Democrats Try To Piece Together A Cincinnati Council Slate

Apr 9, 2017

With a mayoral primary election only 23 days away, this year's Cincinnati Council election seems like something happening in a galaxy far, far away.

After all, the filing deadline for candidates for Cincinnati City Council is nearly four months from now – on August 9. Four months is an eternity in politics.

But, sometimes, objects seen in your rear-view mirror are closer than they appear.

Consider this: There are going to be at least three new council members elected this fall. Republican Charlie Winburn can't run because of term limits. Charterite Kevin Flynn has chosen not to run for a second term. And Democrat Yvette Simpson took herself out of the running for another term on council by deciding to take on John Cranley in the mayor's race.

Three open seats. And now, for the second time, four year terms, instead of the old two year terms.

If you don't think those circumstances will draw a crowd of candidates, think again.

The political parties – particularly the Democratic Party, which dominates city politics – are in the process already of putting together a slate of endorsed candidates.

And POWR PAC (Partnership of Westside Residents), is making a comeback, after being gone from the Cincinnati political scene since 2009, according to POWR PAC's organizer, Price Hill business owner Pete Witte. From 2005 through the 2009 council elections, POWR PAC had considerable influence in neighborhoods that represent about 20 percent of the city's population.

Officially, this is a non-partisan election; party designations do not appear on the ballot.

But the political parties – Democratic, Republican and the independent Charter Committee – have been endorsing slates of candidates and promoting them ever since the creation in the 1920s of the nine-member council elections, known as "9X" elections.

No less than 37 people have picked up petitions at the Hamilton County Board of Elections to run for city council. About two-thirds of them – 25 to be exact - are carried on the voter rolls as Democrats. Six are Republicans. The rest are listed as "non," which means they haven't voted in a partisan primary lately.

They are household names, such as the six incumbents, and others are people that are known only to their close friends and family.

And no one believes that all 37 of them will actually file their petitions by the August 9 deadline.

A screening committee of the Cincinnati Democratic Committee – a body made up of precinct executives from around the city – will begin endorsement interviews with candidates who ask for one in about a week.

The four Democratic incumbents are locks to be endorsed – David Mann, P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach. What is likely to happen is that a small army of would-be candidates will be competing for five spots on the Democratic slate.

Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou told WVXU that the GOP has two candidates for council – incumbent Amy Murray and newcomer Jeff Pastor, who teaches at the King Academy Community School.

And there may be no more endorsed Republicans than those two, although Triantafilou would like to run five.

The GOP has no candidate in the May 2 mayoral primary, and the party seems to be more interested this year in the municipal court elections and shoring up its base in the suburban communities.

As for the Charter Committee, we are told they are in the process of interviewing candidates. But the self-styled "good government" committee is losing its only "pure" Charterite, Flynn; and is likely to end up with cross-endorsements of people like Democrat Mann and Republican Murray, and a few candidates of their own.

POWR PAC hopes to raise about $30,000 to promote its slate of candidates, Witte said.

"We're interested in candidates who are responsive and understand the needs of communities on this side of town, because the challenges here aren't getting any easier,'' Witte said.

Witte said west side leaders would like to see  City Hall pay as much attention to reviving their neighborhoods as they have paid to Over-the-Rhine.

The POWR PAC candidates are likely to all be candidates who back Cranley for mayor, assuming Cranley survives the May 2 primary, which is a pretty good bet. Witte appears in a non-speaking role in a Cranley campaign video, playing the part of a small business owner, which is natural for him because that's what he is.

In 2009, POWR PAC was given credit for helping elect four new council members – Republican Leslie Ghiz, Charter candidate Chris Bortz, and two Democrats, Jeff Berding and Cecil Thomas.

Witte, who is a Republican, says that in 2017, the POWR PAC slate will of necessity be mostly Democrats.

"Absolutely, that's the reality,'' Witte said. "It would have to be that way, if the Republicans only run two."

Murray is likely to be one of those POWR PAC candidates.

"Ward 25 (West Price Hill and Covedale) is sort of the last bastion of Republican votes in the city and even that is eroding,'' Witte said.

All of this does not mean the Cincinnati Democratic Committee does not have some headaches to deal with when it comes to putting together a council slate.

"It's going to be a difficult process,'' said Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke. "We have to have a diverse slate and that is tricky."

In a city where about half of the electorate is African-American and very much inclined to vote Democratic, the party has an obligation, Burke, said, to make sure the ticket is racially diverse.

Right now, there are four African-Americans on City Council – Democrats Young and Simpson, Republican Winburn and independent Christopher Smitherman, who is running for re-election.

Simpson is out of the picture because of the mayoral race, so three of the four incumbent Democrats are white males – Mann, Seelbach and Sittenfeld. They, along with Young, will certainly be endorsed for re-election.

After that is gets tricky.

Three other white candidates would seem to have a legitimate claim to a Democratic endorsement – all of whom ran in 2013.

They are former council member Laure Quinlivan, who finished 10th in 2013 and lost her council seat; Greg Landsman, who finished 11th in the 2013 balloting and was instrumental in getting the Preschool Promise ballot issue passed; and community organizer Michelle Dillingham, who finished 12th in 2013.

That would make seven endorsed candidates, and only one of them African-American. Two spots left.

The best-organized of the remaining non-incumbents appear to be Derek Bauman, a former suburban police officer who lives in Over-the-Rhine; Tamaya Dennard, a former aide to Sittenfeld who works for a non-profit called Design Impact; and Ozie Davis III, a community activist in Avondale.

Bauman is white. Dennard and Davis are African-American.

Diversity on the slate is the goal, Democratic party leaders say.

That could make Bauman the odd man out. Which does not mean he won't run anyway. And Dennard and Davis are most definitely legitimate candidates and challengers to be reckoned with. 

Or maybe the Cincinnati Democratic Committee will surprise us and re-write the playbook.

This jigsaw puzzle should be finished before April turns to May.