When you cast your ballot in this year’s Cincinnati City Council election, the ballot will look the same as it always has – a long list of 20-plus names, among whom you can choose up to nine.
And, as always, the top nine finishers in the council field race will become the new city council.
But this is a council election unlike any other in most people’s living memory.
Since 1925, when the charter form of government replaced the corrupt and incompetent ward system, Cincinnati voters have been choosing council members to serve two year terms.
A charter amendment was approved by Cincinnati voters in 2011 which said that, beginning this year, council members will be elected to four-year terms – with the old eight-year term limits still in place.
Whichever nine you elect on Nov. 5, you are stuck with them for four years.
That may be a good thing – those who supported the 2011 charter amendment argued it will allow council members to focus more on solving problems than constantly running for re-election.
Under two year terms, council members have tended to start running for re-election the day after they were sworn into office.
Now, they will get a breather.
Maybe it will give the new council more time to focus on things like fixing the persistent budget holes and do something positive about the city’s pension system, which is rapidly crashing and burning.
This year’s field of 22 candidates is much like the council candidates we have seen in previous elections – a mix of incumbents, some well-known non-incumbents, some newcomers who have the connections to raise large amounts of money and some political novices who have next to nothing in their campaign funds and are known by virtually no one who will be going to the polls.
There is a one thing we know for certain in this council election – there will be at least one new member. Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls is running for mayor; and her council seat is up for grabs. She’s been the leader of a council majority that has been responsible for passing a budget, building a streetcar and going forward with the leasing of the city’s parking system.
There are plenty of opponents of the streetcar and the parking lease on the ballot, and who takes her seat could shift the balance of power as those issues move forward.
And there could be other surprises – some well-funded and better-known non-incumbents have a shot at picking off one or two other incumbents.
What you will not find on the ballot for Cincinnati City Council are party designations for the candidates. Council races, since 1925, have been officially non-partisan affairs.
But the political parties always endorse slates of candidates; and do what they can to get the word out to their supporters on who has party backing and who does not.
Here’s how the party endorsements shake out; and they are a little unusual this year:
The Democrats: The Cincinnati Democratic Committee (CDC) has endorsed 10 candidates for city council. How’s that, you say? I thought you could only vote for nine.
Well, yes. But when the CDC’s nominating committee recommended its slate of candidates, there were nine on the list – incumbents Laure Quinlivan, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young, Yvette Simpson and Pam Thomas, who was appointed to her husband Cecil’s seat when he resigned earlier this year. And they recommended challengers Michelle Dillingham, the president of the Kennedy Heights Community Council; Greg Landsman, who worked for former Ohio governor Ted Strickland in Columbus and Washington; and Shawn Butler, an aide to Mayor Mark Mallory.
David Mann – a former councilman, mayor, and congressman who is trying to make a comeback this year after 20 years out of office – complained loudly; and the full CDC added Mann to the list.
That adds up to 10. Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke doesn’t think it will be a problem, because the average voter casts ballots for about 6.5 candidates and, if a voter over-votes, his or her ballot is kicked out by the machine and the voter can have a do-over.
The Republicans: The Hamilton County Republican Party is still a powerful force in county politics. But within the boundaries of Cincinnati, it is at a distinct disadvantage. There just aren’t that many solid GOP voters in the city anymore. They have one incumbent council member – Charlie Winburn – and the Democrats have been electing council majorities for decades.
So, the Republicans have but four endorsed candidates. There’s Winburn, along with former councilman Sam Malone, who served one term and was voted out in 2005. Then there is Amy Murray, who was appointed to council in 2011 after Chris Monzel was elected county commissioner; and lost in the 2011 election. And there is one newcomer – businesswoman Melissa Wegman, a West Sider and first-time candidate.
The Charter Committee: Cincinnati’s independent political party has been around since the 1920s, when it was born and led the movement to change from a city run by political bosses to one run by a nine-member council, with a weak mayor and a professional city manager.
Their influence has faded in recent decades, but now they see a new role for themselves – as the broker that brings warring factions of council together to solve the city’s problems.
“Cross-endorsement” is the name of the game for Charter this year.
They have two of their own candidates – Kevin Flynn, a lawyer who has run unsuccessfully for council before; and Vanessa White, a Cincinnati school board member who decided to run for council instead of re-election to the school board. And then there is Simpson, who, once again, is running with both Democratic and Charter endorsements.
Recently Charter added three more candidates, all of whom had already been endorsed by one of the major parties – the Republican candidate Murray and Democrats Mann and Landsman.
There are four candidates running without party endorsements – Angela Beamon, Timothy Joseph Dornbusch, Nick Noel, and Mike Moroski. Moroski is by far the best known of the independents – he became well-known in February when Purcell Marian High School fired him from his job as dean of student life for coming out in favor of same-sex marriage on his personal web page.
You get to pick up to nine. Choose carefully. Because, this time, you’re stuck with the winners for the next four years.