Two people that most readers have never heard of before were the deciding factor last week about who became the latest member of Cincinnati City Council, in a process that’s left a bad taste in the mouth of many voters.
The pair in question was Miles Lindahl and Dawn Jackson. For anyone not familiar with City Hall, Lindahl was the chief of staff for longtime Councilwoman Laketa Cole, and Jackson was her council aide.
Cole resigned from City Council last week and selected Wendell Young as her replacement. The path that led to the switch was one fraught with political intrigue.
Cole, unable to run for council again due to term limits, had toyed with the idea earlier this year of running in the Democratic primary to get the party’s nomination to seek the 33rd District Ohio House seat. But former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Alicia Reece also announced she would seek the same seat.
Party leaders, afraid of a potentially bruising primary battle between Cole and Reece, instead engineered a deal to get Cole hired at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). There, Cole will earn $78,354 annually as PUCO’s Reliability and Service Analysis Division chief — even though she has virtually no experience in public utility management.
That’s when the jockeying began about who would be selected to fill the remainder of Cole’s term on council, which has 19 months left.
After nearly two months of behind the scenes negotiations and lobbying, Cole chose Young. Her decision surprised many party loyalists, who noted Young ran unsuccessfully in three City Council elections and finished in 14th place in 2009’s balloting for the nine council seats.
His placement was behind those of fellow Democrats Greg Harris (10th) and Bernadette Watson (11th).
Young, 64, is a retired police sergeant and an ex-assistant director of the city’s Personnel/ Equal Employment Opportunity Office. He lives in North Avondale with his wife and two of their children.
Party insiders were particularly puzzled because Young never improved much on his election results — in terms of vote totals and overall placement — from his previous council races. (He finished in 17th place in 2007; and 13th in 2005, earning 576 fewer votes last year than in his first race.)
Young also developed a reputation among the party’s rank-and-file as a lazy campaigner, rarely appearing at various candidate forums, church festivals and other venues.
Cole hasn’t commented about why she picked Young. She told The Enquirer in May, however, that race would be one consideration in her choice. Cole was one of three African-Americans on council, in a city whose population is 47 percent black. Still, the higher-finishing and better-known Watson also is African-American.
Cole wanted whoever replaced her to keep her staffers — Lindahl and Jackson — for the rest of her term. Watson initially resisted that request while Young agreed, party sources say.
Although Cole has said Lindahl and Jackson “earned” their jobs by helping her campaign last year, just as important is the fact that Jackson is the girlfriend of Dwight Tillery, sources add. Tillery is an ex-mayor who is Cole’s political mentor and remains a powerful figure in the Democratic Party.
After Tillery left City Council, he became president of The Center for Closing the Health Gap, a nonprofit group that promotes healthy living and is partially funded by taxpayer money. In that job, Tillery makes more than $157,000 annually in salary and benefits. He also was appointed to the State Personnel Board of Review, where he makes more than $50,000 per year.
“Wendell is a good man for whom I have the utmost respect … but the process itself was defined by a crass cronyism that cheapens public service, and race politics that cheapens the legacy of the civil rights movement,” Harris says. “This process is a stain on the Democratic Party.”
Harris’ critics, though, counter that he was appointed to fill Councilman John Cranley’s term in January 2009 but wasn’t able to hold onto the seat in that fall’s election, even as an incumbent.
Regardless, Harris believes a standardized system based on better criteria for choosing appointees needs to be created.
“When public sector jobs are awarded to avert primary battles, or awarded based on who will hire one’s associates, the outcome is a government culture where the ‘Peter principle’ trumps meritocracy,” he says. “This is the system we must change.”
Watson was disappointed she didn’t get the appointment but felt uncomfortable agreeing to employ staff for almost two years she'd never worked with before.
She did consent to employ them for a few months on a trial basis, she says, but that wasn’t good enough for Cole.
“If their employment was so important to (Cole), she should have been assisting them find something else just in case,” Watson says. “There just had to be something else going on to want someone to agree to that.”
Also troubling to Watson is that no one — not Cole, Councilman Cecil Thomas or the party chairman — called her about the decision. She learned of it when an Enquirer reporter called for a reaction.
“No one told me I wasn’t getting the seat,” she says. “I didn’t get a call from anyone. I was very disturbed by that.”
Early last year, Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz — a Republican — wanted her colleagues to place a charter amendment before voters that would change how council vacancies are filled. Under her proposal, a special election would be held in even-numbered years to allow voters to select a replacement; in odd-numbered years, the seat would remain vacant until that fall’s regularly scheduled election.
The current system of allowing departing members to choose their replacement is prone to abuse, Ghiz says.
In fact, there have been 10 City Council elections since 1990; during the same period, there have been 14 appointees to council. Of council’s nine current members, three of them first made it onto the group through an appointment.
“It should be the people’s choice, not council’s,” Ghiz says.
Nevertheless, council ignored the proposal last year.
Mayor Mark Mallory, leader of City Council’s Democrats, says he wasn’t consulted about Young’s selection. Still, Mallory adds, “Wendell’s a great guy. You know, (Vice Mayor) Roxanne Qualls ran for council several times and didn’t win at first, so did other people. I’m not concerned about being able to keep the seat.”
For his part, Young was excited about the selection.
“Councilmember Cole has been a great advocate for our neighborhoods and our community,” Young said in a prepared statement.
“I’m honored to be given the opportunity to continue her fine work.”
About his past campaigning, Young blamed the 2005 loss on a lack of a campaign staff, the 2007 loss on working full-time as a high school teacher and the 2009 loss on health problems.
“I’m going to be a full-time councilman,” Young says. “We have serious issues plaguing our city, and while no one person can fix everything, I’m looking forward to contributing to the conversation.”