Three Open Cincinnati Council Seats Could Cause A Stampede

Sep 11, 2016

Let's all take a breather from Clinton-Trump, Portman-Strickland, et al, for a moment and think about the year 2017.

Specifically, let's think for a moment about the Cincinnati City Council race, where, for the second time since the city charter was changed, nine council members will be elected to four year  terms.

And let's think about the fact that one-third of those seats on city council will be  wide open; and what that might mean for Mayor John Cranley – assuming (and, really, it is way too early to be assuming anything) he is re-elected.

This week, council member Kevin Flynn made official what was the worst kept secret in the history of Cincinnati politics by announcing that he would not run again in 2017.

Flynn is the only "pure Charterite" on city council. By that we mean that he is the only one of the nine who was endorsed by the Charter Committee and the Charter Committee only.

Democrats Yvette Simpson and David Mann were also endorsed by Charter. But make no mistake about it – although they both believe in the "good government" principles of Charter – which was responsible for throwing out the political bosses in the 1920s and instituting the council-manager form of government – they are Democrats.

Flynn is a Charterite. So much so that a few months ago, he resigned his position as a Democratic precinct executive – a tea leaf that foretold of his announcement this week that he would serve only one term.

 Flynn, a real estate agent by profession, fought hard to win that council seat. He had run twice and lost before finally being elected in 2013.

But, as he said in his statement announcing he would not run again, Flynn said "it has never been my intent to make a career of politics."

When it comes down to it, Flynn has never seemed to relish the bare-knuckles fighting and internecine wheeling-and-dealing of politics. He talks a lot about "process," and how having a reasoned, reasonable process is the way to get things done. And he is not the type who believes politics is worthwhile unless good things get done.

In other words, he seems to have had enough.

Although Thursday, talking to reporters outside City Hall, Flynn hinted that he might return someday; and he only seemed to be half-joking. He said he would sit out the next four years and look at what happens over the next four years before deciding whether or not to make attempt a comeback in the 2021 council election.

"Hopefully, we'll still have our current mayor in place and a good council that will continue to do the work that we've started here,'' Flynn said. "And, if not, 2021 is not that far down the road and I can always come back at that point."

Well, we shall see what we shall see.

The fact is that Flynn will not be the only hole in the infield in the 2017 council election.

Simpson has declared her candidacy for mayor; she's vowed to take on Cranley, even though she starts out at a tremendous disadvantage in terms of campaign dollars.

And the city charter says you can't run for both council and mayor – you have to pick one or the other. Simpson has passed on another council term for a shot at the mayor's office.

That's two open council seats.

If a third candidate or more gets into the mayor's race – more than likely little known and under-funded – there will have to be a mayoral primary in May of next year, with the top two vote-getters facing each other for all the marbles in November 2017.

Then there is Republican Charlie Winburn, the often-bombastic chair of council's finance committee and a politician whose ambition has burned like a bonfire for decades.

Winburn can't run for council again – Cincinnati has a term limits law, you know.

So will the Republican run for mayor?

Well, he's gotten his clock cleaned twice in the past two years trying to run for other offices. In the March primary this year, he lost the county recorder's primary to former judge Norbert Nadel, and it wasn't close. In 2014, in the 9th Ohio Senate District, he was blown out of the water by Democrat Cecil Thomas.

Then there was the 2005 mayoral primary – Winburn ran in the primary, but didn't make the cut for the November election, which was won by Mark Mallory.

Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, told WVXU that Winburn has "told me consistently that he is not going to run for mayor."

And, frankly, Triantafilou will tell you that it is going to be very difficult to find a Republican candidate to run in this very Democratic city.

Winburn told WVXU that he has no plans to run for mayor, "but it's too early to tell."

Whatever he does, his council seat will be open.

That makes three.

Since voters passed a charter amendment to change council terms from two years to four years, the game has changed in council elections. Suddenly, it has become a very appealing job for would-be politicians. Job security. Not constantly running for re-election. Not a bad gig.

Not everyone is in love with the idea of four year terms.

Republican Pete Witte, a Price Hill business owner and neighborhood activist, thinks the four year terms have allowed council members "to become even more disconnected from the city as a whole."

"It was so obvious when we had two-year terms that in the second year, council members started showing their faces in public and started getting better acquainted with the issues,'' Witte said.

Now, with three open seats and four year terms, the 2017 council election is expected to draw a big crowd.

In our nearly 35 years of covering Cincinnati politics, we've seen a number of council races with 25 or more candidates. This one could break the bank.

"I don't know that it changes the dynamics all that much,'' said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "But, yes, there is likely to be a large field of candidates. Mostly from the Democratic side."

Burke says he knows of at least three former candidates who will be running again next year. Former council member Laure Quinlivan, Greg Landsman, and Michelle Dillingham finished just out of the running in 10th, 11th and 12th places, respectively. The irony of Quinlivan's loss was that she was the council member who championed the four year terms charter amendment.

"There will be plenty more,'' Burke said. The Democrats, he said, will field a full slate of nine endorsed candidates – both incumbents and challengers.

The Republicans are likely to endorse five candidates, Triantafilou said. That's enough to have a majority on council if they were all elected, which is unlikely.

The only Republican Triantafilou named as a potential candidate is Tamie Sullivan, the former director of PreventionFirst, the anti-drug abuse organization, and president of Sullivan Communications. She would be a first-time candidates.

"I'm talking to some others about running,'' Triantafilou said.

Charter's current head – called "the convener" – is Robert Dehner. Dehner says Charter is already talking to potential candidates for 2017 and will endorse a slate for city council. Some, Dehner said, will run with only the Charter endorsement; others will be Democrats and Republicans who get a Charter "cross-endorsement." 

Flynn has said he will not leave council early, so the three council members who have the authority to name his replacement – Democrats Simpson and Mann and Republican Amy Murray – won't have to deal with the awkward situation of agreeing on a new council member.

Charter is likely to have its own endorsed candidate or candidates, but they will probably also follow their usual practice of giving endorsements to Democratic and Republican candidates. Four years ago, Charter endorsed four Democrats and one Republican, along with Flynn.

And who has the most to gain or lose from this expected mad rush for three open seats in 2017?

Well, you, the Cincinnati taxpayer, obviously.

But, in purely political terms, it might be the current mayor, Cranley, if he can survive the mayoral race and win a second term.

He and Flynn had their disagreements – mostly over the streetcar project – but, for the most part, the Charter member of council was a reliable ally of Cranley on council. Winburn has most definitely been a reliable vote for Cranley.

Depending on who is elected, Cranley, in a second term, could end up with a council majority – possibly a veto-proof majority – that would not go along with his agenda and, quite possibly, cause him no end of headaches in his second term.

Which may explain why, when Flynn talked to reporters Thursday outside City Hall, Cranley was standing by his side and got his two cents in.

Cranley said of Flynn's declaration that he will not run again that he is taking him at his word.

But, Cranley said with a smile, "I think we still have time to talk him back into it."

Wishful thinking on his part, perhaps.