Puttin' Out the Bone

He's B-a-a-c-k: Ron Roberts' Latest Power Play

Back in the 1990s, he hated having his name outed. He relished being the power from behind. Then he got known. Then he got fired. Now he's back.

His name is Ron Roberts. If ever there were a human tale of two cities, this dude's it. To me, he's pretty much an asshole, though I don't recall ever meeting him.

Roberts is the county's consultant and the man behind The Banks, that mixed development project lately looking like it will happen on Cincinnati's riverfront between the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Great American Ball Park.

The Banks started as a bold vision of the city of Cincinnati under the leadership of the Democratic-controlled city council and the Port Authority of Cincinnati.

In 2001 a firestorm erupted over the bidding process neglecting an African-American major player in the project. But finding the funding became the real stumbling block, and The Banks became another Cincinnati big hole similar to others that sat empty in the core business district.

Maybe it would be a parking lot, maybe a park. Likely it would be another reason why suburbanites think Cincinnati leaders can think big but in the end don't deliver jack.

So we all pretty much forgot about The Banks until Hamilton County's political leaders, Republican-dominated and always looking for ways to upstage the city, decided to go stealth and get 'er done. The Hamilton County Republican Party loathes the notion that, while the city is where the action is, their migration of voters to the suburbs leaves them out of any urban political power. They've got only two of nine council members, and their hopes of ever electing a mayor are as good as Larry Flynt getting into heaven.

So the prospect of figuring out how to legally fund and orchestrate The Banks while quietly stealing political momentum from Democratic Mayor Charlie Luken and city council's Democratic majority was too delicious to pass up. With Ron Roberts at the tiller, they did it. Seeing most Democrats stand by with their mouths shut shows the underhanded, powerful strategy worked. Such is the skill of Roberts.

Now, Roberts isn't always a hero, even if you accept his methods. When he was the director of the Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC), a male, white club of the area's big businesses leaders, he got so well known as their hatchet that they eventually threw him under the bus. That experience forced a don't-talk-publicly clause in his current $145,000-year contract approved by the Republican majority of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners.

Where I watched him do ugly work that touched my professional life was in the Cincinnati Public Schools, where I worked as a teacher and program leader for nearly 30 years.

Roberts is so slick that in the 1990s he actually got two fine men, J. Michael Brandt, then superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, and Tom Mooney, then the progressive president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, to open the district's doors to full power from Cincinnati corporations generally and the CBC specifically.

This was the era of the Buenger Commission's recommendations on fixing the school system. It was also a period when many in Cincinnati felt the schools were being run by Roberts, Procter and Gamble Chairman John Pepper and others, with district and union leaders holding their briefcases.

On a regular basis, school district leaders traveled to the CBC headquarters for strategy meetings with Roberts and others. The agenda was not just how to run the business affairs of the district or how to improve facility systems.

A candidate for principal of a junior high school told me how one of his interviews was at an office of a Carl Lindner business. When he sat down at the big wooden conference table and scanned his interviewers, he said, he didn't recognize a person in the room. They were all business people.

Roberts used the poor achievement data that trails behind all mostly-poor urban schools as his wedge to convince business leaders, school board members and even my union leader that economically powerful businessmen know enough to help run schools. How absurd.

Their intrusion produced no results in achievement. In fact, Roberts' political party — he's a Republican who started his career working for Republican congressmen and got his current county job after helping and contributing to Republican Commissioner Phil Heimlich — is the mastermind of the charter school movement, which turns public schools over to private companies. Those companies, of course, know nothing about complex urban education and produce dismal achievement scores by every comparison.

So what does all this mean for The Banks and this head guy who now hides from exposure and his cloudy past? Oddly, it spells success for a vital downtown project but with a fair amount of political blood left on the ground. The Banks had stalled, and Roberts forced movement.

Todd Portune, the lone Democrat on the county commission and the only member to oppose Roberts' hiring, was initially pissed off about the process. So was Luken. But they're both smart enough not to stand in front of a steaming train.

So The Banks will happen, and the Republican Party will first privately and later openly thump their chests that they made a big thing happen.

Roberts will hope that his private humiliations are behind him, that he can make the payments on his big Indian Hill house and walk erect during cocktail parties. He can, but only as long as people like me stop telling on him.

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