Year in Review: The Biggest News of 2015

Weed, police, parks and marriage, oh my

click to enlarge A proposed tax levy to fund 17 parks projects drew intense opposition. Voters rejected the plan.
A proposed tax levy to fund 17 parks projects drew intense opposition. Voters rejected the plan.

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incinnati saw huge news events this year, including a number that caught the eyes of the nation. Some of these were triumphant, including the Supreme Court’s decision in a case with roots in Cincinnati extending same-sex marriage rights to all states. Others, however, like the police shooting of an unarmed black motorist, were dark reminders of deep tensions that have long gripped Cincinnati and America at large. Still other stories were strictly local but caught us by surprise with their intensity. Long story short: We were busy this year. Here are some of the things that kept CityBeat’s news department awake in 2015.

Cranley Takes a Hit in Parks Tax Drama

Mayor John Cranley’s plan to fund some 17 parks projects by raising property taxes was the subject of an intense political firefight during the months leading up to the Nov. 3 election. Detractors of the parks plan put forward a number of objections to the measure ranging from assertions that it gave the mayor and the park board he selects too much power to fears that the proposed projects would lead to increased commercialization of parks.

In the end, voters sided with the detractors, turning in a 59-percent walloping of Cranley’s proposal.

The anti-Issue 22 victory here is interesting due to the truly David and Goliath nature of spending on the campaigns. The pro-Issue 22 camp, backed by major corporate donors such as Kroger, Western & Southern and others, spent more than $1.2 million on television ads, mailers and other slick campaign materials. Amendment opponents, however, spent about $7,500, with only a single radio ad buy. The list of opponents was formidable and diverse, however, including a majority of Cincinnati City Council, local civil rights icon and one-time amendment supporter Marian Spencer, both streetcar advocates such as Over-the-Rhine transit activist Derek Bauman and streetcar opponents COAST, and environmental group the Audubon Society. In the end, the pro-parks tax group spent about $47 per vote for their defeat; opponents of the tax spent just 27 cents per vote to win.

While some city precincts, mostly on the East Side, passed the measure, many, including Cranley’s West Side home precinct, said no thanks. The bigger question now is what this means for Cranley as mayor. Two years into his term, the mayor has lost two big, hard-fought political showdowns, first over the streetcar and now over his parks proposal. While he’s had plenty of policy victories as well, these dramatic fights might signal an opening for a primary challenger to take a run at the 2017 mayoral election. The campaign over the parks tax was particularly heated, and even some supporters seem to have come away disillusioned by the effort. Cranley has sounded a conciliatory note in post-election statements, saying he’s proud to have stood up for the idea but will take the results as the will of Cincinnati voters and seek to serve their wishes.

In the end, the defeat was bruising for Cranley, sandwiched as it was between criticism of his administration’s handling of the dismissal of former Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell a couple months prior and his controversial announcement later in November that Cincinnati would not be taking Syrian refugees.

What’s more, the debate over the proposal opened up a serious can of worms for the Cincinnati Park Board involving its spending practices. Scrutiny over those practices started after it was revealed that the board gave the pro-parks tax campaign $200,000. The board says that money came from private endowments, not public funds, but asked for its return anyway after public outcry. More revelations about lush bonuses and car allowances to Park Board leaders from the nonprofit Parks Foundation, which is connected to the board, followed. The city is now in the midst of an audit of the board’s spending habits.

Police Shooting of Sam DuBose

Mirrors National Tensions

The police shooting death of Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old music producer from Avondale, underscored both the ongoing tension in Cincinnati and around the country regarding race, as well as concerted efforts here to address those tensions.

On July 19, white University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing pulled over DuBose, a black motorist, in an isolated part of Mount Auburn about a mile from UC’s campus because his car lacked a front license plate. Just a few minutes later, DuBose was dead from a gunshot wound to the head.

Tensing’s initial explanation was that DuBose started to drive off during the traffic stop, nearly running him over. Tensing said he was then forced to shoot DuBose in the head because he was being dragged by the car and his life was in danger. Tensing said he suffered minor injuries when he fell to the ground as DuBose’s car rolled away.

But footage from the officer’s body camera told a much different story, showing that Tensing was neither dragged nor had his hand caught in the car’s steering wheel, as he claimed.

Protests broke out both before and after that video footage was released, and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced that a grand jury had indicted Tensing on murder charges.

“I thank God that everything is being uncovered,” said Audrey DuBose, Samuel’s mother. “This one did not go unsolved and hidden.”

Audrey DuBose pledged to continue fighting against police injustice, calling for body cameras for all police departments. She said many others have died at the hands of police unnecessarily.

“My son was killed by a cop unjustly,” she said. “I gotta know many more are killed unjustly. I’m going to be on the battlefield for them.”

More than 500 people, including Mayor John Cranley, City Manager Harry Black and State Sen. Cecil Thomas, attended DuBose’s funeral services at Church of the Living God in Avondale where the father, musician and entrepreneur was laid to rest. His mother and other family members remembered him as a kind and loving man who nevertheless had a deep, sometimes complicated independent streak. DuBose was buried at Landmark Memorial Gardens in Evendale.

The incident evoked memories of the civil unrest following Timothy Thomas’ shooting by Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach in 2001 and once again drew national attention to Cincinnati.

Racially charged police shootings had been a big topic of national conversation during the year prior; the shooting deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, New York City and elsewhere had already sparked large-scale protests, media coverage and, in some cases, federal investigations.   

DuBose’s death, unlike some other police shootings, resulted in an indictment of the officer involved. Tensing has yet to stand trial, however, due to continued evidence-gathering by authorities. So far, only pretrial hearings have been held; the next is scheduled for February.

Meanwhile, UC police have been restricted in their off-campus duties, and the incident has sparked a deep, difficult conversation about race relations on campus and in Cincinnati as a whole.

Weed Legalization Effort Falls Short

In Issue 3, weed legalization group ResponsibleOhio put forward a pretty gutsy gambit — wagering more than $20 million that Ohio voters would legalize medicinal and recreational marijuana. The group made this bet even as their proposal lacked support from key national and statewide legalization advocates, who balked at the proposal’s structure.

That measure nosedived on election night, grabbing only 36 percent of the vote. That was a surprise to some, who saw polling in Ohio showing more than 50 percent of the state supporting legalization as a sign the time had come. So what gives? Was it the nightmare-inducing bud-headed mascot, Buddy, who even ResponsibleOhio organizers later admitted was a mistake? (Poor Buddy!) Was it conservative state lawmakers’ attempts to deep-six the law with their own ballot initiative, the confusingly named Issue 2? Are Ohioans just afraid of weed? All of the above?

In truth, ResponsibleOhio needed every pro-pot vote they could get. And they didn’t get them. Pro-legalization groups who otherwise might have been supporters expressed squeamishness about the fact that the amendment would have awarded a small group of investors, including a New York fashion designer and the former Pop star Nick Lachey, the only 10 legal grow sites in the state. That hesitancy, combined with the older, more conservative electorate that turns out in non-presidential election years, sank the amendment decisively.

The main question is whether the rout was about legalization itself or simply the so-called “oligopoly” the amendment would have created. Polling in Ohio shows that voters here favor legalization by a slim margin, suggesting it might not be a lost cause in the future, given a more attractive structure.

Some groups are working on campaigns to get legalization on next year’s ballot, but they face a huge hurdle: the overwhelming expense of mounting such a ballot initiative in Ohio, a politically diverse swing state and the country’s seventh-most populous. ResponsibleOhio collected more than 800,000 signatures to net the 300,000 valid ones needed to land the amendment on the ballot. That’ll be a big obstacle for any group, though if they can get a measure in front of voters, it might benefit from high presidential-election-year turnout and increased interest raised in this year’s campaign.

Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell’s Contentious Dismissal

After a long, hot summer full of talk about the number of shootings in the city and whispers that then-Cincinnati Police Department Chief Jeffrey Blackwell was on the way out, things came to a head.

City Manager Harry Black abruptly announced Sept. 9 that he had fired Blackwell. The dismissal came due to “lack of sufficient and proper communication, particularly within the command staff, coupled with a consistent and pervasive disregard for the chain of command,” according to a 35-page memo the city released at the same time Blackwell’s firing was announced. That memo contained testimony from CPD officials alleging poor leadership from the chief.

Blackwell had been embattled for months. Early in the summer, severance documents between Blackwell and the city came to light, though these were never signed by the chief and he asserted he was staying on the force. Cincinnati’s Fraternal Order of Police later announced a Sept. 14 meeting where union leadership said officers would take a vote of no confidence in Blackwell.

Blackwell’s critics said the Cincinnati Police Department’s critical staffing, communication and morale issues festered during the summer as gun crimes rose, the department dealt with the shooting death of officer Sonny Kim and other difficult circumstances challenged the department.

But the chief’s supporters, including some council members and other public figures, said he had done a fantastic job during a difficult time in the city and that his potential ouster was political in nature. They pointed to the fact that when he was campaigning for mayor, Cranley asked then-City Manager Milton Dohoney not to hire a chief until the election was finished so the newly elected mayor could have a say in the hiring. Dohoney hired Blackwell despite this request. Blackwell’s supporters say Cranley wanted to oust Blackwell and install his own choice for police chief.

Immediately following Black’s Sept. 9 announcement, Blackwell supporters took to the steps of City Hall and Cincinnati City Council chambers to voice their opposition to the chief’s dismissal. The former chief himself appeared at Council’s public input session, though he was not invited to speak before Council.

Some council members acknowledged the seriousness of the charges against Blackwell, but said they took deep issue with the way in which he was dismissed. They pointed to the fact they didn’t find out the firing was happening until that morning.

Cranley and Black admonished them, and the public, not to rush to judgment and to read the report detailing the allegations against Blackwell. Cranley called the evidence against Blackwell “overwhelming” and said that anyone reading the report would conclude that Black “made the right choice.”At the same time he was revealing Blackwell’s dismissal, Black announced that Assistant Police Chief Eliot Isaac, a 26-year veteran of CPD, would be the interim police chief. Isaac was named permanent chief in early December. That caused more controversy, as critics decried the lack of a nationwide search for a new CPD head. Black and Cranley, however, said there was no need for that search.

Cincy at the Center of Supreme Court Legalization of Gay Marriage

Over the past few years, America has seen dynamic changes when it comes to same-sex marriage, culminating in a historic June 26 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down same-sex marriage bans and legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States.

Cincinnati was at the epicenter of that moment in more ways than one. The U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals here set up the Supreme Court showdown by upholding Ohio’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, as well as similar bans in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. That flew in the face of a number of decisions by other federal circuit courts across the country, which have struck down the bans, meaning the Supreme Court had to mediate the disagreement.

At stake: whether or not state bans on same-sex marriage violated couples’ civil rights, and whether states like Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The court ruled that indeed they did.

Gay rights activists argued the bans are unconstitutional and compared the struggle for marriage equality with battles over civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Lawyers for states seeking to keep their bans, including Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, argued that the matter is up to voters, not judges.

Repercussions for the bans went beyond a marriage ceremony, extending from birth to death. Ohio’s ban kept the state from recognizing official documents like birth and death certificates on marriages performed in other states.

Cincinnati also had a much more personal connection with the fight. Several of the plaintiffs whose cases were heard by the Supreme Court live here. Despite residing in one of the final 13 states barring gay marriage, they said they feel welcomed and supported by their city. That’s a big change from just a decade ago.

Even after the decision, however, controversy dragged on. A county clerk in Rowan County, Ky. named Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses following the Supreme Court’s decision, even after federal courts told her to stand down. Davis became a national symbol for those who refused to accept same-sex marriage rights. Davis was briefly jailed, and other clerks in her office eventually began issuing the licenses despite her refusal to do so.

Despite resistance from a few, however, the plaintiffs who challenged Ohio and other states’ gay marriage bans will forever be a part of a court case that made history and extended marriage equality to all LGBT couples.

“It’s hard for me to emotionally grasp that,” plaintiff Jim Obergefell said before the historic decision. Because his particular suit against Ohio had the lowest case number, the case before the Supreme Court, Obergefell v. Hodges, bears his name. “On an intellectual level, I do a little, but it just doesn’t seem real.” ©

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