Saturday, April 01, 2000

Luken: Getting it done in his own way

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Charlie Luken listens to a council session.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        What Charlie Luken promised when he was running for Cincinnati City Council last year — to make council a more frugal and less contentious place — was the equivalent of turning around an ocean liner in mid-voyage.

        A wide, slow turn.

        Ocean liners don't turn on a dime; neither does a body like City Council, which most observers agree was a group of nine who rarely worked together and who were sometimes less than prudent in spending the taxpayers' dollars.

        Four months after becoming mayor and returning to a city hall where he had served a decade before, Mr. Luken believes he is making progress.

        “I know what direction I'd like to lead the city in, but getting there is not always easy,” said Mr. Luken, the leader of a five-member Democratic majority. “Sometimes getting nine people to work together is like herding cats. But we're making progress.”

        Mr. Luken was mayor for six years in the 1980s, before leaving for a term in Congress and a seven-year stint as a news anchorman at WLWT (Channel 5).

        He was known then as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat and possessor of a magical Cincinnati political name — both his father, Thomas, and his uncle, Jim Luken, had been mayors before him.

        From the moment he left the TV news business last summer to his top-vote-getter finish in the November council election, Mr. Luken made it clear he was not so much running for City Council as againstit.

        His campaign commercials and the campaign literature he mailed to thousands of Cincinnati voters made the argument that it was time to end the bickering at city hall. One TV spot featured grainy black-and-white TV images of professional wrestlers grappling in the ring, linking their behavior to the infighting on council.

        The second theme was a nuts-and-bolts issue Mr. Luken was convinced would appeal to voters. He pointed out the paltry number of road miles of street repairs done in recent years, arguing that the city needed to do more with its money.

        It wasn't until he was in office in December that he found out how bad it really was. Between 1991 and 1997, city engineers reported 818 miles of road had been repaired for about $65 million. But an internal audit in December found only 460 miles had been repaired for about $50.5 million.

        Now, the FBI is investigating the street repair program that left 60 percent of city streets in poor condition and diverted $15 million to other programs.

        “I looked at the reports last year and knew something was wrong; it didn't add up,' Mr. Luken said.

        He did not choose street repairs as a campaign issue, he said, based on any inside knowledge, just on “basic political instinct.”

        “After all, I am Tom Luken's kid,” the mayor said. “I do know something about politics.”

        Mr. Luken said he believes the new council, which includes first-term members Pat DeWine, a Republican, and Alicia Reece, a Democrat — will do a better job watchdogging public dollars, particularly after the recent disclosures about Genesis Redevelopment Inc. and Owning-the-Realty, two development groups under investigation for suspicion of misusing public funds.

        “With all the revelations there have been in the past few months, changing the way we do business is the only way we are going to do better around here,” Mr. Luken said.

        The days of individual council members putting pressure on administrators to favor certain programs for public dollars, Mr. Luken said, “has to end. And I think it is.”

        If Mr. Luken ran and won last year by running against the old City Council, so too did Mr. DeWine, the son of U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine who was running for the first time last fall. His campaign ads also hammered at council for wasteful spending and bad behavior.

        With Mr. Luken in the mayor's seat, it has gotten better, Mr. DeWine said.

        “He's got common sense and he's very good at running the meetings,” Mr. DeWine said.

        Mr. DeWine said he has the impression that Mr. Luken spends more time talking to fellow council members — Democrat, Republican and Charterite — than did his predecessors.

        “It means a lot that we all seem to talking to each other,” Mr. DeWine said. “It's not perfect, but it's better.”

        Some on the outside of city hall see hopeful signs, but are saving their verdict for later in this council term.

        “I'm not convinced that things have changed all that much,” said Pete Witte, president of the Price Hill Civic Club. “You've got DeWine and Phil Heimlich off on their own talking about wasteful spending and bringing the bureaucracy in line; but, as for the other seven, I think it's pretty much business as usual.”

        But Mr. Witte said he does think that Mr. Luken has been “the calm one, the one who's trying to figure out how to keep order and keep things moving. And that's good.”

        Cincinnati businessman Roger Ach, chairman of the city's park board, called Mr. Luken an “accomplished politician who knows how to work with people on both sides of the aisle.”

        “He is a Democrat who can get along with Republicans,” Mr. Ach said. “That's important around here.”

        Even in his first council stint, Mr. Luken was one who would work with Republicans on issues where they agree.

        Now, though, Mr. Luken's party has a five-member majority on council. One thing that is happening that was a rare occurence in the last council is the weekly caucus of the five Democrats, held on the morning before Wednesday council meetings.

        Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke hosts the meetings in his law office and buys the doughnuts. The council members — or senior staff people, if the members can't attend — discuss that day's council agenda. In recent years, council Democrats were more often than not fighting with each other, and the caucuses were sparsely attended.

        “It's a regular thing again; and that's good,” Mr. Burke said. He credited Mr. Luken for much of the change in attitude.

        “Charlie's been the catalyst for a lot of it,” Mr. Burke said. “His leadership style is more relaxed than it was the first time he was mayor. He's matured. And I think he understands how new members feel because he was one once.”

        Next year, Cincinnati will have its first direct election of the mayor under a new system. The mayor will no longer be a member of council, but will be able to to appoint council committee chairmen.

        Mr. Luken said he will almost certainly be a candidate for the new mayor's post, which will pay about $100,000 a year, twice what the mayor makes now.

        In the years to come, Mr. Luken said, the city will have to deal with a lot of “tough issues” — cutting the city's bureaucracy to create more money for capital projects and infrastructure, getting The Banks development project on track and improving police-community relations.

        “Fortunately for me, I love this job,” Mr. Luken said. “I can't wait to go to work in the morning.”


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