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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: After Chippy Debate, Cincinnati Mayoral Race Quiet No More

aftab pureval david mann
Courtesy of the candidates

The Cincinnati mayor's race has simmered on the back burner for months now, little noticed and rarely discussed.

Well, the lid blew off the pot Tuesday night.

The two candidates for mayor – Council Member David Mann and Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval – duked it out in an hour-long debate at Xavier's Cintas Center, sponsored by the university, WVXU and The Enquirer.

I don't think these two like each other very much.

Or, if they do, they have an odd way of showing it.

This is truly a generational battle.

It's 81-year-old Mann, who has been a fixture in Cincinnati politics since the 1970s as a council member, mayor (before the mayor had enhanced authority) and a term in the U.S. House; versus the 39-year-old Pureval, who burst on the scene in 2016 as the wunderkind of Cincinnati politics, and ran a spirited but unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2018. He has had his name on the ballot four times in the past five years.

You couldn't find two more disparate candidates to go head-to-head, especially from within the same political party. (Both are Democrats.)

On a day when Pureval picked up a major endorsement from Ohio's senior senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, Mann went on the offensive – which could be interpreted as the reaction of a candidate who knows he is behind and is battling to catch up.

Things got a bit chippy.

Mann suggested that Pureval doesn't have the experience to handle a job as big as being mayor of a city government with 6,000 employees. As clerk of courts, Pureval heads a department with a $13 million budget that is "not terribly important,'' Mann said.

"So sometimes it seems to me like the clerk over here is saying, 'Look, I've flown a kite and now it is time for me to take the controls of a 747,' except we are all passengers,'' Mann said.

Pureval shot back with a response that flicked a scab on the Mann campaign – the fact that Mann, a lifelong Democrat, is apparently the candidate of the city's Republican business leadership and many Republican voters – even though Republican voters are a distinct minority in Cincinnati.

"I know that your Republican supporters have convinced you that, in order to make the race competitive, you have to tear me down,'' Pureval said. "But that's what people are tired of."

The fact is no Republican candidate filed for the May mayoral primary; and even Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, told me before the primary he was telling Cincinnati Republicans they should vote for Mann, even though he has a long record as a traditional liberal Democratic candidate.

And Mann, when asked about the support he gets from Republicans, will tell you – very practically - that he will not turn down support from any quarter. Republicans have to vote for someone, he says.

Can't blame him a bit.

For some reason, Mann, in the debate, started hammering Pureval for firing 15 Republicans – political appointees – from the clerk's office when he took office in 2017. Pureval said he did it to "put an end to the good old boys club in that courthouse. And I have nothing to apologize for."

In fact, that is exactly what happens any time a county office changes hands from one political party to the other. A new officeholder can reasonably expect to put his own people in the most important jobs in the office. That's what Pureval did.

Mann knows that. This is not his first rodeo.

But as a campaign issue in the Cincinnati mayor's race, it is a non-starter. I guess Mann felt obliged to do it in order to appeal to those Republicans in the city whose votes he is after. But you do that with pieces of campaign literature mailed to a targeted audience of Republican voters. Not in the middle of a debate.

Mann said he would keep Paula Boggs Muething as city manager. Muething was the hand-picked choice of the current mayor, John Cranley.

Pureval is hedging his bets on that one. He doesn’t rule out keeping Muething, but he says he will nonetheless conduct a nationwide search for a city manager.

One of the clear demarcation lines between the two candidates came on the subject of policing – with Mann, who has the FOP endorsement, taking a traditional pro-cops approach, and Pureval advocating for a new way of looking at policing, which he believes will appeal to minority voters, younger voters and progressives in general.

Pureval said he believes the police department can be made more efficient by not sending out uniformed offices on calls that he believes would be better handled by mental health professionals.

Mann said 911 operators should not be put in the position of having to decide which situations need cops and which need mental health professionals.

From everything that was said in Tuesday night's debate, it was clear that Mann's candidacy is aimed at older, mainstream Democratic voters – the kind who dutifully vote the Democratic slate card in municipal elections – and Republican voters – who make up maybe 25% of the city electorate – and have no place to go, having made their distaste for Pureval known in previous elections for clerk and Congress.

Pureval, on the other hand, is targeting the city's Black voters along with young progressives who, if they care about the Democratic Party locally at all, would like to see it swing to the Bernie Sanders/AOC side of Democratic politics.

The stakes are very high. This new mayor, whoever he might be, is going to likely have a vastly different City Council to deal with.

If you think the tone was nasty Tuesday night, stick around. The hidden campaign for mayor is out in the light of day. It's going to be a brutal six weeks.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.