Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Luken an unpredictable act, as always

Mayor tosses another wrench in political machinery

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For a politician who has tried to avoid confrontation like a house cat avoids bath water, Charlie Luken was able for a quarter of a century to throw local politics, by word or deed, into turmoil.

From his first unsuccessful run for Cincinnati City Council 25 years ago, when his candidacy touched off a fight in the local Democratic Party, to his announcement Monday that he won't run for re-election as mayor next year, Luken has regularly tossed wrenches into the machinery of Cincinnati politics.

"What Charlie says and does has had a big impact on politics in Cincinnati for a long time,'' Hamilton County Democratic Party co-chairman Tim Burke. "He's been a force to be reckoned with.''

In the absence of a clearly drawn self-portrait, the 53-year-old Democrat's political adversaries over the years have been free to paint their own pictures of the man - liberals often called him a conservative; conservatives suspected him of being a closet liberal.

"Charlie's one downside has been that he never forged his own political identity,'' said Republican Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who was Luken's ally on council in the mid-1980s and his opponent in the 1990 congressional election. "People never knew quite for sure if he was like his father or his uncle or something else altogether.''

Whatever he was and is, he has always been unpredictable.

It started in 1979 when a 28-year-old Luken decided to run for Cincinnati City Council, as had his father, Thomas A. Luken, and his uncle, Jim Luken. Jim Luken was dying of cancer, and many in the Democratic Party saw Charlie Luken as the natural candidate to take his place.

It was a fight that split the Luken family and Democratic Party - Thomas Luken wanted his son on the ticket; Jim Luken wanted his former council aide, Florence McGraw.

Jim Luken won the argument. But his nephew ran anyway, without a party endorsement, and fell just 167 votes short of winning a seat. He came back two years later and was elected with the Democrats' endorsement.

Four years later, Luken, then mayor, thumbed his nose at the Democratic Party.

After the 1985 election, Democratic Party officials thought they would control City Hall with a five-member majority.

But Luken and Blackwell had their own plan. They worked out a deal for a five-member majority of three Democrats and two Republicans that they called the Gang of Five. It was a working majority of council's most conservative members that left two liberal Democrats, a Charterite, and a Republican out in the cold. Luken was mayor; Blackwell headed council's powerful finance committee.

All the while, the local Republican Party expended considerable energy trying to persuade Luken to switch parties. It was a wasted effort - Luken didn't have to, because he was a rare politician who could rake in Republican campaign money and Democratic votes.

The Gang of Five eventually fell apart, but Luken stayed as mayor, serving until 1990 - when he left to run for his father's congressional seat.

He won a close race against Blackwell, and even most Republicans believed he could have held the 1st Congressional District seat for as long as he wanted it. As it turned out, he came to realize he didn't want it at all.

In August 1992, Luken threw the Democratic Party for a loop when, three months before the election, he announced he was withdrawing as a candidate.

The Democrats scrambled to hold a primary election for his replacement in September 1992. It turned out to be a bloody fight between Councilman David Mann and State Sen. William F. Bowen.

Mann won by a handful of votes and was easily elected in November against token Republican opposition. He was defeated by Republican Steve Chabot in 1994, the year the GOP took control of Congress.

Many Democrats blamed Luken for losing a precious House seat, thus helping make Newt Gingrich speaker.

Now, Luken has thrown the local political scene into turmoil once again with his surprise decision not to run for another term in 2005.

"Charlie has spent his career in politics trying to be a likable guy, and he is,'' said Blackwell, who said he has no interest himself in running for mayor of his hometown. "But he has always cut across the grain of his likeability with these shockers.''


E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com

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