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Commentary: What Would A Mann-Sittenfeld Race For Mayor Look Like?

david mann pg sittenfeld
Jay Hanelman

This week in Cincinnati was a good reminder that through plagues and pandemics, through economic recession and even Depressions, the inexorable march of politics goes on. 

We still must choose a president in November, in an insane atmosphere where some people believe putting on a face mask to avoid spreading COVID-19 is a political act, where the president is accusing cable news hosts of murder and predicting massive fraud if people do what he did earlier this year and vote by mail.

And once that is over, Cincinnati will turn its attention to a municipal election in 2021 that will see at least six new members of Cincinnati City Council elected and a new mayor chosen to replace the term-limited John Cranley.

That's why, a week ago, when Council Member David Mann – now into his amazing sixth decade as a major political figure in Cincinnati – sent a letter to 500 supporters telling them that he and his wife Betsy have decided he will be a candidate for mayor in 2021 and asking them for contributions to his now nearly-empty campaign fund.

The only other person openly planning a run for mayor is Mann's fellow Democrat, Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld, who, in 2011, became the youngest person elected to City Council at the age of 27.

Mann seemed almost apologetic in his fundraising letter about the timing of his appeal for support.

"I hesitate to talk about anything other than today's issues including deaths in our community, a dramatic plunge in city revenues, the unknown timing of the end of the pandemic, the furlough of 1,700 city employees, the projected deficit of $91 million in our fiscal year beginning July 1, the damage to our local economy, and the disturbing disparity in the pandemic's effects on our African American citizens,'' Mann wrote.

In other words, the next mayor and council are going to be taking on a train wreck of a situation.

But Mann is motivated.

He has been Cincinnati's mayor twice before in his career – from 1980 to 1982 and in 1991, just before he went on to win a term in the U.S. House.

But, in those days, being mayor of Cincinnati was no big deal. The mayor had no real authority. A ribbon-cutter.

Since 2001 and the adoption of the "stronger mayor" form of government, including direct election of the mayor for the first time, the job has had much more substance. The mayor appoints council committee chairs (a good way to build the loyalty of a council majority); can hire and fire the city manager, with council approval; and submits his own budget each year.

The mayor has no vote on council, but can veto legislation, subject to override.

Being a real mayor, with real authority, probably appeals to Mann as the capstone to a long career.

When you talk to David Mann and watch him run council finance committee meetings at City Hall, it is easy to forget that he is now 80 years old. He was only 34 when his council career began in 1974 – the year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency.

After his letter became public earlier this week, one radio talk show host started making fun of Mann for his age. He said he would borrow from Donald Trump and call Mann "Sleepy David Mann" the way Trump refers to Biden.

Well, I have news for you. There is nothing "sleepy" about David Mann. He seems to have as much energy as most people half his age. If his political foes try to paint him as some doddering old fool, they will find themselves barking up the wrong tree.

Sittenfeld, who is a smart fellow, knows that. He's not going to announce his candidacy formally until at least July – the same as Mann. Neither man wants to launch a formal campaign until council has come up with a balanced budget by July 1, as required by the city charter.

"I have a lot of respect for David; I like David,'' said Sittenfeld, who said he had a lengthy phone conversation with Mann Wednesday, talking about a variety of city issues.

Sittenfeld had only one other thing to say about a potential match-up with Mann.

"My focus is on getting our community through this pandemic recession, not on other people's candidacies,'' Sittenfeld told WVXU.

Mann, for his part, wants people to know that he has "no ambitions beyond Cincinnati" – a reminder that Sittenfeld has already in his young career run a quixotic campaign for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, losing badly to former governor Ted Strickland.

Sittenfeld has been raising money for a long time in anticipation of running for mayor; he has about $660,000 in the bank. If all of the 500 supporters who received the letter from Mann gave him the maximum contribution of $1,100, Mann would be in the game in terms of fundraising. But that would be almost impossible to pull off.

"It's really difficult to raise money in the middle of a pandemic with the economy the way it is,'' Mann told WVXU. "These 'virtual fundraisers' are hard to pull off."

At this point, there are no others publicly planning campaigns for mayor. But there is plenty of time for more candidates to emerge.

It appeared as the independent council member, Christopher Smitherman, was planning on running, but he took himself out of the race earlier this year. Smitherman, who lost his wife to cancer, said he needs to spend more time with their children.

Smitherman might have gotten an endorsement from the Hamilton County Republican Party, if he had wanted it.

But I don't expect to see the GOP field a mayoral candidate in this heavily Democratic city.

If there are only two candidates, we skip the May primary and move directly on to the general election in November 2021.

If it ends up being a race between Sittenfeld and Mann, there will be two competing story lines.

The 35-year-old Sittenfeld will paint Mann as a figure of the past – worthy of respect, but not prepared to deal with the 21st century problems of a major city.

Mann will emphasize his decades of experience as a City Hall problem-solver and suggest that Sittenfeld is not yet a grown-up.

Either way, it will be a heavyweight bout in a pandemic-crippled city with a whole lot at stake.

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

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