Some Things You May Not Know About Cincinnati's Mayoral Candidates

Feb 19, 2017

If you had been at the Hamilton County Board of Elections at 4 p.m. Thursday – the deadline for candidates for the May 2 Cincinnati mayoral primary – you may well have heard only one sound, that of crickets chirping.

All three of the candidates for Cincinnati mayor – all Democrats – had filed their petitions and qualified for the ballot long before the Thursday deadline.

The only other potential candidate, Republican Charlie Winburn, who had petitions, didn't show up to turn them in. It's not the first time – Winburn probably has a closet full of petitions for various offices he decided, in the end, not to run for.

So this is the field: the incumbent, John Cranley; council member Yvette Simpson, who is risking what is probably a safe council seat to take on Cranley; and labor lawyer Rob Richardson, who has never held elective office but who has just finished a term on the University of Cincinnati board of trustees.

For about the next 10 weeks, we are going to see the three of them in any number of public debates and flooding the airwaves with ads and mailboxes with campaign literature, laying out their positions on the issues and, in many cases, disagreeing vehemently about the direction in which the city should go over the next four years.

The fact is, though, that these are not just politicians, but people. And people – you, me, everyone – has a story to tell about where he or she came from and what shaped their view of the world. In politics, they call it the candidate's "back-story."

These three council candidates are no exception. And, even if you are a Cincinnati voter who pays close attention to the politics of your city, there are probably things you don't know about these three.

Here's a little about who they are and where they came from:

Yvette Simpson

Simpson's childhood was not the stuff of fairy tales; it was hard, growing up in poverty-stricken Lincoln Heights in a dysfunctional family, in conditions where one either rises above it or sinks along with her surroundings.

"From the moment I entered this world, the deck was stacked against me,'' Simpson told a large crowd of supporters last August when she announced her candidacy at a West End art gallery.

"Born to a mentally ill mother and a drug-addicted father, I was raised by my grandmother,'' Simpson said.

It was her grandmother's love and a series of mentors who came into the young girl's life who inspired her to achieve and break out of the cycle of poverty in which she was born.

''I am uniquely qualified to bring this city together,'' Simpson said at her campaign kick-off. "I have lived in the hills of this city and I have lived in the valleys, the places that we don't talk about so much."

Somehow, she decided at the tender age of eight that what she wanted to do was to be a lawyer. This, from a child who came from a family where no one had ever attended college.

When she was 16, her grandmother had to move into senior living; and the young girl spent the next two years bouncing around, living with friends and family.

While a student at Princeton High School, her hard work as a student paid off at the age of 18 with a full-ride scholarship to Miami University. She graduated from Miami in 2000 with degrees in political science and communications; and went on to earn a law degree at the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in business administration from Xavier University.

By 2007, she was back at Miami University – this time not as a student, but as the person chosen to start the university's pre-law counseling program.

She launched her career in politics in 2011, finishing seventh in the council race. Two years later, she ran for re-election and finished fourth in the field race.

Simpson said when she announced that she does not want to make this a campaign of attacks and counter-attacks.

"This is about introducing myself to the people of Cincinnati,'' Simpson said. "There are people out there who don't know me, people who haven't had the chance to get to know me; and I want them to see me as the leader that they want, not the opposite of the mayor we have today."

Rob Richardson

Richardson may be the least well-known of the candidates as the campaign begins in earnest; and he was the last to jump into the race, announcing his candidacy before a packed house at a hall in Corryville on Jan. 3.

He had to wait – his nine-year term as a University of Cincinnati (UC) trustee ended in December; and he had to wait until that obligation was behind him to become an official candidate.

But there had been speculation for months that Richardson would get into the race.

He had his hands full in his last year as a trustee, when he served as chairman of the board.

It was a tumultuous time for UC; and for the city – and Richardson found himself in the thick of it.

He led the board 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 in the hiring of a new football coach, Luke Fickell, who was on the staff of Ohio State University's head coach, Urban Meyer.

He was board president last year during the murder trial of former UC police officer Ray Tensing, who is accused of murdering Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop. Tensing's first trial ended in a hung jury; and he is scheduled to be re-tried in May.

In January, the new candidate for mayor got up in front of a room full of supporters and told a story about his family that most of them did not know.

Standing nearby and listening was his father, Robert Richardson Sr., known as "Bob," who is now president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP.

The younger Richardson spoke emotionally of his great-grandfather who was a slave in the South; and about his father's first cousin, Vivian Malone, who became an icon in the civil rights movement in 1963.

Malone was the first African-American woman to enroll at the University of Alabama, facing down Gov. George Wallace, who blocked the doors until President Kennedy's put the Alabama National Guard under federal control and the soldiers led Malone and and another black student into the university to enroll. 

His father came to Cincinnati as a young man, Richardson said. Bob Richardson ended up at UC to study electrical engineering but had to drop out of school to support his young family.

His son Rob ended up earning a degree in electrical engineering at UC and went on to earn a law degree at the UC College of Law. He is a labor lawyer – a natural field of practice for him. His father was president of Laborers Local 265 and was later president of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council.

At his announcement, the crowd grew quiet as he talked about his father.

"My father was a laborer helping construct the campus building where I earned my degree in electrical engineering,'' Richardson said, glancing at his father, standing in the side of the room.

His family, he said, "has come a long way."

John Cranley

You see him on television, read his name in the newspaper, hear him on the radio nearly every day.

That is the advantage of incumbency.

But there are things that many Cincinnati voters don't know about the man who wants another four years as mayor.

The incumbent in the race has a long resume and deep roots in the city.

The St. Xavier High School graduate's academic achievements are impressive; he has earned degrees from John Carroll University, Harvard Law School, and Harvard divinity school.

Raised in Price Hill by his father Jay, a life estate planner and Vietnam veteran, and his mother Susan, a former teacher who once served on the Cincinnati Board of Education, Cranley now lives in Hyde Park with his wife Dena and their young son, Joseph.

Dena Cranley is the daughter of Suhalia and Beshara David, immigrants from Jordan who built an incredibly successful business in their new home - Gold Star Chili.

In 2000 and 2006, Cranley ran and lost to Republican incumbent Steve Chabot. In 2006, Chabot's First Congressional District seat was targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which poured money into the district to help elect Cranley. Cranley campaigned fiercely, but ended up losing with 48 percent of the vote.

And he was on Cincinnati City Council from 2000 to 2009,running strong re-election campaigns.

While he was out of office, he worked in the private sector, developing the Incline District in East Price Hill in what was, as he likes to point out, the worst economy for real estate in 70 years.

Then, in 2013, he returned to politics, running for mayor and defeating former mayor Roxanne Qualls in a campaign where Cranley was generally considered to be the underdog.

If you sit down and talk with Cranley about his career so far, he is obviously proud of his record as mayor – a controversial record at times – but one of the things that seems to have given him the most satisfaction has nothing to do with politics and elections.

Cranley, while on city council, was the co-founder of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. So far, the Ohio Innocence Project has freed 23 wrongly convicted people, according to the project's website.

It was a passion for Cranley; and he served as the administrative director from 2002 to 2006.

In 2006, Cranley's argument before Ohio's Fifth District Court of Appeals caused the appeals court to overturn Christopher Lee Bennett's conviction on a charge of aggravated vehicular homicide in Stark County.

Bennett had served four years of a nine year sentence before Cranley and the Ohio Innocence Project were able to use DNA evidence to overturn his conviction.

All of the above about Cranley, Richardson and Simpson is meant as a reminder: You are not just being asked to vote for  a politician. You are being asked to vote for a human being.