Rob Richardson, a 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."