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John Mirlisena: The Politician Who Never Went Anywhere Without His Plumber's Tools

Jim Nolan

Any politician can talk. That's what they do.

Some talk better than others, but everyone one of them can talk and talk and talk.

But talk is cheap.

Every once in a while, though, you run into a politician who can actually fix stuff.

Not government stuff, necessarily. Stuff like cars, and broken-down farm machinery and water pipes. The odd boiler or two.

That's the kind of politician John Mirlisena was. And he proved it one chilly October night in 1991 at a candidates' forum at the old Carnegie Library on Eastern Avenue in Columbia Tusculum.

Sadly, the roly-poly, ever smiling Mirlisena – a Republican turned Democrat – is no longer with us. He served on city council in the 1980s and the early 1990s; and died in 2004.

Aside from being on city council and actually trying to do something to help people, Mirlisena had no grand ambitions; he never saw himself moving up the political ladder to become a congressman, a governor, a president.

Being one of nine Cincinnati City Council members was quite enough for John, thank you very much.

And being one heck of a good plumber.

Credit The Cincinnati Enquirer
John Mirlisena

That was his trade. For Mirlisena, whose parents emigrated from Sicily, that was the family business. He never went anywhere without his tool box in the trunk of the car.

He carried this desire to fix stuff into his council office. He ran on the slogan "Four Days" – which, he explained, was a gold-plated guarantee. Any citizen who called with a problem that involved City Hall, Mirlisena promised he would get it fixed in no more than four days, even if it meant personally haranguing city department heads, who would cringe when they saw Mirlisena coming. Or stepping in and doing it himself.

He even had his slogan on the license plate of his car: 4 Days.

This "four day" promise used to drive the Charterites crazy, particularly former Charter council member Bobbie Sterne, who thought Mirlisena was the biggest buttinski in the history of charter government.

Charterites believe that council is there to set policy and leave the day-to-day operations of the city to the professionals and stay out of their way. Passing citizen complaints on to the department heads was fine; getting involved personally the way Mirlisena did was anathema to the Charter Committee.

Mirlisena didn't much care.

It was a catchy slogan. People remembered it. They voted for him. And they took him up on his offer.

Like the night when he came home from a long day at City Hall and a night meeting. He had just settled in to get something to eat and take it easy when his phone rang. It was a woman asking him to come to her home, "because there's a monster in my toilet."

Mirlisena trudged over to her home. He lifted the toilet lid to find a drowned squirrel clogging the pipe. He took a plunger to the toilet, got it out, put it in a plastic bag and left to a round of applause from the family.

How many elected officials do you know who could – or would – do that for a constituent?

Mirlisena never went anywhere without his tool box. It was his constant companion.

I'll never forget a candidate forum in mid-October 1991, held by the Columbia Tusculum and East End community councils in the old Carnegie Library, which has since been turned into a fancy party center. It was Mirlisena's last election as a council candidate.

It took place during the middle of a very unusual and nasty cold snap; the temperature outside was well below zero, not at all typical for mid-October in Cincinnati.

But a big crowd turned out. Most of the 26-candidate field showed up, filing in and out to repeat their stock stump speeches (two or three minutes, max), take a few questions and move on to the next neighborhood event.

The incumbents in that election included five lawyers – Guy Guckenberger, David Mann, the late Pete Strauss, Jim Cissell, and Tyrone Yates.

It was bone-chilling in the hall that night; people were sitting there wearing their heavy coats, hats and even gloves.

The moderator of the forum got up at one point and apologized for how cold it was.

The heater in the building has gone out and we haven't been able to get anybody out here to fix it, he said. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Mirlisena was there at that point. He knew exactly what to do.

I've got my tool box out in the in the car, Mirlisena said. Let me go down in the basement and see what I can do.

So, while the other candidates continued with their spiels, Mirlisena hustled out to his car, parked on Eastern Avenue, and hauled his tool box into the building.

He headed for the basement, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

He was gone for about 30 to 40 minutes; you could hear things clanking around down in the basement as the candidates upstairs rattled on.

Suddenly, there was a rush of warm air in the room. It built up to a comfy level and people in the audience – and on the stage – started peeling off their coats.

Downstairs, Mirlisena washed the grease off his hands, buttoned up his shirt and knotted his necktie before taking the tool box back to the car and returning to the forum.

Boiler's fixed, he said, taking his seat on the stage. We're OK now. Is it my turn to talk yet?

Not surprisingly, he got a standing ovation.

And, no doubt about it, every vote in the room.

Only John Mirlisena could pull that off.

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