Sunday, May 23, 1999

'99 council race is prologue to '01

Last weak mayor next strong one?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Welcome to The Election Time Forgot. There seem to be a lot of people in Cincinnati political circles who are so giddy in anticipation of the first real mayor's race under the new electoral system in 2001 that they seem to have overlooked the fact there is an election this year.

        Others — those who are getting more oxygen to their heads — understand that somebody is going to be elected mayor this year — even though that mayor will be of the 98-pound weakling variety, one of the long line of ribbon- snippers we've grown accustomed to who spend their years in office getting sand kicked in their faces by the muscle boys.

        Yes, there is one more city council election under this “top vote-getter” system, where the person who ends up with the most votes in the city council field race wins the prize.

        And quite a prize it is, too. More valuable than anything you'd find in a Cracker Jack box.

        Of course, the really valuable prize won't come until 2001, because, on May 4, 9.7 percent of the city's registered voters found their way to the polls and cast their ballots for Issue 4, which will set up direct election of the mayor.

        And, under Issue 4, that mayor elected in 2001 will have powers not available to the current model — power to appoint council committee chairs, to veto legislation, to begin the process of hiring and firing a city manager.

        What this does to the 1999 city council election is give it a sense of urgency it did not have before May 4.

        Not only will nine people be elected to city council and not only is there a guarantee that at least two of them will be new council members because of the city's term-limits law, but the lucky duck who winds up in first place will carry the title mayor for the next two years.

        That might be a good thing to be for the next two years if you are planning on running in the real mayor's race in 2001.

        Hey, look at me! I'm already mayor.


        There is universal agreement that the top vote-getter system Cincinnati has had since 1987 is just plain goofy. It has, most everyone agrees, caused the circus atmosphere of council members continually clowning and mugging for the cameras.

        Hence, council candidates since 1987 have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in hopes of winning the top spot, and this year, they have extra incentive to do so.

        The council incumbents who are running for re-election this year are the most likely to catch the fever. Do not believe for a moment that it has not occurred to the likes of Democrats Todd Portune and Minette Cooper and Republicans Charlie Winburn and Phil Heimlich that 1999 would be a very good year to be elected mayor.

        There are those who think that Mr. Portune is first in line, mainly because he surprised everyone by running a strong third in the last council race and there are more Democrats than anything else in the city.

        Mr. Winburn ran fourth the last time around, and he is the sort of politician who would stand on a barren hill in a thunderstorm holding a nine-iron over his head if he thought lightning would strike.

        Mr. Heimlich has proven he will spend whatever it takes. He spent a record $456,532 two years ago, hoping to become mayor. Of course, he didn't; he finished sixth after spending $12.04 a vote. But he has, as the song says, high hopes.

        Ms. Cooper finished eighth in the last council, but she, too, might be willing to share that hilltop with Mr. Winburn.

        All four of these worthies, though, get weak in the knees when the subject of a wild card comes up — the wild card being Charlie Luken, the former mayor and now TV anchorman who has hinted he is ready to chuck TV and run for council.

        The Democratic Party is saving him a spot on its council slate, and he has until August to decide.

        If the answer is yes, he is automatically the front-runner. And if he wins, it's only two years of snipping ribbons until the real action begins.

        Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. E-mail him at


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