Saturday, February 21, 2004

Q&A: Hamilton County Commissioner

While the Republican primary contest for county commissioner between incumbent John Dowlin and challenger Pat DeWine has received most of the attention, there is a contested primary on the Democratic side for the seat.

Hamilton County Commissioner
Friday: Ohio 34th District state House
Thursday: Warren County Prosecutor
Weds.: Ohio 14th District state Senate seat
Tuesday: Ohio 2nd District U.S. House seat
Monday: Ohio 1st District U.S. House race
Sunday Forum: Commissioner candidates

Kabaka Oba of Lincoln Heights, a bus driver for Queen City Metro and leader of the activist boycott group the Black Fist, was the first Democrat to file for the seat. He is opposed by Erich Streckfuss of Westwood, a University of Cincinnati student who is active in the UC College Democrats. Here are their responses to several questions we asked each of them.

Q. What in your background and experience do you believe makes you the candidate best suited to run successfully against the Republican nominee in the fall election?

Erich Streckfuss: I've spent the last two years rebuilding the University of Cincinnati College Democrats. During that time I've gained a lot of experience in Hamilton County politics. We've also registered hundreds of new voters and brought a lot of students into the political process. Most importantly, though, is that I'm willing to work with the Hamilton County Democratic Party to make sure we win this race and give the people of Hamilton County a more responsible government. The county commission has been run by Republicans for the length of modern memory, and the people of Hamilton County have nothing positive to show for it.

Kabaka Oba
Kabaka Oba: I believe I'm the first black man to run for county commissioner. I believe the county commission as a body needs some diversity. Black people, poor people, veterans are really not represented on County Commission right now. And they need somebody who thinks like the average person on the street thinks. I don't believe the average taxpayer across the board - black, white, poor, senior, whatever - is represented on the County Commission right now. The basic problem your average person has, I've been through them, and I have found ways to get over those problems and try to better myself. And I would bring that experience to the county commission.

Q. How do you view the commissioners' handling of tax and budget issues during the past few years, and do you see areas that require change?

Oba: I do agree that taxes and spending are high in Hamilton County. The key is really to freeze taxes, and you definitely have to lower the spending. Sometimes you can do 5 percent or 10 percent cuts across the board. Most agencies can survive that. If you do it across the board, it's fair. A lot of people I talk to on the street believe that Prosecutor Mike Allen overprosecutes black people and underprosecutes the police. And they believe he's got too much money to play with. A lot of times, what an agency can do is dictated by how much money they've got.

Erich Streckfuss
Streckfuss: To be fair, it's important to remember that Hamilton County voters have approved those tax increases. I do feel, however, that our money should be better handled. People wouldn't be inclined to vote against senior citizens' services and school levies if they didn't see horrific mismanagement on issues like David Krings' contract with the county and the stadium issue. There's absolutely no reason the county should be footing the bill for artificial turf because the Bengals can't grow their own grass.

Q. On development, has the county been remiss in not moving forward with the Banks project?

Streckfuss: The lack of follow-through on the Banks is a horrible disappointment that could have and should have been avoided. Again, the mismanagement on the stadium deal is partially to blame since cost overruns there are part of the reason we're so behind in giving Hamilton County a riverfront that will make us proud. In general, we need to stop the approach of beginning projects and not following through.

Oba: The county and the city don't work together. I don't know why, because Cincinnati is in Hamilton County. All of those politicians are paid by tax dollars, so why they won't work together, I don't know. One thing for sure: If it's lack of money, the city of Cincinnati is at fault. Because of the boycott over economic apartheid and the gays' boycott over Article XII, the city probably has lost over $250 million from conventions, artists, etc., and that revenue could have stimulated the economy to the point where they would have had more money to do or finish some of these jobs.

Q. How do you view the development of western Hamilton County in addressing the county's long-term population and job loss, and does the emergence of "big box" retailers there help or hurt that development?

Oba: I think the average man and the average woman are concerned about good jobs, benefits, health benefits and retirements. But they also are concerned about the earth, the river, the hills, the valleys. Big business, when they come in, a lot of the time they don't have respect for the landscape. I don't believe we should destroy valuable nature at the expense of just hoping that we create development and jobs, because we may be creating other problems.

Streckfuss: I think we need to focus on bringing more high-quality jobs to Hamilton County. "Big box" retailers may be helpful to people in the short run, but nobody's going to move their family to the area for those jobs. We need to focus on the next 25 years, not just the next five. The Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce is continually pointing out that high-paying companies can't attract young talent, and I want to work with the business community and the chamber to turn that around without resorting to the type of corporate blackmail we've seen from some companies dealing with city government in Cincinnati.

Q. What do you think are the biggest problems the county will face in the next five to 10 years?

Streckfuss: Without a doubt, the continued population and talent loss in Hamilton County and around the state of Ohio will be the greatest problem we face in the next 10 years. Nearly everybody I'm in school with now talks about how they will be leaving Cincinnati as soon as they get their degree. We need to change that attitude and work to attract young professionals to the area. Cincinnati's reputation around the country impacts the county as a whole, and we're not going to see young professionals choosing to raise a family or start a life here if social issues remain stagnant and we don't encourage more high-paying jobs.

Oba: Jobs and crime. Also, people are fleeing the city of Cincinnati for numerous reasons - crime, no jobs, police brutality, the city being seen as anti-black anti-gay - and they're going to be moving further out into the county. Whatever good they have and whatever problems they have they're going to take with them. We're also going to have a problem when the veterans come back from Iraq and they don't get the benefits they think they will have. They're going to need assistance. That's where county services come into play. Also, I-75 and 71 are going to be overcrowded, especially 75 with trucks. Something's going to have to be done on transportation, whether it's light rail or expanding 75.

Q. Given your lack of office-holding experience, do you believe you can be a credible candidate in this race, and why?

Oba: I'm an activist. A lot of people had a problem when we used to say "the white man is a devil" at City Hall. But that that was in retaliation for City Hall allowing the Ku Klux Klan to come to Fountain Square and call black people (racial slurs). For a long time they tried not to see that we were just trying to reveal the double standard. I decided to run because there's about 15 county offices that the Republicans just walk right into. The Democrats haven't run anybody against them. It's the leadership that has to be held accountable for not running people against Mike Allen, Simon Leis, etc., and giving them free passes. I just know that the majority of black people are Democrats, and they're being shortchanged by the Democratic Party.

Streckfuss: I bring the fresh approach to this race that no other candidate can claim. What we need in Hamilton County now are new ideas and a vision of the future. I can bring to the table a renewed spirit of energy that the County Commission is lacking.

Q&A: Hamilton County Commissioner
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