Sunday, November 28, 1999

Luken just wants to get things done


But mayor-elect concedes it may take time

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Charlie Luken lifts his right hand Wednesday in Cincinnati City Council chambers and takes the oath of the office he left behind nine years ago, he won't be an accidental mayor.

        There is little doubt the voters knew what they were doing when they gave the job to a 48-year-old Democrat who has been in the public eye for nearly 20 years as a councilman, mayor, congressman and TV news anchor.

        “What I hope is that people were saying they wanted somebody who would be serious about getting things done,” Mr. Luken said.

        He thinks what Cincinnatians want is a council that is “better focused on a clear direction for the city; a council they believe will work together and make progress, instead of squabbling all the time.”

        What they want, Mr. Luken said, “is more of a focus on

        delivering city services and doing a better job of spending tax dollars.”

        Mr. Luken re-enters the mayor's office he held for six years in the 1980s with no illusions that he is going to be able to snap his fingers and make order out of chaos overnight; he doesn't believe that when he tells the other eight council members to jump, they will ask, “How high?”

        “It just doesn't work that way,” Mr. Luken said. “I've got to work with people.”

        The city charter sharply limits the powers of a mayor. He can't direct the city manager to do his bidding. He can't control the city budget. He can't veto ordinances. The mayor presides over council meetings, makes some appointments (with council's OK) and represents the city.

        Primarily because of the perception that the mayor was a weakling, voters changed the charter so that in 2001, there will be direct election of a mayor with the power to appoint committee chairmen, initiate the budget and veto ordinances.

        But voters apparently want Mr. Luken to take a firmer hand now.

        “On the face of it, you would say he was elected mayor because he is so well-known; everybody's heard of him,” said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier University political scientist who studies the local political scene.

        But, Mr. Beaupre says, because the turnout in the Nov. 2 election was so low — 32 percent in the city — the people who did bother to go to the polls “were probably pretty well-informed. They knew what they were doing. They were electing somebody they thought could straighten things out at City Hall.”

        Mr. Luken, after leaving his anchor job at WLWT-TV (Channel 5) in June to campaign for council, tapped into that feeling that council was out of control and a body capable of little more than squabbling, scheming, back-stabbing and political posturing.

        His only campaign TV commercial featured grainy, black-and-white images of pudgy TV wrestlers — clearly meant to represent the current council — and his campaign literature promised to force the new council to focus on basic city services, such as filling potholes and clearing the snow off the streets.

        “I think people expect council, first and foremost, to see that the basic services are delivered,” Mr. Luken said.

        Neighborhood leaders agree.

        “We all listened to the candidates saying they wanted to give people back their neighborhoods, to make things better,” said Pinkie Williams, a longtime Evanston resident. “We expect them to deliver.”

        Mrs. Williams said she thinks most people who supported Mr. Luken “expect him to be able to go in there and take charge, get things done. But I think most people have sense enough to know he'll have to cooperate with the others on council.”

        Mr. Luken says he understands that.

        Even with five Democrats on the nine-member council — all pledged to work together over the next two years — Mr. Luken said he expects that things will remain largely the same.

        “... Coalitions will form around different issues. Sometimes it will be five Democrats. Sometimes it will be Democrats and Republicans and Charterites. That's just the way things happen at City Hall.”

        John Williams, longtime president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, said that, as mayor in the 1980s, Mr. Luken proved he has an ability to build coalitions.

        After the 1985 election, Mr. Luken and then-Councilman J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, formed a coalition that came to be known as the “Gang of Five,” a bipartisan group of council's most conservative members that included Steve Chabot, James Cissell and John Mirlisena. The five ran City Hall for the next two years and focused almost entirely on budget-making and delivery of basic services.

        “Charlie's not an ideologue; he's a pragmatist,” Mr. Williams said. “Always has been. I'd be surprised if that changed.”

        Mr. Williams said he thinks Cincinnatians can expect more cooperation and less competition with this council. “I think (council) has gotten the word that people in this town expect them to pull together,” Mr. Williams said.

        Peter Witte, president of the Price Hill Civic Club, said he senses from people he talks to in his neighborhood that they are hopeful the new council will be less contentious, but the optimism is tempered by a realization that politicians will be politicians.

        “I wish it were different, but it's very difficult to pull coalitions together, no matter what you're involved in,” Mr. Witte said. “Charlie Luken seems like someone who might be better than most at pulling it off, given how popular he is.”

        Cincinnati, with its field-race election for council, has a system that “totally lends itself to bickering and political in-fighting,” Mr. Witte said.

        The Rev. Duane Holm, director of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition and a longtime council-watcher, agreed.

        Part of the problem, Mr. Holm said, is that too many people in Cincinnati “expect the City Council members to be mini-city managers, instead of legislators, which is what they are supposed to be.”

        What that attitude leads to, Mr. Holm said, is a council made up of people in “intense competition” who see little reason to work with each other.

        Dell Heitkamp, a Hyde Park resident and co-president of the League of Women Voters in Cincinnati, said she has little expectation that the often-confrontational atmosphere on council will change much, even with the addition of Mr. Luken, Alicia Reece and Pat DeWine and the fact that three other council members will be out in 2001 because of term limits.

        “Even with term limits, there's still going to be a lot of grandstanding, as these people try to position themselves to be mayor or run for some other office,” Ms. Heitkamp said. “I'm hopeful, but I'm not sure which direction this new council is going to go.”

        The Rev. Aaron Greenlea, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, said he is hopeful that Mr. Luken will be able to bring about more cooperation among council members, even though he would rather have seen Republican Charlie Winburn in the mayor's seat.

        “Charlie Luken is an open person; he will listen to people,” Mr. Greenlea said. “My prayer to God is that this new council brings about harmony. There has been too much chaos.”

        Mr. Witte said he thinks people in Cincinnati will be watching to see if Mr. Luken delivers on his campaign promise to focus on basic city services — police and fire protection, street cleaning, snow removal and the like.

        And, in west-side neighborhoods, such as like Price Hill, “people will be looking to see what happens with (City Manager) John Shirey. Quite honestly, the west side and Price Hill haven't seen much in the way of delivery from City Hall.”

        The future of Mr. Shirey will be high on Mr. Luken's list of priorities, and Mr. Luken said he hopes to have a decision from City Council by the end of the year on whether the city manager stays or goes.

        During the campaign, Mr. Luken pointed to lagging street repair in the city as an example of where council and the city administration has failed in recent years.

        “I put those things out there during the campaign,” Mr. Luken said. “People will expect me to deliver.”

Q & A with Charlie Luken
The mayor says 'adios'



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