How Tuesday's Cincinnati Mayor Primary Stacks Up Against Past Elections

Apr 30, 2017

Tuesday, Cincinnatians will do it again.

They will go to the polls and take the first step in a two-tiered process of selecting a mayor – a direct election system that has only been in place since 2001.

We're definitely not in the election prediction business. Anybody who still is after last year's presidential election really needs to knock it off.

We will predict one thing though – that the turnout in Tuesday's primary will be higher than the city's September 2013 mayoral primary, when only 5.7 percent of the electorate bothered to show up.

That was an unusual race. There were two well-known Democrats on the ballot, John Cranley and Roxanne Qualls. And there were too little known candidates with nearly empty campaign coffers – Jim Berns and Queen Noble.

Clearly, most voters assumed – correctly – that Cranley and Qualls would be the two top vote-getters and go on to face each other in the Nov. 2013 general election. That was probably the major factor in causing the vast majority of voters to stay home. Qualls and Cranley combined for 93 percent of the vote, with Cranley taking the lion's share, while the two unknowns split up the remaining seven percent.

Cranley went on to the win the November election handily, with 58 percent of the vote in an election where 29 percent of city voters cast a ballot.

Tuesday's election is a different kettle of fish.

There are no candidates on the ballot who are just taking up space; and the competition for the top two spots is real.

Three candidates will be on the ballot – all Democrats. They are Cranley, the incumbent; Council Member Yvette Simpson and a first-time candidate, Rob Richardson, a labor lawyer and, up until December, a member of the University of Cincinnati board of Trustees.

John Cranley, Yvette Simpson, Rob Richardson

They all have name ID or plenty of campaign money or both; and, from the tone of the debates and some of the campaign ads, it has been a rather fierce battle.

Perhaps, for the newcomers among us, it is time for a bit of a history lesson:

How did we get to the direct election system?

There was a time, not so long ago, when it really didn't mean that much to be mayor of Cincinnati; it was a largely ceremonial office and the only power it had was the personal clout of the man or woman who held it.

From the late 1920s, when the city's charter form of government began, the mayor was chosen by council itself – usually by whichever political party or political alliance held a majority on council.

Republicans dominated the office through the 1960s, but, in 1971, the Democrats and the Charter Committee members of council teamed up to form a coalition that passed the mayor's job back and forth between the two parties.

That lasted through 1985, when the Democrats – the more powerful of the two allies – broke up the coalition.

In 1987, Cincinnati voters approved a referendum that made the top vote-getter in the council election the mayor. That set off a period when many, but not all, council members were tripping over each other for attention so they could finish first in the council elections.

That system, which is generally agreed now to have been a bad one, lasted through 1999. In 1995, a group headed mostly by business leaders, put a "strong mayor" issue on the ballot that would have made the mayor the city's chief executive and voters emphatically said, thanks, but no thanks.

All that changed in 1999, when a broader coalition calling itself "Coming Together for Cincinnati" tried again with a scaled-back version of a "strong mayor" form of government, one that included direct election of the mayor.

Voters bought into that plan; and it was put in place for the 2001 mayoral election.

It was meant to create a mayor who would be more than a ribbon-cutting ceremonial figure.

The new system gave the mayor some significant powers – the ability to initiate the hiring and firing of the city manager, the ability to veto legislation, subject to override by six council members; the ability to appoint all council committee chairs.

The primaries were originally set for September, with the top two vote-getters facing each other in November. If no more than two candidates filed for mayor, there would be no primary. That happened once – in 2009. There was no primary – the incumbent, Democrat Mark Mallory, simply faced off in November with then-little known Republican Brad Wenstrup, now a U.S. House member, in an election Mallory won by eight percentage points.

In Nov. 2015, Cincinnati voters approved a charter amendment setting the mayoral primary in May instead of September. One result of that was that it gives the two general election combatants more time to replenish their campaign coffers after a primary election.

A few mayoral election oddities:

2001: Cincinnati's first primary election for mayor was held on – believe it or not – Sept. 11, 2001. 9/11. The day of the terrorist attacks; one of the darkest days in American history.

That was the day New York City, the epicenter of the attacks, was to have a mayoral primary election, but it was postponed after the hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers.

But Cincinnati's mayoral primary went on.

Only 15 percent of the city's registered voters cast ballots. The low turnout was not particularly surprising – many here were glued to their televisions for news of the terrorist attacks, or simply in mourning.

That night at the board of elections, as election officials worked to count the vote and political people and media gathered waiting for the results, there was an eerie feeling in the building – a feeling that, somehow, there was something wrong about doing this on such a tragic day.

But, nonetheless, the election went on.

Former mayor Charlie Luken
Credit Provided

The fact that was apparent from the start was who the top two vote-getters would be. There were two WLWT Channel 5 news anchors on the ballot – Courtis Fuller, who left the TV station for a time to run for mayor; and Charlie Luken, a former anchor who was the current mayor.

The other two candidates on the ballot were complete unknowns who combined for 7.7 percent of the vote.

Somewhat surprisingly, Fuller won the primary easily with 54 percent to Luken's 38 percent.

But in November, Luken bested Fuller by 10 percentage points to become the first directly elected mayor under the charter form of government.

2005: Luken did not run for re-election that year, so the mayor's race was wide open.

The primary held in September drew a crowd of seven candidates, a record that still stands for mayoral primaries.

Four of them were well-known and well-funded contenders – then-State Sen. Mark Mallory, then-council member David Pepper, council member Alicia Reece, and Republican Charlie Winburn, who was then between stints on City Council.

The other three – Justin Jeffre, Sandra Queen Noble and Sylvan Greco – split up 2.3 percent of the vote.

Pepper ended up edging out Mallory for the top spot by 146 votes out of 43,470 cast.

Former mayor Mark Mallory
Credit Sarah Ramsey

In the general election campaign, Pepper spent a record $1.2 million while Mallory spent over $300,000. Mallory ran on a simple message – that he was the City Hall outsider who could come in and end the "chaos" on City Council.

It worked – Mallory won with 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Pepper. Mallory's message was effective, but he was also probably helped by the fact that many of the African-American voters who voted for Reece and Winburn in the primary likely turned to him in November.

That 2005 primary was the highest turnout for a Cincinnati mayoral primary so far at 20.6 percent – which means that about four of every five Cincinnati voters stayed home.

We'll have to wait until Tuesday night to see if the Cranley, Simpson, Richardson bout will draw more interest. One can only hope that it would. There is, as always in a mayor's race under this system, a lot at stake.