze the hell out of this Cincinnati mayor's race. It'll be fun, and it sure is worth the time.

Look, Cincinnati is the anchor of Greater Cincinnati, and whether you live in or out of the city, the health of the hub matters plenty.

First, I wish Cincinnati's mayor really had administrative power like they do in Chicago or even Columbus and Cleveland. It might incrementally get there someday. But let's take what we've got at the moment, which is a somewhat stronger mayor than we had four years ago. Even with its limits, Cincinnati's mayor is looked to for direction and coordination from citizens, business people and council members.

Let's start with the election rules. In September there will be a non-partisan primary, meaning anyone qualified can run and they'll all do it in one pack. The top two vote-getters will then meet up in November's head-to-head general election.

The primary is the key. In fact, who's in that primary will likely set up the winner. Clearly, David Pepper will be standing after the first race. Guaranteed. No matter what. If we were playing Texas Hold 'Em and that was the bet, go all in.

He's come in first in all of his city council races, including his first political run ever. I don't think that's been done before, getting the top spot the first time out. Plus, he's a skilled, fanatical, perfectionist campaigner. He's well organized, flush with dough, and his father is John Pepper, who has tons of contacts and political and social capital, especially in the Republican Party.

No one will beat David Pepper in the primary. He will get droves of Republican votes, even though he's always run as a Democrat. So one spot is flat out taken.

As in lots of horse and car races, the real suspense will be in who comes in second, with the right to take on Pepper. That's nowhere as easy to pin down. But who enters the primary gives clues.

We know State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-West End), a respected and polished legislator, is in the race. We're pretty sure Vice Mayor Alicia Reece will enter it. Both are known names with political experience and strong family support for politics. Mark's dad is former State Rep. Bill Mallory, a highly regarded politico.

Reece's father, Steve, is a longtime friend of mine and an astute political operative. He also served as chief of staff for former Mayor Ted Berry. He's Vice Mayor Reece's chief adviser. I should also make the disclosure that I once worked in the council office of my friend, Alicia Reece.

Both Mallory and Reece are African Americans, a fact that matters in both the primary and general elections, because the black base is virtually key to winning the mayor's office.

But the big primary question is whether anyone else will jump in, like the Charter Committee's Jim Tarbell, a sitting city council member, or Republican Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Mark Painter. Both are white. And what about Republican former City Councilman Charlie Winburn, an African American?

For if the black vote splits among Mallory and Reece, maybe even Winburn as well, then a white candidate could jump into the race hoping to land in the general election with white votes, even though there might not be much chance to eventually win the mayoralty against Pepper. But ego makes some do dumb things.

What likely will happen is a three-way primary between Pepper, Reece and Mallory, although the Republican Party brags it will put a candidate in this time. Four years ago it did not.

But why bother? No Republican could ever beat Pepper, in either the primary or general election. In fact, he'd beat a Republican in nearly every Republican neighborhood. His early campaign materials are staking claim to the crime issue. That was Phil Heimlich's political mantra, for God's sake.

Back to the three-way race. Let's use common sense. While Mallory is a very strong candidate, against Reece he'd have problems winning that second spot. She not only has run numerous times throughout Cincinnati, while he's only run in a part of it, she's always come in a fairly close second to Pepper. With the status of running from the vice mayor's office, how does she not win most of the African-American vote and some Caucasian votes? As long as another serious white candidate doesn't enter the primary, it looks like a Pepper/Reece match up in the November general election.

While most local pundits would say that's Pepper's race to lose, there's a scenario in which Reece wins by a squeak. It would take a classic Democratic coalition and a willingness to get very honest and a little rough, because this would be a slugfest between two Democrats.

Reece would need to earn nearly every black vote. In the past Pepper has gotten nearly as many as she, but blacks could vote for both in a field race. Here you pick between them. The vast majority would go for Reece.

Second, she would have to get white votes in bunches from labor, feminists, teachers, progressives, even from some Hyde Park types. Her pitch must be that Cincinnati is quietly yet severely racially divided and that it's killing its progress, here and around the country. Only she, as an African-American woman, can bridge the divide. Only she can respect both communities. Only she can show the way with both groups following.

That's her shot. Otherwise it's Mayor David Pepper.



PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.

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