Thursday, November 29, 2001

Heimlich's legacy: 'Across-the-board cheapskate'

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Relentless, uncompromising and single-minded.

        The one thing Phil Heimlich's fans and foes agree on is that he doesn't let go.

        Of anything.

[photo] Phil Heimlich swings a hatchet given to him Wednesday, signed by other council members and the mayor.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        That's why his departure from Cincinnati City Council on Saturday — after eight years in office — will not end his controversial public career.

        He has pushed laws to prohibit convicted drug dealers and prostitutes from returning to neighborhoods where they were arrested — supporting the law even after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

        He has fought to make city employees compete for contracts with private businesses and wants to turn control of development to a board of private experts instead of bureaucrats — demanding reform even when no other member of council would support it.

        He has gone after what he calls wasteful and corrupt programs, making no apologies for pursuits of such groups as Genesis Redevelopment, which got public money to fix up buildings in the West End. He called for investigations even after city officials revamped their review process and froze money to the group.

        “I don't let myself be swayed by the fact that people don't like me,” Mr. Heimlich, 48, says. “I'm not going to be swayed by what others think of me.”

        He also refuses to second-guess himself. Mr. Heimlich doesn't look back, and he'll be the first to admit he's already looking at what comes next: Tom Neyer Jr.'s seat on the Hamilton County Commission.

        “I am preparing for that race,” he says. “I would expect to announce something next year.”

        Term limits stopped him from running for re-election to council, but even his harshest critics never expected Mr. Heimlich to quietly exit the stage he built for himself.

        “It means more of the same and it makes me nervous,” says Jenny Laster, president of the Grass Roots Leadership Academy, which trains community leaders and which recently fell into Mr. Heimlich's sights. “If he becomes a commissioner, I'll be the first person he wants to run out of town on a rail.”

    • 48 years old. Born in New York City.
    • Married to Rebecca, a trial attorney in the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office.
    • Moved to Cincinnati in 1969. Lives in Mount Washington.
    • Graduated Stanford University in 1975.
    • Earned a degree from the University of Virginia Law School in 1979. Admitted to the Ohio State Bar and Federal Bar.
    • Served as an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor from 1984-93, specializing in the criminal prosecution of felony cases, including murder, rape, robbery, assault and white collar offenses.
    • Elected to Cincinnati City Council on Nov. 2, 1993. Re-elected three times.
    • Prohibited from seeking re-election because of term limits. His fourth term will expire Dec. 1.
While on council:
    • Added 119 police officers from 1994-98.
    • Enacted the city's first property tax rollback in 50 years; prevented an unvoted property tax increase.
    • Started Citizens on Patrol, a program in which citizens work with the Cincinnati police to patrol their neighborhood. There are 10 COP units, in Madisonville, Mount Washington, Bond Hill, Price Hill, Westwood, College Hill, Northside, Clifton Heights, Hartwell and Carthage.
    • Enacted laws regulating and zoning sexually oriented business such as strip clubs, nude dancing services and porn shops. These establishments can no longer operate near homes, schools, churches or business districts.
    • Established Riverside Academy, a K-6 charter school, which opened on Aug. 31, 1999, and the Life Skills Center, a charter school which opened in April 2000, and provides academic instruction, job training, and job placement for high school dropouts.
        She says Mr. Heimlich is divisive and destructive, and cites his inquiries about the academy as an example. He started by questioning how much the city was paying the academy to train community leaders and then tersely derided the program as being more expensive than Harvard.

        “I haven't seen him accomplish anything, other than to further polarize this community,” Ms. Laster says. “There's a way to get information without stripping dignity from people.”

        And she says he operates with impunity against minority organizations.

        “If that sounds like I'm calling him a racist, well, if the shoe fits, then I'm sorry,” Ms. Laster says.

        Mr. Heimlich has been taunted at council meetings by angry protesters, accused of being a racist and of going after African-American groups that receive taxpayer money.

        Last year, four black civic and business leaders wanted Mr. Heimlich gagged and called for city officials to investigate him.

        Representatives of the Urban League, the African American Chamber of Commerce, Genesis Redevelopment and the Riverfront Classic and Jamboree claimed that Mr. Heimlich had used his office as a tool of intimidation by persistently seeking information about groups that serve the black community.

        He demanded financial statements, questioned salaries, probed expenses. Black leaders claimed that he unfairly targeted their organizations. While City Council refused to investigate Mr. Heimlich, some members questioned his methods and his manner as rude and unproductive.

        “It has been a real problem,” Urban League President Sheila Adams says of Mr. Heimlich. “But I am not going to use his tactics.”

        Sitting behind his desk in the third-floor office at City Hall — long after other council members have locked up and gone for the day — Mr. Heimlich looks genuinely puzzled that someone could think him a racist.

        “Check the record. I'm an across-the-board cheapskate,” he says. “I don't think that the individuals who disrupt council meetings, shout racist slogans and make racist attacks represent the majority of the city.”

        He ticks off a list of city-funded projects he's opposed, including:

        • Expansion of the convention center.

        • Creation of an arts program.

        • Various neighborhood festivals.

        He talks about his successful push for tax rollbacks and the need to refocus the city on basic services. He talks about an investigation into the city-owned golf course that led to a private takeover that saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

        Mr. Heimlich remembers staring down hundreds of union employees who flooded a meeting in 1994 to protest his motion to put 26 city services out for bid.

        “The city clerk said there were more people at the meeting than any other meeting since police officers were laid off in the '70s,” he says, smiling. “It was like being a boxer going to fight in my opponent's hometown.”

        In an interview, Mr. Heimlich discussed his eight years on council.

        On his investigations: “I hear all this all the time: "Is Heimlich looking at this?' As a result of (investigations), people are scared to waste money and the council is no longer willing to throw money away.”

        On Issue 3, (an amendment blocking laws protecting the rights of homosexuals): “I supported it, and I don't think it should be repealed. Voters spoke loud and clear about what they wanted.”

        On the April riots: “It's important for me not to make excuses for violence. I refused to support feel-good response without any talk of accountability (for lawbreakers).”

        On the city's future: “My father had an expression: "It all comes down to economics.' We have to accept the hard truths about the economic condition of this city.”

        On council: “It's critical that our leaders ask the tough questions when it comes to taxes and spending.”

        The Republican lawmaker's message has struck a chord with voters. Voters in the mostly Democratic city re-elected him three times.

        His fund-raising efforts have put him at the top of nearly every election in which he has run. Since 1993, he has raised $1.6 million, far more than any other candidate.

        “He is somebody who has stood by his principles,” says neighborhood activist Melva Gweyn of Westwood Concern. ""I like what he's done and what he's represented.”

        Taxpayers, she says, are going to lose one of their chief protectors when Mr. Heimlich leaves council.

        “I like the fact that he wants to know where the money is going,” she says. “That is what's been lacking in our so-called leaders.”

        Chris Finney, a lawyer and member of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, calls Mr. Heimlich a hero whose single-minded intensity could take him a long way in politics.

        “In contrast to other council members, and even members of Congress, he has accomplished (more),” Mr. Finney says. “When he was right, he was able to overturn the apple cart. The administration needs a tough evaluation, needs to be asked tough questions.”

        Mr. Finney takes exception to people who call Mr. Heimlich a racist.

        “It's an absurd and ridiculous accusation,” he says. “Phil took an enormous amount of heat for his vote on the convention center. He vociferously opposed the Olympics (bid). Those had nothing to do with African-Americans. It had to do with taxes and spending.”

        But Mr. Heimlich's methods have sometimes brought criticism from his own colleagues. Nowhere was his isolation from council more evident than at the funeral for Timothy Thomas, the 19-year-old whose shooting death by police sparked the April riots.

        As all the other council members filed past the casket, Mr. Heimlich stayed outside the church, helping a local church group pass out box lunches.

        Mr. Heimlich says he didn't attend the funeral because he wanted to avoid any conflicts his presence might cause. But the former Hamilton County prosecutor has often been the one lawmaker to oppose outside inquiries into the police division. And he has accused other council members of grandstanding when they called for outside investigations of the police.

        But many of his colleagues say he is to blame for the rancorous atmosphere at City Hall in recent years. They have chided him for asking questions of staff persons and his seemingly relentless queries of the city manager, who Mr. Heimlich said has misled council on numerous occasions.

        But James Tarbell, the lone Charterite on City Council, says Mr. Heimlich also is the most trustworthy.

        “Heimlich was one of the most thorough people here. He did his homework,” Mr. Tarbell says. “Some people said he overdid it. And there was some evidence to that. But he was always consistent, and you knew where he was coming from.”



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