Looking ahead to yearlong battles over the mayor’s office and City Council

Take a look at the upcoming political landscape, which promises a very hard-fought battle for the mayor’s desk and a number of new and returning faces vying for the city’s nine council seats.

click to enlarge Looking ahead to yearlong battles over the mayor’s office and City Council
Illustration: Taylor Stephenson
If you thought you just couldn’t handle any more politics after the 2016 elections, take a deep breath. As you were casting your ballot in one of our country’s strangest presidential contests, some of the most potentially competitive local races in recent memory were just getting started.

Take a look at the upcoming political landscape, which promises a very hard-fought battle for the mayor’s desk and a number of new and returning faces vying for the city’s nine council seats.

Mayoral Race

Cincinnati’s 2017 mayoral primary will pit incumbent one-term mayor John Cranley against fellow Democrats second-term Cincinnati City Council member Yvette Simpson and University of Cincinnati Board Chair Robert Richardson Jr., who jumped into the race Jan. 3. He joins an ongoing feud between Simpson and Cranley that illustrates not only those candidates’ different styles when it comes to politics, but also a wider ideological schism in the city. Richardson’s recent entry looks likely to complicate things for both Cranley and Simpson, but it’s very early in his campaign.

Simpson and Cranley have been laying the groundwork for their campaigns for months, and their battle underscores an ongoing rift between the mayor and more liberal progressive Democrats who want increased emphasis on transit, different approaches to tackling poverty and new ways to address violent crime in city neighborhoods. During a press conference announcing his campaign, Richardson said he plans to challeng how business is done in City Hall. 

Simpson, 38, who grew up in subsidized housing in Lincoln Heights before earning a scholarship to Miami University and becoming an attorney, was surrounded by transit and historic preservation boosters, advocates for the poor and racial justice activists when she announced her candidacy in August — a sign her campaign could play well with progressives. 

Cranley, 42, has been a polarizing figure with that group — a bare-knuckle brawler of a mayor unafraid to fight for his centrist policy priorities, express occasionally unpopular opinions and engage in competitive political maneuvers. 

Simpson has often led pushback from Democrats on Council to many of Cranley’s moves — from his attempt to block the city’s streetcar project in the opening days of his term to efforts to change the way the city sets funding for human services organizations to a push to give the city’s unionized employees pay raises outside the usual collective bargaining process. 

As she campaigns to take the big desk at City Hall, Simpson has stressed what she says will be a more collaborative approach to overseeing city government. But Cranley says Simpson will be a throwback to the administration of Cincinnati’s previous mayor, Mark Mallory, a mentor of sorts to her. He’s called Simpson an “insider” for her close ties to the Mallory administration, which Cranley has often derided during his tenure. 

Cranley himself has spent more than a decade and a half in various political roles, sometimes under the wing of former Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken. Despite that, he argues that his administration has benefitted everyday Cincinnatians by focusing on basic services like road repairs and increasing the number of police and firefighters on the city’s payroll instead of special projects.

Crime is one area where Simpson and Cranley diverge noticeably. Violent crime has been a big political issue this year. Though the city’s homicide rate hasn’t spiked, gun crimes overall have risen.

Cranley has made his push for increases in both the number of police officers the city employs and how much they are paid a centerpiece of his time in office. But opponents say he has sometimes overstepped his bounds and played politics in pushing those agendas. His moves for police officer raises outside the normal city negotiation process this summer caused contention within City Hall from City Manager Harry Black as well as council members like Simpson and former Cincinnati police officer Wendell Young. 

During her time on Council, Simpson has framed violence prevention somewhat differently. While she says she’s supportive of law enforcement and isn’t against more officers, there’s a deeper root she argues the city should do more to address. Earlier this year, she unveiled an initiative that frames neighborhood violence as a public health issue through her Violence Prevention Working Group, which convened 36 leaders from nonprofits, community groups and local government at meetings in the city’s most troubled areas. That, she says, is just the start. Simpson has also proposed working harder to treat the psychological trauma of neighborhood violence, which she says creates a cycle of violent crime, by placing mental health professionals in emergency response teams.

Another issue likely to make a prominent appearance in the coming campaign will be the region’s transit systems. The defining issue of 2013’s mayoral election between Cranley and former mayor and councilwoman Roxanne Qualls was the city’s streetcar project. Qualls supported it, while Cranley was dead set against the 3.6-mile rail loop through downtown and Over-the-Rhine. 

Cranley held up his victory in the election as proof that voters didn’t want the streetcar, and a dramatic showdown between his office and City Council ensued, ending only when Councilman Kevin Flynn provided a decisive vote blocking Cranley’s attempt to shutter the project. 

Simpson was a vocal proponent of the streetcar, a potential liability for her among moderate voters and African-Americans who backed Cranley in 2013. 

Black voters could be big deciders in the contest. Cranley won their vote decisively in 2013 and has remained popular with them. He has fronted a number of initiatives that look to address income and racial disparities, including the creation of the Office of Economic Inclusion, which looks to extend more city contracts to minority businesses, and a push to provide $2 million to preserve affordable housing in Over-the-Rhine and another $2 million for similar projects elsewhere in the city. 

Simpson, who is African-American, also has strong ties with the black community and has done prominent work on the city’s poverty problems. That work has included continuing to fight Cranley over the city’s United Way-overseen human services funding process as well as money for neighborhood-level community development in the city budget. In the past, Cranley has worked to move money from those funds toward other projects both related and unrelated to poverty initiatives. 

Simpson’s announcement was just the start of what looks to be a long race leading up to election. Richardson’s entry forces a May 2, 2017 open mayoral primary, which is sure to get ugly. Until his campaign ramps up, however, the focus is on Cranley versus Simpson. So far, Cranley has the edge as the incumbent. His campaign has almost $440,000 on hand, including more than $214,000 raised since the beginning of 2016. Simpson has about $84,000, according to filings released prior to her announcement. She raised nearly all of that in 2016.  

Cranley looks strong going into 2017, but he certainly isn’t invulnerable. He was dealt a humbling defeat when voters roundly rejected a parks tax charter amendment in 2015. The drama around that ballot initiative included controversy over spending at the Cincinnati Parks Board, which includes Cranley allies. Cranley has also come under fire for some of his appointments to various other boards, as well as his handling of the dismissal of former Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, who was popular with many in the community (see “Past Chief, Present Grief” on page 8).

Despite some rough going for the incumbent, however, it remains to be seen if Simpson or Richardson can turn sometimes-deep discontent with Cranley into victory.

Cincinnati City Council elections

The mayoral race is just the tip of the iceberg, with other political tussles between the city’s urban progressives and more moderate or conservative candidates possibly on the horizon. 

All nine City Council seats go up for re-election next year, meaning the overall direction of city government will hang in the balance. 

Six incumbents are up for re-election: Independent Christopher Smitherman, Republican Amy Murray and Democrats Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young and Vice Mayor David Mann. Three seats won’t have an incumbent in them, as Republican Charlie Winburn hits term limits, Charterite Kevin Flynn bows out from political life and Simpson runs for mayor. 

As Council changes, so will the dynamics of City Hall politics. The past three years have been a tug-of-war between take-charge Mayor Cranley and his allies like Councilman Winburn versus a coalition of five Democrats who have opposed some of his biggest reaches. Those have included Cranley’s continued opposition to the streetcar, his attempts at shuffling money from the city’s human services fund and other forceful moves that Council Democrats have decried as strong-armed. 

This dynamic wasn’t universal — Councilman Flynn often supported Cranley, but flexed his independence during the streetcar battle and other fights. And Vice Mayor Mann sometimes backed Cranley while other times staunchly opposing him. But for the most part, the alliances in City Hall made for a predictable set of voting blocs. Council members Simpson, Young, Sittenfeld and Seelbach — all some stripe of what you might call “urban progressive” Democrats — could be counted on to oppose Cranley’s strong-willed political style, while more conservative council members like Winburn, Murray and Smitherman were often Cranley allies. 

Each side loses predictable players in the coming election. Simpson can’t run for Council and mayor at the same time, so the urban progressive wing of City Hall will be down perhaps its most vocal incumbent. Meanwhile, Cranley won’t have Winburn or Flynn to back him anymore. And, of course, some incumbents could lose their seats, further muddying the waters for the future of city government.

In place of the three departing council members, there’s guaranteed to be a big and varied field of candidates looking to grab a spot. Most of them are Democrats right now — and they lean toward the urban progressive side — but expect Cranley allies to enter into the fray while the Hamilton County Republican Party endorses a number of candidates itself. And don’t be surprised if a Charter Party candidate or two jump into the mix as well. 

Here’s a rundown of the most active contenders so far:

Tamaya Dennard stands astride two different Cincinnati worlds. Like Simpson, she’s the product of a difficult upbringing in a low-income family who has big ideas about the city’s problems with poverty and racial disparities. But the Democrat is also at home in the corporate world, having worked for Duke Energy before jumping on P.G. Sittenfeld’s Council staff and campaigns. 

She currently does work around civic and social engagement for the nonprofit company Design Impact and says she would like to carry her current job’s focus on innovation into City Hall. Among her proposals: having the city fund jobs programs that extend career opportunities for low-income Cincinnatians beyond food service and construction, creating tax structures that soften the blow of gentrification for low-income residents in quickly developing neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine, an increased focus on regional transit and measures to make City Council meetings more accessible to more residents of the city.

Ozie Davis III is running his first campaign for political office. But don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s a newbie. Davis, a Democrat, is one of the city’s most active and recognizable neighborhood advocates, heading up the Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation. In that role, he has helped usher in millions in federal investment to his neighborhood while doing on the ground work building community and pushing violence reduction efforts. If you go to Avondale, you’re likely to see him walking the blocks. He’ll be a potent campaigner in the upcoming race and looks like an early favorite to grab up an empty seat.

Laure Quinlivan is no stranger to running for Council. She served two Council terms between 2009 and 2013 and narrowly missed grabbing a third in the 2013 election. Quinlivan, who was an investigative reporter for Channel 9 before her political life, currently runs a video production company. During her time on Council, she pushed for community entertainment districts, advocated for expanded bike lanes and was a big streetcar supporter — something that might have cost her the seat. But the furor over the streetcar is much diminished these days, so perhaps we’ll see her back in City Hall come 2017. 

Greg Landsman is another familiar face, and not just because he ran for Council in 2013. Landsman was the driving force for Cincinnati’s Preschool Promise, a successful 2016 ballot initiative aimed at extending no-cost preschool to children in Cincinnati’s lowest-income families. Before his stint there, Landsman was head of the city’s Strive Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to extending educational opportunities more broadly. 

Michelle Dillingham placed 12th in the race for Council in 2013. During her two decades in Cincinnati, she’s done a bevy of governmental, social justice and community organizing work, from a decade-long tenure on Kennedy Heights Community Council to chief of staff for former Vice Mayor David Crowley to her current gig as CEO of nonprofit Community Shares of Greater Cincinnati. She is again looking to win a spot on Council, where she’ll assuredly pursue an agenda centered around priorities like affordable housing, educational equity and other left-leaning issues. 

Other Democrats potentially running include former aide to Councilman Wendell Young Sedrick Denson, recent U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Prather and Brian Garry, who also ran for Council in 2003 and 2007. Two Republicans, Jeff Pastor and Tamie Sullivan, have expressed interest in the race. 

That’s not an exhaustive list of potential candidates. Others, like vocal transit advocate and former suburban police officer Derek Bauman, are rumored to be readying Council runs as well. Expect the coming year to be a lively one in local politics. ©

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