Say what you want about Mark Mallory’s eight years as mayor of Cincinnati, which are rapidly coming to a close.
You can love him; you can loathe him.
What you can’t do is ignore him.
The man is a showman. Part stand-up comic. Your genial host. The man of a thousand quips.
And, if you find yourself on the wrong side of an issue he supports, a bulldog, who fights and claws and cajoles until he gets what he wants. A mini-LBJ. A chip off the ol’ block – his father, William Mallory Sr., a leader in the Ohio House for decades, was the same way.
You can see it anytime there is a disagreement at a city council meeting. Mallory will call a recess, stroll over to a recalcitrant council member, and deliver a “Come to Jesus” talk outside the earshot of everyone else until, usually, that council member crumbles under the weight and gives in.
He really is a masterful politician.
And, unlike other mayors who have quietly packed their things and slipped out the door when their terms came to a close, Mallory, as you might expect, went out with a bang.
It was Tuesday night. The place was the Ensemble Theatre in Over-the-Rhine. The occasion was the mayor’s final “State of the City” address. About 200 invited guests – 191 to be exact – filled the tiny theater, clutching their printed Ensemble Theatre tickets, just like they were going to a theatrical performance.
Well, they were.
State of the City address? So there would be a podium on the stage, with a microphone, right?
What the 191 saw on their arrival was a stage set from a play that had been running at the theater – a nicely-decorated living room, with a cushy couch, a dining room table, brightly-lit lamps. A homey atmosphere.
And, at the appointed time, Mallory entered, stage center, to a standing ovation. There were teleprompters at stage left and stage right, along with a third directly in front of him, hanging over the main entrance to the theatre.
The teleprompters rolled a 14-page speech across their screens – not that Mallory paid strict attention to them.
It didn’t take long for Mallory – whom, we swear, must aspire to a career In stand-up comedy – launched into a comedy riff.
He said people are constantly surprised to see him in public places around town – restaurants, gas stations, coffee shops.
“I’ll go to Kroger,’’ he said, striding across the stage before plopping down on the comfy couch. “They’ll say, ‘What are you doing here?’ I say, ‘I’m getting eggs. What are you doing here?’ I can understand if I was at a crack house. They might wonder why I’m there. But, you know, I stopped going to crack houses a long time ago.”
A sly grin crossed his face.
The audience had a good laugh.
It was like that for a solid 65 minutes. A one-man stage show. Like Hal Holbrook presenting “A Night with Mark Twain.”
He strode across the stage, from one end of the other, looking directly into the faces of the audience. He’d sit for a while at the dinner table, move over to the couch, hustle up to the edge of the footlights to make a point.
What the audience heard little about were the two most controversial issues of his second term – the streetcar project and the plan to lease out the city’s parking meters and garages – there was barely a word spoken.
The parking meter lease – the one that his preferred successor, Roxanne Qualls, supports, and her opponent, John Cranley, despises – there was nary a word.
“One project you expect me to talk about is the streetcar,’’ Mallory said. “It has certainly had its challenges. But there is a community drive that has kept this project going. Take a look.”
The theater darkened and up on the screen above the stage a short video began playing – one that featured John Schneider, the prime player in pushing the streetcar to the forefront, and businessman Otto Budig Jr., both extolling the determination Mallory showed to get it done.
So much for the streetcar discussion.
There were other comedic interludes in the serious talk about the city.
Mallory showed a video clip from his appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show in 2007, right after he had thrown the most incredibly bad ceremonial first pitch in the history of professional baseball at the Cincinnati Reds’ Opening Day.
The pitch, Mallory said, “was a lot of fun. It gave us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves. Actually, it gave you all the opportunity to laugh at me.”
And, he argued, it started people around the country to start wondering about Cincinnati and to begin noticing that this was a place where things were happening.
Like mayors who can’t throw a baseball.
Then, he rattled off a list of accomplishments during his watch:
- The Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), which he said has seen homicides drop by 41 percent and shootings by 22 percent since it began in 2007.
- - $17.7 million in new Streetscapes in Oakley, East Walnut Hills, Mt. Lookout, Mt. Adams, Pendleton, the CUF neighborhoods, East Price and Camp Washington.
- The completion of the first phase of The Banks project.
- The revitalization of Over-the-Rhine and the creation of the new Washington Park.
Cincinnatians, he said, ask him all the time what he wants his legacy to be.
“Well, I know that a lot of people think I want my legacy to be the streetcar; that is not the case,’’ Mallory said. “You might think I want my legacy to be The Banks or the revitalization of Over-the-Rhine, or the progress we have made in communities around the city.
“That is not what I want,’’ he said, drawing closer to the front of the stage. “I want my legacy to be that I said I was going to change the direction of the city of Cincinnati and we did that.”
And there was a subtle dig at Cranley, who says that the city should focus on basic services in a time of financial belt-tightening.
“Filling potholes, picking up the trash, paving streets?,’’ Mallory said. “We are supposed to do that. We better do that. We do that every day; that is not the issue. That is not the way to make a major transformation in a city.”
Then, like any good showman, he left with a little personal message for the audience.
“The legacy is not mine, it is yours, Cincinnati,’’ he said. “You are the ones who have changed. You have a new pride in the city. You stand up to the challenges. You take on the big projects. You embrace the future.”
“You, Cincinnati, created the buzz.”
We don’t know what plans Mallory has for the future. Perhaps another opportunity in politics will open up.
But, for someone with Mallory’s skill, there is always show business.