On May 2, Cincinnati voters take their first step in deciding who will be the city's mayor for the next four years.
There are three candidates in the May 2 primary; and all three are Democrats – incumbent John Cranley, Council Member Yvette Simpson, and former University of Cincinnati trustee Rob Richardson.
They may all be Democrats, but no party designations are on the non-partisan ballot; and any registered voter in the city – Democrat, Republican or independent – can cast a ballot. The Republican Party did not field an endorsed candidate for mayor and the Cincinnati Democratic Committee has not endorsed in the race.
The candidates who finish first and second in the May 2 primary will face each in the November election.
Here are profiles of the candidates:
Who is John Cranley? What makes him tick?
Cranley was only 26 in 2000 when he burst on to the political scene, taking on Republican Steve Chabot in the First Congressional District, losing with 45 percent of the vote.
Six years later, he tried again, taking on Chabot in a another race where he lost with 48 percent of the vote.
A graduate of St. Xavier High School, Cranley has an impressive academic record – a magna cum laude graduate of John Carroll University in philosophy and political science and degrees from both the Harvard Law School and the Harvard Divinity School.
From 2000 to 2009, Cranley, raised in Price Hill, was on city council. He left in 2009 so he could work as a developer on the Incline District project and avoid a conflict of interest. He also went to work as an attorney at Keating, Muething & Klekamp.
When 2013 rolled around, Cranley was ready to return to politics. He took on fellow Democrat Roxanne Qualls, a former mayor who was serving on council.
Qualls was considered the favorite in the race, but Cranley ran an aggressive campaign and ended up winning with 58 percent of the vote. He won on a promise that he would end the then-still-in-the-works streetcar project – a promise that, ultimately, he was unable to keep.
When you talk to Cranley about his life, he becomes very passionate about his work as the co-founder of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. That project has freed 23 people wrongly-convicted of felony crimes.
Cranley was administrative director of the of the Innocence Project from 2002 to 2006.
Cranley's wife, Dena, is the daughter of immigrants from Jordan, Suhaila and Beshara David, who founded the Gold Star Chili chain. The Cranleys live in Hyde Park and have a son, Joseph.
Cranley on the issues:
When asked by WVXU about what may be the city's biggest problem in the short term – plugging a $25 million budget gap between now and June 30, when council must act on a new budget – Cranley had little to say. He's waiting for City Manager Harry Black to unveil his budget proposal in mid-May before weighing in.
But he does say the city is being handcuffed by the Ohio General Assembly and Gov. John Kasich, who, in Kasich's first term, slashed the Local Government Fund and did away with the estate tax, two important sources of revenue for Ohio cities and townships
"This governor and the general assembly have been terrible to local governments,'' Cranley said. "Not just cities, but townships too. Cutting those funds has cost the city $30 million a year, on average."
And, Cranley said, with the new administration in Washington and Republicans in control of the Congress, the city could soon be dealing with substantial cuts in federal funds.
Kasich and the Republicans in the legislature seem unlikely to restore those funds, but Cranley said "we're going to fight." He and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley have formed an "Ohio Mayors Alliance" of mayors of the top 30 cities in the state to lobby and to put pressure on the candidates in next year's gubernatorial election to restore the cuts.
"Sometimes there is this sense from Washington and Columbus that somehow they are doing us a favor by giving us any revenue,'' Cranley told WVXU. "The reality is we are net donors to the state and federal governments. We are not welfare recipients. Those are our tax dollars and we get back less, far less, than we send to Washington and Columbus."
Cranley said that as mayor, his first priority has been the delivery of basic services – particularly police and fire protection. That, he said, would continue in a second Cranley term.
Cranley said he does not believe that the problem of crime and violence on the streets can be solved only by investing in social programs that create opportunities for young people that will keep them from drifting into a life of crime.
"We need a hard and a soft strategy to fight crime,'' Cranley said.
Putting more police on the streets is the "hard" part; and that has happened under his watch, Cranley said.
"Ultimately, a more socially just city will lead to less crime,'' Cranley said.
He says he is responsible for tripling the amount of money the city invests in human services and job training.
His "Hand Up" initiative, he said, was created "to put hundreds of families into good paying jobs."
"But we also need a hard strategy, and that means investing in people to fight crime, which I believe we have done,'' Cranley said.
Cranley said that under his watch the city has invested money in the witness protection program.
"Tragically, often we have cases that go unsolved because witnesses are afraid to testify,'' Cranley said.
The key to making the city streets safe, Cranley said "is a combination of working to build a more just city and also triaging and trying to prevent crime with a hard strategy as well."
And what would a second Cranley term look like?
"We want to continue the progress we have made; in reducing poverty, adding jobs, expanding minority inclusion to African-American women-owned businesses and Latino businesses and we want to keep investing in neighborhoods," Cranley said.
And, of course, Cranley is adamantly opposed to any suggestion that the streetcar be expanded to Uptown.
"We can choose to invest more money in extending the streetcar or we can choose to invest in basic services,'' Cranley said. "I choose the latter."
Who is Rob Richardson? What makes him tick?
The 38-year-old Mount Auburn resident knows he owes much to family members who came before him for the successes he has had in life – earning a law degree and an electrical engineering degree at the University of Cincinnati, serving for nine years as a trustee of his alma mater, and now as he attempts to stake out a path for himself in politics.
Back in early January, before a packed house in a hall in Corryville, Richardson announced his candidacy for mayor – as a first-time candidate for any elected office – and spoke movingly of the story of his family.
He spoke of his great-grandfather who was a slave in the south; and he spoke eloquently about his father's first cousin, Vivian Malone.
Malone became an icon in the civil rights movement in 1963 when she faced down the Alabama National Guard and Gov. George Wallace, who blocked the doors to the University of Alabama until President Kennedy put the Guard under federal control; and the soldiers led Malone and another black student in to enroll. She was the first African-American woman to study at the University of Alabama.
And with his father, Robert Richardson Sr., standing nearby, the younger Richardson told of how his father moved from to Cincinnati to find work. His father, he said, ended up at UC to study electrical engineering but had to drop out of school to support his family as a laborer.
His father eventually became president of Laborers Local 265 and was later president of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council.
"My father was a laborer helping construct the campus building where I earned my degree in electrical engineering,'' Richardson said. "My family has come a long way."
Now, with a run for mayor of Cincinnati, Richardson hopes to take his family's legacy even further.
Richardson on the issues:
He has heard it over and over again on the campaign trail: You've never run for public office before. Why start with mayor? Why not run for city council? You could probably get elected.
Richardson patiently explained his rationale in going for the city's top job in an interview with WVXU.
"I don't think the citizens of Cincinnati should have to wait for leadership," Richardson said. "It's this assumption in the political class and some in the establishment that says you have to check a box in order to lead the city, that you have to go through city council in order to lead.
"Let's talk about what so-called experience has brought us to right now,'' Richardson said. "We have violence at its worst that we have seen in a decade. We've seen neighborhoods completely not invested in. We have a transportation system that keeps 75,000 jobs inaccessible to people.
"And, with all of that, the incumbents have managed to give us a $25 million deficit,'' Richardson said. "If that's the kind of leadership that is supposed to lead to good results, I'd say the voters have two great choices to pick from."
By that, of course, he means his opponents – incumbent John Cranley and Council Member Yvette Simpson.
"But if people want leadership that's actually been focused not on what my next political career move is but what is actually best in the long term, then I'm your best choice," Richardson said.
Richardson couldn't start his campaign until after he left UC, where he served nine years as a trustee – the last, 2016, as chairman of the board.
It was a tumultuous time for the university. He was at the helm in the hiring of a new president, Neville Pinto, a former UC faculty member who was serving as acting president of the University of Louisville; and a new football coach, Luke Fickell, who was on the staff of Ohio State University's football coach, Urban Meyer.
He was also on the board when Samuel DuBose, an unarmed African-American, was shot to death during an off-campus traffic stop. Ray Tensing, who was fired as a UC police officer, faces a murder trial in May for DuBose's death.
Richardson said he believes that, although it was a trying time for the university, the board of trustees "handled it well."
"When you are in a leadership position, it is not a matter of if but when you are going to be faced with a crisis,'' Richardson said.
"When that happened, I said UC would not be defined by this moment but transformed by it,'' Richardson said.
The campus police chief was fired, a community advisory board was formed, and the university implemented the "voluntary reform" of hiring an independent monitor of the campus police for at least three years.
Recently, Richardson did a "ride-along" with members of the Cincinnati Police Department's gang unit.
"It reinforced my respect for our police officers,'' Richardson said. "It's amazing all the things that they have to think about when they are protecting us. They have to be at all moments scanning the situation. They have to remember to follow many other protocols and procedures that you just can't imagine. And then, their lives are always in danger."
Richardson said that, as mayor, he would take a three-pronged approach to crime and violence on the streets:
- First, he would institute a plan used in Detroit called "Project Green Light," where any venue – a gas station, a nightclub – that has repeat instances of violence and where police are called on a regular basis will have real time cameras that police can monitor.
- He said he would increase funding for the witness protection program, "so the people who want to report the crimes are empowered to do so."
- Richardson said he would "revitalize" the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) and use it to work with employers to help past offenders who have served their time to get work and keep them from returning to the criminal justice system.
His opponents, Richardson said, "argue over a hard or a soft approach to crime. I want an effective approach."
Richardson is a supporter of the streetcar, but he says he wants a regional "all-of-the-above" approach to public transportation – one that would start with expanding the financially troubled Metro bus system.
He would support a county-wide sales tax to expand the Metro system; and believes he could make the case to suburban voters who might not be regular users of public transportation.
"If we are going to be a city that is going to be competitive in the next 15 to 20 years, it's going to require us to have transportation that is going to be robust, where people do not have to rely on a car,'' Richardson said. "This is a growth strategy. That is my pitch to the suburbs."
Who is Yvette Simpson? What makes her tick?
Born to a mentally ill mother and drug-addicted father, she was raised by her grandmother in Lincoln Heights until the age of 16. Then, when her grandmother had to move into senior living; and the teenager spent the last two years of her schooling at Princeton High School bouncing around, living with friends and other families.
All of her young life, she was surrounded by poverty, crime and violence.
"I saw people who were really good people, who were really hurt people, who ended up doing very violent things,'' Simpson told WVXU.
But it was her grandmother's love and a series of mentors who inspired her to break out of that life.
"All I could ever think of was, 'If I can only get to be 18,' I'll be OK,'' Simpson said.
She had decided at the age of eight that what she wanted to do was be a lawyer – a poor girl from a family where the idea of a college education was well beyond anyone's reach.
But her hard work in high school paid off in a full-ride scholarship to Miami University. She earned degrees in political science and communications. She went on to earn a law degree at the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in business administration from Xavier University.
In 2007, she returned to Miami University – this time as the administrator of the university's pre-law counseling program.
Four years later, she launched her political career, running for city council and finishing seventh. She ran for re-election two years later and finished fourth in the balloting.
Simpson could have run for another four-year term this year, but decided instead to run for mayor. If she doesn't survive the primary – the top finishers will face each other in the fall – she can't come back and run for re-election to her council seat.
Simpson on the issues:
Throughout the campaign, Simpson and Cranley have been going back and forth on the issue of how to deal with the crime and violence on the streets of Cincinnati.
Both say there must be a "hard" and a "soft" approach to the issue. The "hard" involves more police on the streets and more resources for them to do their jobs. The "soft" approach focuses on getting at the root causes of crime – the poverty and hopelessness that pervades so many Cincinnati neighborhoods.
"The mayor's assertion that I don't support police and fire is not true,'' Simpson told WVXU.
Cranley bases such a claim on a TV ad that cites her 2014 vote against the city budget.
Simpson said she voted against that budget because it did not give enough money to neighborhoods and did not set aside enough money for city pensions.
"We have to have a fully staffed police force, regardless,'' Simpson said.
Simpson said the police department has been deeply involved in the work she has been doing on violence prevention programs "from day one."
"Right now, we have more officers than we have ever had and we still have an increase in shootings and homicides,'' Simpson said. "That's because law enforcement alone doesn’t work. We have to be preventative."
Simpson said she is using a model developed by the Centers for Disease Control "that says that violence isn't an isolated incident, that people who become violent because they have experienced violence. They were exposed to it; they weren't treated and they repeat the behavior."
She has been part of a group building pilot programs to try to break the cycle of violence in Cincinnati neighborhoods.
"Even if you have a police officer on every corner, a shooting will happen between those two corners,'' Simpson said. "We need both. Police on the streets and prevention measures. I'm a both kind of person."
"If we had put in place violence prevention strategies two years ago, we'd have a reduced number of people committing violent acts today,'' she said.
As far as investing in low-income neighborhoods, Simpson supports Plan Cincinnati, the city's official document guiding future development in the city.
"I support the 'Ready, Set, Go' approach,'' Simpson said. "First make neighborhoods ready for development by making them safe and clean. Then 'Set.' Neighborhoods that are safe and clean, but haven't had investment in decades. And then 'Go.' That's when we work with developers on projects, making sure the neighborhoods stay safe and clean."
Simpson is very frank about her support for expanding the streetcar and other modes of public transportation.
"Rail is a big picture vision,'' Simpson said. "It was never a thing where we were going to do a 3.6 mile loop and then stop."
It was always part of a multi-modal strategy and we have to keep our eye on it even though it is going to be a long-term thing,'' Simpson said.
"We've got to make our bus system work well, but we've also got to plan ahead for what rail looks like in our region," she said.
Reading Road is a "major corridor" for light rail extension in the future, Simpson said. So, too, is regional light rail, all the way from the airport to Mason.
"We've got to make sure we are ready to expand once we have the resources,'' Simpson said.