Saturday, May 27, 2000

Working together: Different backgrounds, Civic Solutions

Company proves common sense not a political brand

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        From the left, 28-year-old Aaron Herzig. Democratic activist.

(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        From the right, 41-year-old Fred Nelson. Republican strategist.

        Squarely in the center is their new company, Civic Solutions LLC.

        With radically different backgrounds in politics, the pair have formed the company to prove that important civic questions can be debated in a public forum and decided through old-fashioned common sense.

        “We can both look at the same proposal, regardless of whether it's from a Republican or a Democrat, and say, "That's crazy. That's never going to work,'” Mr. Nelson said.

        Some influential Tristate corporate leaders already have hired Civic Solutions to map strategies for uniting disparate parts of the region.

        That group, called the Metropolitan Growth Alliance, wanted Mr. Herzig and Mr. Nelson to identify strategies to follow a wide-ranging 1999 report from North Carolina consultant Michael Gallis.

        While the alliance has not yet set a specific direction, Civic Solutions' work eventually could set debates on touchstone topics like parks, schools, businesses and roads to all Greater Cincinnati residents.

        Kathryn Merchant, president of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and a member of Growth Alliance, said there was no other group in Cincinnati with the same expertise.

        “Without them, we would've had to go out of town,” Ms. Merchant said. “They understand how politics works, they understand public policy and they understand public relations. That's a powerful trio.”

Aaron Herzig
Age: 28.
Residence: Over-the-Rhine.
Education: Tufts University.
Formerly: Executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, senior account executive at Dan Pinger Public Relations. Managed campaigns including the 1998 Cincinnati Zoo levy campaign.
Fred Nelson:
Age: 41.
Residence: Walnut Hills.
Education: Hamilton College, Harvard Law School.
Formerly: Majority counsel to the Subcommittee on Criminal Law for the Senate Judiciary Committee; Associate White House Counsel in the Bush administration; lawyer at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister; chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati.
        Mr. Herzig said the work for the Growth Alliance was typical of Civic Solutions' goals. Unlike its two founders, the company will try to tackle big problems without bringing politics into the mix.

        “So often, it's just common sense,” Mr. Herzig said. “Common sense usually doesn't have a political brand. ... And a lot of it comes down to being responsible with the public pocketbook.”

        Chip Gerhardt, a former Cinergy Corp. executive who now is executive director of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said the concept behind Civic Solutions is sound.

        “I think today's business environment is becoming more and more tied not just to politics, but government,” Mr. Gerhardt said.

        Most of the firm's clients will fall into two categories: Corporations that need help with crisis management or other communications, or non-profits that need planning services.

        Mr. Herzig and Mr. Nelson first met in early 1999 while working to promote a measure that would allow Cincinnati to directly elect its mayor.

        Mr. Herzig was manager of that campaign, on leave from his job at Dan Pinger Public Relations. He had formerly been executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

        His Democratic roots ran deep, back to his graduation from Tufts University in Boston.

        “We started him off literally sweeping floors in the campaign headquarters,” Tim Burke, co-chairman of the party, said.

        Mr. Nelson, a veteran of the Justice Department under President Reagan and an adviser to the successful congressional campaign of Republican Steve Chabot, was then part of a Washington/Cincinnati consulting business, but agreed to join the initiative.

        With the support of the local Republican, Democratic and Charter parties, the strong-mayor measure passed overwhelmingly in May 1999.

        “It's funny, because the name Fred Nelson in Democratic circles was somewhat intimidating,” Mr. Herzig said. “Meeting him and bringing him into that campaign was somewhat of a coup.”

        Mr. Burke said Mr. Nelson's intellect makes him “fun to deal with.”

        “I've had the opportunity to go head-to-head with Fred several times,” he added. “He's very bright and very quick-witted, but frankly, so is Aaron. That's probably what makes them a good team.”

        On the surface, the differences were daunting, and they have yet to disappear. Mr. Nelson said he would have no problem helping a campaign featuring Mr. Chabot or Republican Cincinnati City Council member Pat DeWine. And Mr. Herzig has not let go of his Democratic Party ties, remaining on the party's executive committee.

        But deep down, they discovered a similarity in a respect for public money, a determination to debate big issues in public and “a similar outlook on life.”

        “I believe in more limited government than Aaron does, but I think we share a basic respect for freedom and autonomy,” Mr. Nelson said.

        Said Mr. Herzig: “If anything, it's an advantage, because we know how to work together across political lines. We both believe that it's important to vent everything in the public. You're typically spending public money, and you have to ask permission.”

        And the pair are united in their desire to keep Civic Solutions out of the political realm.

        “They look at political issues, but not with a capital "P','” Ms. Merchant said.



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