If You Think This Cincinnati Council Race Is Bedlam, Wait Until 2021

Oct 8, 2017

There's been all sorts of excitement in Cincinnati political circles this year – first, because there is a highly-contentious mayor's race between incumbent John Cranley and challenger Yvette Simpson.

Secondly, the city's politicos are wound up because there are no less than three open seats on the nine-member city council – the one held by Simpson, who can't run for both mayor and council; the one held by Republican Charlie Winburn, who is term-limited out; and the one held by Charterite Kevin Flynn, who could run but has chosen not to.

That's one-third of the council about to change hands.

But if you think that is something, stick around for four years.

In 2021, there could be as many as six open seats.

Presuming they are re-elected this year (which is not a lead pipe cinch), six council members could be term-limited out in 2021 – Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young and David Mann; Republican Amy Murray, and independent Christopher Smitherman.

This is all because, in November 2012, 51 percent of Cincinnati voters gave a "yes" vote to Issue 4, which changed the term of council members from two years to four.

The Issue 4 charter amendment first went into effect in the council election of November 2013.

It was a plan devised by then-council member Laure Quinlivan; and was meant to eliminate the constant campaigning made necessary by being on the ballot every two years.

The irony of the passage of Issue 4 is that while it was approved by voters, Quinlivan, who was a candidate for re-election, finished in 10th place, out of the running for a seat on the nine-member council.

But she is back this year, running for council again.

Four year terms, it was said, would give council members more time to be reflective and deliberative in their jobs. Thus, they would govern more effectively.

Well, we could write a book on whether or not an Age of Reason has descended on the third floor of City Hall. We're not going down that road today.

Instead, let's look at the practical effect of the charter amendment passed in 2012.

At the time, many people argued they had no problem with four-year terms, but that they should be staggered – with four council members being elected in one year, and the other five two years later.

That would have eliminated the possibility of what we are looking at in 2021 – six open seats.

"Four years from now, it's going to be katy-bar-the-door in the city council race,'' said Pete Witte, the Price Hill activist who heads POWR PAC (Partnership of Westside Residents), a group that is campaigning for its slate of council candidates.

"That will be the first big mash-up of four year terms and term limits,'' Witte said.

Witte was against Issue 4 from the start.

"You're going to have some very good first-time candidates who are not going to win this time; and you are telling them they have to wait four years before they can try again?," Witte said. "It makes no sense."

Many of these people – people who would make perfectly fine council members – can't sit around for four years plotting to run again. They have to go out and make a living; and it is very hard when you are not in office to keep the voting public from forgetting who you are.

Cincinnati could, as long as the Issue 4 charter amendment is in effect, slip into a pattern, Witte said – three open seats in one council election, six in the next.

"Three, six, three, six, three, six,'' Witte said. "All they would have had to do is stagger these terms to avoid this."

Tim Burke, the chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said that, "in retrospect, I agree" that perhaps the terms should have been staggered.

"There are some things that appeal to me about the four year terms, like getting a year off from campaigning,'' Burke said.

But Burke said that at the time council was debating whether to put Issue 4 on the ballot, he testified before council that the terms should not be staggered, "because it would favor the incumbents, who have the name recognition and the ability to raise money."

This possibly-developing pattern could be halted if one of two things happens.

First, one or more of the six incumbents running this year loses on November 7. It's certainly possible. There are a lot of very good challengers out there; and the voters may be on one of those fed-up moods where they are ready to turn elected officials out.

Secondly, they could all be re-elected on November 7 and some of  them could decide to leave office early, allowing a (generally) hand-picked successor to take his or her place and run in 2021 as an incumbent.

As long as that replacement takes office more than half way through the four-term, he or she could be eligible to run in both 2021 and 2025. The charter limits a council member to 10 consecutive years in office.

Winburn and Flynn have not left early to give a new council member a leg up. That's their choice. They are not bound to do so; they were elected to four year terms and are going to serve four years.

But, of this crowd of incumbents, some could very well leave early, for a variety of reasons.

It's probably too late for any of them to run for statewide office in 2018, although there has been plenty of speculation that Murray, the only Republican on council, might make a good lieutenant governor running mate for one of the four Republican candidates for Ohio governor.

So, some could leave. Or all could stay.

If they all stay, then 2021's council race will look more like a rugby scrum than an election.