Thursday, May 20, 2004

Big-city mayors use clout for Kerry

Leaders of six largest Ohio cities meet here today

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The mayors of Ohio's six largest cities will huddle in Cincinnati today with two goals in mind: battling the Republican-dominated state government, and electing John Kerry president.

Yes, the mayors are all Democrats - and they're likely to represent the public face of the Kerry campaign in Ohio.

"The mayors are in the news every day. They're visible leaders. What they do and what they accomplish affects people in their daily lives," said Brendon Cull, a spokesman for Kerry's Ohio campaign. "These are visible leaders who have difficult jobs and are doing their best in difficult times. Jobs are leaving Ohio, and they're the best to talk about that."

The Kerry campaign, criticized even within the party for being slow to build an organization in Ohio, is touting the political power of the mayors as a key to its success in Ohio come November. Ohio is one of the battleground states in this election.

Cull himself is perhaps the best example of how Kerry is reaching into the mayors' political operation. The former press aide and campaign manager for Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken now works for the Democratic National Committee in Columbus, helping the Kerry team coordinate a statewide campaign. He started this week.

By contrast, President Bush's campaign has built - almost from scratch - a sophisticated network of volunteer precinct captains and has had a full-time staff in Columbus since January.

Built-in network

But the Kerry campaign says it has no need to invent a wheel already perfected by the mayors.

"The mayors' campaign organizations tend to be the most solid of any office-holding group. I don't think you get elected mayor unless you have a good grass-roots' effort. Every day you're out there talking to people and their concerns, and other officeholders don't do that," said Toledo Mayor Jack Ford, who was the Democratic leader in the Ohio House of Representatives before his election in 2001.

"A mayor, by virtue of the mayoral pulpit, can speak out on issues - and they pretty much can get coverage from the press," Ford said.

Though the big-city mayors represent just 20 percent of the state's population, Democrats say their influence reaches beyond city limits. The mayors of Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo and Akron are at the center of regional economies - and media markets - that cover 80 percent of the state.

The Bush campaign says it's not impressed with the "patchwork" strategy that neglects small-city and rural voters.

"I don't think that's so much a strategy as it is an excuse," said Bush campaign spokesman Kevin Madden. "They parachute into the state five months after we're already there - organizing at a precinct, county and statewide level - and they say it doesn't matter because they have a few mayors."

Growing clout

The growing clout of Ohio's big-city mayors - at least in Democratic circles - began in 2001. Voters elected new Democratic mayors in Toledo, Cleveland and Dayton, where Mayor Rhine McLin beat Republican Michael Turner (now a congressman).

And Luken - elected directly for the first time in 2001 with stronger powers that elevated him above the "first among equals" status conferred on generations of previous Cincinnati mayors - began to take more of an interest in events in Columbus and Washington.

At the same time, the election of Mayor Jane L. Campbell in Cleveland led to a thawing of relations between Cleveland and neighbor Akron, where Mayor Donald L. Plusquellic had been engaged in a decade-long cold war with Campbell's predecessor, Michael White. (The feud started when a newly elected White failed to return Plusquellic's phone calls - 17 of them - and escalated when the Cleveland Cavaliers abandoned their suburban Akron home for downtown Cleveland.)

With the mayors' offices all in Democratic hands for the first time in at least a century - and with those mayors now actually talking to each other - the mayors met for the first time in 2002. They signed a mutual aid agreement in the case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, and began to organize against what they called the "anti-city bias" of the state legislature.

This morning, the mayors will continue that effort with three new issues: opposing the state's new concealed-carry law, which allows permit holders to carry guns in city parks; saving special financing districts to allow property taxes to fund urban redevelopment; and fighting state funding cuts to cities.

But the summit will move quickly into politics.

Mayors as surrogates

"We're the surrogates. We're the people in our respective communities who will be trying to deliver the 'Kerry for President' message," Luken said. "I suspect we're going to talk about ways we can stay on message. I don't think we're going to talk about Iraq. Our focus is on domestic policy, on cities and on jobs."

Indeed, the mayors' first salvo in the campaign came in April, when they criticized John Snow, Bush's treasury secretary, for his comments in Cincinnati that the outsourcing of jobs is "part of trade" and that "trade makes the economy stronger."

The mayors said Snow's comments were "clearly out of touch with the struggles of Ohio's working families."

Jobs was also the subject during Kerry's last campaign trip to Ohio. Kerry called the "Ohio Jobs Summit" - a town-hall style meeting with Ohio mayors in Cleveland - "one of the best and most remarkable meetings I've had in the course of the entire campaign."

Further flattering the mayors, Kerry said he learned early in his career that the office of mayor was "the toughest job in politics," and that the issues they deal with are "at the heart of people's lives."

Cleveland's mayor drew a straight line between that city's problems - it has laid off 250 police officers and has stopped picking up litter downtown - and the Bush administration's policies.

"When people don't have jobs, they quit paying their taxes," Campbell said. "And at the very same time they need the most help, we don't have the resources."

'Under-worked' by party

The mayors sound like full-time campaign workers. Ford pledged to be "unrelenting even to the point of being ruthless" in getting Kerry elected. And at a state Democratic Party dinner this month, Plusquellic apologized for neglecting state and national politics for so long and pledged to "do more than I've ever done to elect John Kerry."

Ohio Democratic Party chairman Dennis White conceded that the mayors had been "under-worked" by the state party.

"It's something Democrats should be proud of, that the largest cities of this state have Democratic mayors," said White, whose party has been unable to win a single statewide partisan race since 1992. "All the major mayors, since I've been here in the last two years, they've stepped to the plate. I think they bring their local city political machinery. They're proven and tested at the local level."

But the relationship between the Kerry campaign and the party may be mutually beneficial, with the campaign providing a bigger soapbox for the mayors to advance their own aspirations.

Akron's Plusquellic will highlight a 17-year mayoral career this year as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman was Lee Fisher's gubernatorial running mate in 1998 and has made overtures toward the governor's office in 2006.

Coleman, the most unabashedly ambitious of the mayors, has met with Kerry three times in the last month - in Cleveland, in Phoenix at the Democratic Leadership Council, and in Philadelphia at a meeting of African-American mayors. And Coleman plans a Kerry fund-raiser in June.

"Some of these mayors have some statewide ambitions," Luken said. "I don't have any. But I think our association has drawn some attention to the mayors as a political power."


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