Puttin' Out the Bone

A Shot at Greatness

Mark Mallory has a chance to become a great Cincinnati mayor because Cincinnati's problems are among the greatest in its history.

The Mallory victory surprised many political observers as a mild-mannered, underfinanced African American without a phone book-sized master plan won Cincinnati's highest office from a primarily white electorate.

Precinct breakdowns suggest he connected with voters across a city that typically picks its leaders along racial lines. Analyze voting results of Cincinnati City Council victors, and more often than not they win with clear racial bases.

From the beginning Mayor-Elect Mallory needed to win nearly all of the African-American votes — alone not enough to win the big chair — and a nice chunk of the white vote in order to win. Clearly, Cincinnati City Councilman David Pepper was going to win few black votes, even though he lined up some important African Americans to campaign for him. So Pepper had to count more on white Republican votes in places like Hyde Park, Mount Lookout, Mount Washington and the conservative West side.

In effect, Pepper, who had cultivated a moderate-to-conservative Democrat image as a councilman, ran as the "Republican candidate," since their only standard bearer, the Rev. Charlie Winburn, lost in the primary election.

But Mallory fooled many Election Night junkies by winning enough white voter support in places like Oakley, Price Hill, Pleasant Ridge, Northside and even Hyde Park to give him a comfortable victory. No one in the Mallory campaign ever doubted he'd do that.

It was their plan all along.

On Election Night, Pepper remained ahead nearly all the way to the final minutes. But then came that famous Ward 7 bounce. Ward 7 is Roselawn and Bond Hill. It has several thousand mostly African-American votes that were always headed for Mallory. It just took hours — in fact, literally to the end of the counting — for them to sweep him to victory.

So how did Pepper, the son of privilege and power — his dad is former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper — lose this race? The first answer could be easy: Mallory — who has his own special dad, former Ohio House Majority Leader Bill Mallory — was the better person for the job.

In the beginning many thought that Pepper, who came in first in the 2001 and 2003 city council races, including his first time out, would be unstoppable if he raised enough money to pound his expensively crafted message through Procter & Gamble-style commercials. And he did all that.

But it appears he knew all along that he wasn't winning. With enough money to have invaluable polling data, even to the end, he ran uncomfortable attack ads in the final moments when Campaigns 101 says you put a smile on your commercials on the eve of the vote.

His effort was never questioned. He worked tirelessly. Institutions lined up for him. Republicans embraced him. Money poured in for him. And, to boot, he is smart, polite, polished and one-on-one a damn nice guy.

The problem was in his chest area. One has trouble feeling David Pepper. Put him in a room with engineers with papers everywhere, and he'll sell all of them. But stand in political debates armed with marketing slogans like "From the first day" and hold up a thick plan for the city, and people doze off snoring, "Woonk, wooonk."

On paper, Pepper was a political thoroughbred. But in the real life of a tough head-to-head battle, he lacked what out-of-town consultants can't teach: heart, the ability to connect, even across racial lines.

Mallory has that. He is as smart and politically skilled, but when you spend 10 minutes with him you want to do 60 more. I sat in the audience of a fund-raiser for the city of Norwood a few years back. Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune was being roasted, part of the time by Mallory. With such competition as WLW's Bill Cunningham and WCKY's Jerry Springer on the dais, Mallory was the one who owned the audience with well-crafted comedy and from-the-heart commentary.

It's no accident that his former Republican and Democratic colleagues in the Ohio Legislature all love him. He connects. That's the very reason why he could be one of Cincinnati's great mayors. Because at the base of the city's problems are huge divisions: racial, regional, lifestyle and economic. If Mallory builds bridges that lead to prosperity, public safety and harmony, everyone who gets a Cincinnati television signal will be indebted to him.

After eight years at City Hall, his future could include Congress, governor or the Senate. Everyone in America still remembers the stunning video images of a burning Cincinnati in April 2001. Everyone will also pay attention to the person who can lift up that same city.

He won with the trust of African Americans across the city. Without expecting guarantees, because he gave none in the campaign other than fairness, they believe he'll respect and listen to them. But many white people believe that he'll bind diverse people and help make city streets safe.

Look, if racial tensions ease under Mallory, if police see he understands their hard jobs, if county officials watch him shepherd in The Banks, if neighborhood leaders get balance between places where people live and downtown where companies make profit, if people laugh along with his wonderful humor and admire his integrity, then he could find greatness.

For once, everyone should root for not just a winner but also a champion. The region's needs are that great. Go, Mark.

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.

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