We Should All Miss Having Grown-ups Like David Crowley In The Room

Jan 25, 2019

Giving advice to people who are aspiring to be elected to public office is not something I do. As a politics reporter, that is not my job. I write about them; I analyze their ideas; I sometimes get under their skin and do what I can to hold their feet to the fire.

But advice? No. I am not a political consultant.

Except once. Nineteen years ago, when a first-time Cincinnati City Council candidate came to me to talk politics in the Enquirer building at Third and Elm.

I really didn't mean to give him any advice. It was something that just slipped out in the course of our conversation; it just seemed to me to be something as plain as the nose on my face. It was something that this very savvy man would have figured out for himself eventually. More on this later.

His name was David Crowley, who was, at the time, the patriarch of the massive clan of Irish men and women who had started up on Mount Adams and, eventually, spilled out into all parts of the city. He died eight years ago this month at the age of 73, another victim of the scourge of cancer.

I have been thinking about this extraordinary man a lot lately.

At Cincinnati's St. Patrick's Day Parade, there was never a bigger contingent in the parade than the authentic sons and daughters of Eire, in many years, led by a smiling David under the Crowley banner.

Understand this about the vast majority of politicians, particularly the first-time candidates: For most, it takes a successful election to make them into somebody, an affirmation from the voters to turn a person with ambition into a force to be reckoned with.

David Crowley didn't need that affirmation. He was a man of substance and accomplishment long before he was elected to Cincinnati City Council at the age of 64 in 2001. A smart and savvy Democrat, he stood out as a grown-up among a raft of young council members and council wannabes who, for the most part, lacked the gravitas of a David Crowley.

Not to mention the love of life and laughter of a David Crowley.

And the character to put his words into action. David Crowley, as you might imagine, was a devout Catholic. But he chose not to attend one of the Catholic churches in the predominately white, affluent neighborhoods. Instead, he and his wife Sherri worshiped at St. Joseph Church in the West End, a church where the congregation was predominately African-American.

It was there, at St. Joseph, that his funeral was held in January 2011. Those who were there won't soon forget the church's gospel choir's rousing rendition of "Soon and Very Soon, We Are Going To See The King," which had the congregation clapping and singing along until it nearly shook the rafters of the church.

David would have loved it.

We hear a lot of politicians – politicians who have been in elective offices for decades – talk a lot about their "devotion to public service." That's great, but we get a little tired of it, when we compare them to someone like David, who lived a full life of public service before he even thought about running for city council.

Rocky Merz was not yet 25 years old when he met with Crowley at Highland House on a Saturday afternoon. Merz had worked for Council Member Minette Cooper, but she was term-limited out.

"He said to me, 'Do you want to come to work for me?' " Merz recalled. "I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Good. Because I want you to work for me.' That's all there was to it. Then we just sat and talked football the rest of the afternoon."

It was, for Merz, the beginning of a seven-year job as the council member's chief of staff – a learning experience for a young man who is still in public service as the business services division manager at the Cincinnati Park Board.

"One thing I learned about him from the beginning was that he valued and recognized the human dignity in all people,'' Merz said. "He would treat the janitor who came into the office to empty the trash cans the same way he would treat a top executive of a major corporation."

Crowley, Merz said, had life experience that few politicians could match.

How many first-time political candidates have had this kind of resume?

  •  1965-1969: Served as executive director of the Diocesan Catholic Children's Home in Fort Mitchell
  • 1969-1974: Executive director of Santa Maria Community Services in Price Hill
  • 1974: Was appointed by his friend and fellow Cincinnatian, Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan, as the first executive director of a new state agency, the Ohio Commission on Aging
  • 1975-76: Executive director for the American Association of Homes for the Aging in Washington, D.C.
  • 1984-1987: Joined the Peace Corps as head of volunteers in Barbados and Jamaica
  • 1987-1988: Moved to California to work for a non-profit called Freedom from Hunger
  • 1988-1993: Directed international relief and development for Catholic Relief Services in West Africa, Central and South America, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo

Then, Crowley, divorced from his first wife, Kay, moved back to Cincinnati in 1993. Duty to family called. He was the last of the Crowley brothers and returned home to run the family business in Mount Adams, Crowley's Highland House, an Irish pub that has been owned by the Crowley family since 1937.

The bar is at the heart and soul of the Crowley clan. And for its many customers, it is a home away from home, a comfortable place for a beer or a shot. Nothing fancy. People talk. Loudly, sometimes. But it is a family bar and a Cincinnati institution.

Six years later, he married Sherri, who works to keep his memory alive with a legacy fund that raises money for good causes in the city. David has four children and six grandchildren, whom he doted over.

But it was in 2001 that Crowley decided he had more to give to his city. In the spring of that year, the city was struggling to recover from violence in the streets sparked by the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer. A city council made up mostly of very young council members seemed powerless to bring the city together.

Crowley ran and won.

He had an enormous impact in his eight years as a council member, in addition to his stint as vice mayor under Mayor Mark Mallory.

Crowley was one of the leaders of the effort to overturn Article 12, a charter amendment that barred City Council from passing any laws to protect gay and lesbian people from discrimination. It was repealed in 2004, but Crowley was not done yet – he successfully worked to add sexual orientation and transgender status to the city's Human Rights Ordinance.

He also spent three years pushing hard for an Environmental Justice Ordinance that was designed to protect the city's poorest neighborhoods from pollution.

This is a man who had a lasting impact on the city.

But there was a time when he was not sure about whether or not he should run.

David Crowley's nephew, Patrick Crowley, was, at the time, the Kentucky politics reporter for the Enquirer while I was covering politics on the Ohio side of the river.

Patrick called me one day and asked me if I could meet with his Uncle Dave.

"Sure, I said, send him over,'' I said.

David showed up in the newsroom at the appointed hour and we went into a small conference room to talk. I got us both some coffee. I wasn't expecting him to ask for advice and I don't think that's why he came.

But he started telling me about some of the issues he would like to work on as a member of council, and how he thought council in those days was reeling out of control. And then he stopped short.

"The problem is,'' he said, "I don't have a campaign theme."

I couldn't help myself.

Look at your head, I said.

He gave me a quizzical look.

"What?"

Look at the top of your head.

"What are you talking about?"

The top of your head. Your hair is white. You are a grown-up. You can be the grown-up in the room.

"That's really good,'' he said. "White hair. Experience. Not a professional politician."

Oh brother, I thought, I've done it now.

As it turned out, that's exactly what he ran on. And he won. And he stayed until he was term-limited out.

Maybe I shouldn't have done it. But, in the end, I think I may have done Cincinnati a favor.

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.