Bond Hill – No one who has been following Cincinnati's three-way race for mayor would have been surprised at Tuesday night's debate to hear the candidates wrangling and snapping at each other over the still-controversial streetcar.
One streetcar opponent – incumbent Mayor John Cranley – and two streetcar proponents - former University of Cincinnati trustee Rob Richardson and Council Member Yvette Simpson - faced off before a crowd of over 300 at the Community Action Agency for a two-hour debate sponsored by the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP and the Prince Hall Masons.
While most of the discussion was civil – if a bit strained – when talk turned to the streetcar, it got a bit testy.
Cranley started it during a discussion of what can be done to expand regional public transportation, particularly buses.
"My opponents have spent the past six years building a $150 million street car system that doesn't come out to this neighborhood,'' Cranley said, adding that they want to expand the streetcar – known as the Cincinnati Bell Connector – from its Over-the-Rhine and downtown route to the Uptown area without knowing if the present streetcar can be a financial success.
"Can you imagine if that money had been used to expand bus services?,'' Cranley asked the crowd.
In fact, the city couldn't have spent all of that money on the SORTA bus system – about one-third of the streetcar funds were from the federal government and were designated for that purpose.
Simpson fired back.
The council member, who is foregoing a run for a second term on council in her bid to unseat Cranley, said the mayor "spent more on parking structures for private companies than was spent on the streetcar. Hundreds and hundreds of millions."
Richardson, a labor lawyer, who has never run for office before, had the last word on the subject.
"We knew this (debate) couldn't go far without the mayor blaming all of our problems on the streetcar,'' Richardson said.
Tuesday's three-way debate might have been a two-candidate affair.
About two weeks ago, the Cranley campaign had declined the NAACP's offer, saying it planned to do only three televised debates sponsored by local news organizations.
But the NAACP, headed by the father of one of Cranley's opponent, Bob Richardson, wrote a blistering letter to the Cranley campaign saying they had an obligation to debate the issues in the African-American community.
Richardson and Simpson are black.
Cranley's campaign reversed course quickly and accepted the invitation.
Last night, substantial groups of supporters of all three candidates were in the room for the debate. Many in the Richardson and Simpson campaign were waving handmade campaign signs.
Richard Chiles, a journalist with WLWT-TV, was the moderator; and warned the audience – and the candidates – early on that the debate would be carried on "with decorum."
For the most part, it was.
A large chunk of time was spent discussing low-income neighborhoods that have no grocery stores – "food deserts" as they are called.
Cranley said he has been working to get a grocery store in the Avondale Town Center, but said that possibility is somewhat "shaky" at this point. Corryville has a brand-new Kroger, while Walnut Hills is "depressed" by the closing of their store.
"This is a thorny problem that comes up over and over again,'' Cranley said. "Grocery stores will come where there is a healthy mix of housing in the neighborhood for people of all income levels."
Richardson said "food deserts" are a problem that needs to be addressed, but said there is a great barrier facing the city as it tries to help.
"We have a $25 million budget deficit to deal with, created by bad management,'' Richardson said.
Simpson, who lives in the West End, got personal in her remarks about the "food deserts."
"There are two grocery stores within walking distance of John Cranley's house,'' Simpson said, referring to two groceries in the Hyde Park Plaza. "Food in Hyde Park is not more important than groceries in Avondale. Every neighborhood deserves high quality food."
Cranley was clearly angered by the remark.
"Ms. Simpson made it personal again by talking about the neighborhood where I live and where I walk,'' Cranley said.
Last year, Cranley vetoed legislation that would have given the people trying to start the Clifton Market $400,000 in public dollars.
"Clifton is an affluent neighborhood,'' Cranley said. It is a neighborhood that could – and did – open a grocery store on its own.
In a discussion of their top priorities for the city if elected mayor, both Richardson and Cranley put public safety at or near the top of their lists.
Richardson said he wants people in crime-ridden neighborhoods to feel safe enough that they can call the police and give them information on crimes that have been committed.
Simpson said recreation centers, swimming pools and health clinics are her top priorities, saying investing in them will help steer the city's young people from trouble and possibly a life of crime.
Cranley took a dig at Simpson for that answer.
"I want to thank Mr. Richardson for mentioning public safety as a priority when Ms. Simpson did not,'' Cranley said.
More debates are planned before the May 2nd primary election.