By Steve Kemme
Enquirer staff writer
Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken set up a free-for-all in next year's mayor's race with a surprise announcement Monday that he will not seek another term.
Luken, 53, has been the city's most influential politician since he returned to City Council and the mayor's office in 1999. He was elected to a four-year term in 2001 under a new, strong-mayor system.
A Democrat in an officially nonpartisan office, Luken said he hasn't been able to muster the enthusiasm required for a highly combative mayor's race.
"I couldn't get myself ratcheted up for a tough campaign," Luken said at a brief press conference on the steps of City Hall. "I don't think I can serve the city best in what I think will be a very negative campaign."
He said he has not decided what he will do after he leaves office and did not recommend a successor.
Luken said he began thinking about not running next year about three months ago, when he had to start planning political fund-raisers for his campaign. He said he made his final decision Sunday after talking with his two daughters and son.
"The political campaign just wasn't in my gut anymore," he said.
The campaign unofficially began July 20 when State Sen. Mark Mallory, also a Democrat, announced he would run for mayor. At the time, Luken said he welcomed the competition.
On Monday, Cincinnati Councilman David Pepper, a Democrat, said he intends to run for mayor. He said he had made that decision before knowing whether Luken would seek re-election. Pepper has finished first in his two council campaigns.
Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, who ran second in 2003, said she is also considering running.
Among Republicans, only 1st District Court of Appeals Judge Mark Painter has publicly announced his interest in the mayor's race.
Party affiliation in the city heavily favors Democratic candidates. But Luken's amiable style and moderate positions have appealed to Democrats and Republicans.
Luken has always found it easy to raise campaign money, much of it from traditionally Republican sources. In 2001, for example, he received $25,000 from Reds owner Carl Lindner, one of the nation's most generous contributors to GOP candidates.
Republicans stayed out
Luken's personal popularity was so strong in 2001 that Republicans couldn't even field an opponent.
"We will have a candidate for mayor," county GOP Chairman Michael Barrett promised. "It will be a matter of finding the right person."
Gene Beaupre, a political science instructor at Xavier University, said Luken's withdrawal casts the mayor's race in a cloud of uncertainty.
"If you do end up with four or five people in the race," he said, "it's almost a crapshoot who wins."
A nonpartisan primary for mayor will be held in September 2005, with the top two vote-getters competing in the November election. In 2001, Luken lost the primary but defeated TV news anchor Courtis Fuller by 10 percentage points in the general election.
Luken, son of former Mayor Thomas Luken and nephew of former Mayor James Luken, was elected to City Council in 1981. He was mayor from 1984 to 1990.
In 1990, Luken won the congressional seat his father once held. But, disenchanted with Washington politics, Luken left Congress after one term and became a news anchor at WLWT-TV (Channel 5).
He quit his TV job and won the mayor's seat in 1999 as the top City Council vote-getter. He was elected in 2001 in the first election since 1925 that gave the mayor any real power.
Luken's leadership was tested during the April 2001 race riots that were sparked by a Cincinnati police officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed black man he was chasing.
Luken took charge of the city's response. He imposed a curfew. He invited the Justice Department to examine the conduct of the police department and he formed a race relations commission. He battled against an economic boycott that threatened downtown events.
Keith Fangman, vice president of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police, said that since the riots, Luken has been a strong supporter of the police.
"During my first two years as FOP president, he and I had what I would describe as a rocky relationship,'' Fangman said. "However, to his credit, since the riots of 2001, he has been, bar none, the strongest supporter of our police officers at City Hall."
Luken defended his record.
"I think we've made a lot of progress," he said. "I have always stood up for the goodness of this city. People have to stop being so negative about it. It's a wonderful city."
Reece said she and Luken worked hard for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the new Contemporary Arts Center and for investment in the city's neighborhoods.
Power of a name
Michael Fisher, president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, credited Luken with helping create the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., known as 3CDC, a private development group formed to promote the Banks project, the renaissance of Fountain Square and the revival of Over-the-Rhine.
"He's contributed a lot to our city," he said.
Dr. Calvert Smith, president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, said he finds it difficult to judge Luken's legacy as mayor.
"I'm just not in a position to say whether he has been good or bad," he said. "The (racial) situation has not improved substantially. There are still major problems. Tensions are festering. There's an uneasy truce right now."
Sister Monica McGloin, president of the Over-the-Rhine Community Council, said she doesn't believe Luken and City Council have focused enough on improving neighborhoods.
"I don't say it's all his fault," she said. "Two years ago, the city accepted a comprehensive plan for Over-the-Rhine. But it was never implemented."
Councilman Jim Tarbell said that despite Luken's lame-duck status, he can still accomplish a lot during the rest of his term.
"We can't underestimate the power of the word Luken in this town," he said. "He can bring a lot of influence to bear in the next 16 months."
Reporter Cindi Andrews contributed. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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