Monday, October 07, 2002

Light-rail plan, tax levy attract unlikely partners

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The nearly decade-long debate over whether the proposed $2.6 billion light rail system is a good idea for Hamilton County has morphed into one of the more fascinating political match-ups of recent years.

        On the one side, the campaign to pass a countywide half-cent sales tax increase to cover the local costs of the project includes labor, management, big business and environmentalists.

        On the other side of the Nov. 5 ballot initiative are anti-tax activists, some of the county's most conservative Republicans, an incumbent congressman, many suburban city council members, township trustees and highway advocates - all led by a medical supplies salesman with no previous political experience.

        Experts say that while the roster for each side may be unusual, one aspect isn't:

        Those trying to pass the tax face a tougher task than those opposed.

  The local branch of the AFL-CIO has endorsed the light-rail initiative and accompanying levy, as has Democratic congressional candidate Greg Harris, who is running against U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the Westwood Republican and co-chair of the anti-light rail campaign.
  Other pro-light rail endorsements include:
  The National Conference for Community and Justice, Greater Cincinnati Region; Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627; Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce; the local branch of the League of Women Voters; and the Sierra Club.
  Those opposed to the light-rail plan, which features a countywide half-cent sales tax increase to pay for local costs of the project, include Hamilton County Townships Association; Ohio Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Anderson Township; Ohio Rep. Michelle Schneider, R-Madeira; and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes.
        “It's very easy to oppose a tax, especially in this day and age,” said Mike Ford, president of the suburban Washington-based political consulting firm Bay Communications.

        “This is definitely interesting just in the respect in who is on each side, but those trying to get it passed have a tougher road because they have to create a message for everyone,” said Mr. Ford, a Xavier University graduate who lived in the area for 12 years and continues to stay active in local politics.

        When the pro-light rail campaign “Let's Get Moving” officially kicked off last month, its leadership included the likes of the president of Fifth Third Bank and the highest-ranking public affairs executive at Procter & Gamble, along with the head of the local branch of the AFL-CIO.

        Also endorsing the tax plan have been the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters.

        “Whoever said politics makes strange bedfellows must have been thinking of this campaign,” said Betsy Neyer, the pro-light rail side's campaign manager, who has hired five other full-time employees for the campaign. “It is very broad-based, and I think that will play to our advantage.”

        Ms. Neyer would not disclose how much money has raised thus far.

        The campaign has leased office space in a downtown building from Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering firm that served as a consultant to the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, which crafted the original plan along with Metro, the county's bus service.

        Metro's board put the tax initiative on the ballot.

        “But there is an important distinction that this is being leased, even though I know the opposition will take a swing at that,” said Ms. Neyer, whose brother Tom is a Hamilton County commissioner and a member of OKI who has publicly supported light rail.

        Mr. Ford agreed the broad base could be positive for the pro-light rail effort, but said it also could work against the campaign.

        “Their job is going to be to convince regular voters that they have a stake in this issue,” said Mr. Ford, who is consulting with Democrat Jean Siebenaler in her campaign for a Hamilton County Commission seat against former Cincinnati city councilman Phil Heimlich.

        “And while it will be good to have all these individual messages to different constituencies, if you don't have the greater context of what works for regular people, it won't do enough.”

        As for the opposition, the leader of the campaign against light rail disagrees that his organization faces an easier task.

        Stephan Louis, a medical supplies salesman from Pleasant Ridge who is chairman of Alternatives to Light Rail Transit, says Metro and OKI have issued very detailed reports and proposals in favor of light rail, even if those agencies are not involved directly in the tax campaign.

        “I can't compete with this, unless I want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Mr. Louis last week, holding up a copy of a MetroMoves brochure and comparing it to his own release printed on his home computer.

        “They have a tremendous advantage in that they have the money to print these things with the taxpayers' money and call it "public awareness.' I wish I had the deck stacked in my favor as they do.”

        But Mr. Louis has gotten some strong support in the past few months, unlike the past two years, when he admits anti-light rail activists were pretty unorganized.

        The anti-tax group Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) has made Issue 7 its top priority on the ballot, and the campaign has lined up some other heavy-hitters, including U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the Republican from Westwood, who has taken the unusual step of becoming a campaign co-chair.

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