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Politics
WVXU has been covering the stories of politics and corruption at Cincinnati's City Hall since early 2020. We have now launched an initiative to more closely examine Cincinnati politics and the individuals who have shaped it, along with the current allegations of corruption. We'll also explore proposals for change, and seek feedback from local leaders and community members on what can be done to restore trust in City Hall.Trust in Local Government, WVXU's Public Integrity Project will analyze our council-manager form of government and the charter amendments designed to reinforce ethical standards at City Hall; take a historical look at corruption in Cincinnati government; talk with the candidates for Cincinnati mayor and continue with an ongoing series of features, interviews and candidate profiles.

Cincinnati Mayoral Primary 2021 Voter Guide

2021 cincinnati mayoral candidates
All courtesy of the candidates
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Clockwise from top left: Gavi Begtrup; David Mann; Herman Najoli; Cecil Thomas; Aftab Pureval; Raffel Prophett

Early voting begins Tuesday, April 6, for the May election in Hamilton County. On the ballot in Cincinnati is a non-partisan primary for candidates running for mayor.

Nine people filed petitions with the Board of Elections to run in the primary, but only six met the threshold of 500 valid signatures from Cincinnati voters.

As senior political analyst Howard Wilkinson writes, there is a clear demarcation line between the top tier candidates (Aftab Pureval, Cecil Thomas, and David Mann) and the longshots (Herman Najoli, Gavi Begtrup, and Raffel Prophett).

The top two finishers in the May 4 primary would go on to face each other in the November election for a four-year term as mayor. 

There are no party designations on the ballot. All but one – Najoli – is a Democrat. The Republican Party didn't field a mayoral candidate.

All six candidates on the ballot responded to questions from WVXU about several key issues.

Gavi Begtrup, 37

Neighborhood: Mt. Lookout

Party affiliation: Democrat

David Mann, 81

Neighborhood: Clifton

Party affiliation: Democrat

Herman Najoli, 44

Neighborhood: West Price Hill

Party affiliation: Independent

Raffel Prophett, 61

Neighborhood: Avondale

Party affiliation: Democrat

Aftab Pureval, 38

Neighborhood: Clifton

Party affiliation: Democrat

Cecil Thomas, 68

Neighborhood: North Avondale

Party affiliation: Democrat

Do you support the proposed charter amendment requiring an annual $50 million allocation to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund? Why or why not?

BEGTRUP: Yes, with reservations.

We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We must address affordable housing and City Hall has failed to act. Once this amendment passes, the charter will need further amendment in November to provide a stable funding source, improve public oversight, and catalyze non-city government investment.

Affordable housing is critical to the future of our city, and funding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund is an important step in closing the gap between our city needs and availability. When families have access to affordable housing, kids grow up in more stable homes. When kids have stable homes, they do better in school, they do better in life, and they can break the cycle of poverty. I’ve seen this firsthand at the Spencer Center, where kids from all over the city are thriving.

Unfortunately, we have a lack of quality affordable housing in our city. Despite creating the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, City Hall hasn't adequately funded it, which is why 9,500 Cincinnatians felt it necessary to bring forth this amendment.

Were I mayor today, I would convene an aggressive task force comprising big and small business, community groups, and nonprofits to implement a public-private partnership to finance the trust fund before the May election. If City Hall fails to act, we should expect the charter amendment to pass and leave the city in a challenging funding position. In the meantime, let’s allocate $50M from the stimulus funding to get the trust fund started.

MANN: No.

I do not support the charter amendment. It does not identify a source of revenue to provide $50 million per year forever.  Given a general fund budget of $400 million, dedicating $50 million exclusively to affordable housing every year cannot be done without major impacts on basic city services including reductions in numbers of police officers and firefighters and public service employees who handle waste collection, snow removal, street repair and maintenance.  Recreation centers and health clinics will have to close or dramatically reduce their hours of service.

The charter amendment takes virtually all authority over the $50 million per year from City Council, the city manager or anyone accountable to the public.  The amendment creates a board of 11 people, two persons to be selected by the president pro tem of council. As to the other nine members of the board, Council must appoint nine members selected by various groups with all sorts of direct interests in the expenditure of funds in the trust. That is, most of the board members have direct conflicts of interest.  The board acts completely independently to decide how money is spent without anyone in government authorized to review these decisions. The board approves contracts which must be executed by the city manager.

I wrote the legislation creating the Affordable Housing Trust and the law taxing Airbnb's with all collections going to the trust. In addition, for the first time starting with current year's budget, one-fourth of all district TIF funds now must support affordable housing. The city manager has recommended using $10 million of the federal stimulus funds for affordable housing. 

The city has been doing a lot to be a catalyst for affordable housing, working in partnership with the private sector, the financial community and state and federal agencies. More must be done but the charter amendment, while sounding good, will create all kinds of problems and not give us the boost in affordable housing claimed by the proponents.

NAJOLI: Yes.

I favor the amendment for three reasons. First, this amendment responds to the voice of the people. The people turned in the required signatures for ballot access. We cannot ignore these voices. At the heart of good leadership is listening. I value the work of signature collection because it respects the voices of the people in a basic, tangible way. I honor the power of signature gathering. Second, the amendment acknowledges the plight of the unhoused. Having served numerous homeless persons and helped many become housed persons, I understand the need for affordable housing. In 2015 I was named one of Cincinnati’s Forty Under 40 by the Cincinnati Business Courier for my service to many of our city's homeless persons. At that time, my focus was on the work of rescue missions and social agencies which do the difficult work of serving the unsheltered.  Unfortunately, the term 'homeless' has been stereotypically associated with the notion that people are 'less' than ordinary persons.  I have become convinced that the key to breaking the back of homelessness is to invest in housing. Third, the amendment ensures the precedence of council is followed. A few years back, when council needed to continue operating an empty streetcar, they found the money. Why is it, that when it relates to affordable housing, the reflex action by certain members is to immediately say no? President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." I fully understand that this amendment may not be enough. Nonetheless, disruption is a good shock for a system. Given my knowledge of systems theory, I know that this conversation opens the door to other possibilities. That is why I favor it. For instance, the cities of Austin, TX and Portland, OR injected life into affordable housing in 2018 by passing significant municipal bonds. Cincinnati does not have to be 10 years behind other cities anymore. We can keep pace with leading cities and regain our status as a shining jewel. Beyond this, it is my hope that Federal action will address affordable housing in the near future.

PROPHETT: Yes. 

I have concluded that the Affordable Housing Trust Fund is the best opportunity in decades to address the affordable housing crisis in our beloved city. After years of neglect by our leaders at City Hall to adequately address affordable housing, I applaud and celebrate the dedication of affordable housing advocates in their sustained efforts to bring a solution to this crisis to the voters of Cincinnati. Now it is up to the voters of Cincinnati to decide if the AHTF amendment will be the means to help solve the affordable housing crisis.

PUREVAL: No.

I do not support the affordable housing charter amendment, but I do support affordable housing. I empathize with the frustration of those who do support the charter amendment, because the truth of the matter is our city has not had a comprehensive approach to affordable housing.

We need to fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. However, relying entirely on the city's general fund is a missed opportunity. We have to leverage city dollars in order to incentivize our institutional philanthropies and our Fortune 500 companies to invest in the trust fund. We also have to build an infrastructure that puts the city in the best possible position to win grants from the federal government, whether it be from the administration or from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A comprehensive plan will also require a review of the city's development incentives like TIF, tax abatements, and VTICA to ensure that we are not only incentivizing growth but also incentivizing equity. And finally, we need a real commitment to tenants' rights. We need a housing court to hold bad landlords accountable and support tenants and homeowners who want to grow with their neighborhoods. And we have to balance the playing field in eviction court by working to ensure greater access to lawyers and legal services for tenants who cannot afford representation. For too long, our city has not been committed to affordable housing. If I’m elected mayor, I will change that.

THOMAS: No.

I do not support the affordable housing charter amendment but I do understand the need. A guiding principle of good fiscal responsibility is to not propose an expenditure without an identified source to pay for it. Requiring the city to spend $50 million from its budget without identifying the source of the expenditure would bankrupt the city. A more reasonable solution would be to identify federal, state and local funding sources, coupled with public private partnerships and set ambitious, 10-20 year goals. This would require the establishment of an affordable housing sub-committee. The purpose would be to have a significant number of interested party meetings to hear from the experts and develop a pathway. We should also invest a sizable portion of the federal stimulus windfall into the housing trust fund.

city hall
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Do you support Council Member Sundermann's proposed charter amendment giving council the authority to remove a member indicted on federal charges? Why or why not?

BEGTRUP: No.

The best way to end the corruption in City Hall is to elect a mayor who is not taking any money from developers with business in front of the city. As the only candidate running a clean campaign, I will establish a fair playing field for Cincinnatians and business alike and restore trust in City Hall. I am further dedicated to upholding and honoring the separation of powers established by the city's charter.

Both these proposed charter amendments are reactive and do not get to the heart of the problem. If we want to add accountability to City Hall, we should implement a democratic recall process to remove members of City Council who have broken the public’s trust.

MANN: Yes.

I support these reforms which clarify and tighten up some issues in a useful fashion.

NAJOLI: Yes.

I support the amendment for several reasons. First, I believe that an elected body should have the ability to discipline the members within its ranks for actions that blemish the reputation of the institution. Council should aim to preserve the dignity of our city. When leaders lack integrity, their disorderly acts have negative consequences on the entire city's ability to achieve its purpose, goals and objectives. Second, I believe that anyone who enters public service should only do so for the sake of the public good. Our city is named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who modeled the character of service for the public good. He served Rome by leading the army to battle then relinquished power six months later. That is what inspired my entry into this race and informed my creation of a Checklist of Good Leader Behavior for review with each council member. Third, for my doctoral dissertation, I studied the concept of wisdom in leaders and correlated it with organizational citizenship behavior. What I have learned is that leaders who do not model wisdom affect the broader organization negatively. Lack of ethics and standards of proper moral conduct on council affects the morale of city employees, hampers the administration of the people's work, and drastically limits local government from accomplishing its tasks. Lastly, I believe that council is an extension of the citizenry of a locality. Citizens can vote in and vote out their representatives. In view of that, a majority of council (seven of the nine) should be able to vote for the discipline of bad behavior by a member indicted by a federal court.       

PROPHETT: No.

I believe the present system is flawed but I also believe a founding principal of our country is "innocent until proven guilty." Any change should be driven by fairness to the accused balanced with the needs of the city.

PUREVAL: Yes.

Corruption is a massive problem holding our city back from what it could be. I applaud the charter amendment proposed by Council Member Sundermann as well as the task force that the mayor has put together. However, we also have to do more. Council Member Sundermann's proposal is a strong start, but it is a reactive reform -- changing the process for responding to corruption after it has occured. We need to be laser-focused on preventing corruption as well.

THOMAS: No.

The existing structure allows for a state suspension through a judicial process. If the panel established by the State Supreme Court finds a suspension necessary, then the councilmember's designees would determine a successor. Additionally, as we've seen, citizens can file suit against their members of council if they receive payment outside of their salary for performing their duties. This charter amendment seems reactionary to me. If our city government starts recommending reactionary amendments then we are going to waste resources and play politics on the taxpayers' dime.

Do you support Vice Mayor Smitherman’s proposed charter amendment to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate members indicted on federal charges? Why or why not?

BEGTRUP: No.

As above, the best way to end the corruption in City Hall is to elect a mayor who is not taking any money from developers with business in front of the city. As the only candidate running a clean campaign, I will establish a fair playing field for Cincinnatians and business alike and restore trust in City Hall. I am further dedicated to upholding and honoring the separation of powers established by the city's charter.

Both these proposed charter amendments are reactive and do not get to the heart of the problem. If we want to add accountability to City Hall, we should implement a democratic recall process to remove members of City Council who have broken the public's trust.

MANN: Yes.

I support these reforms which clarify and tighten up some issues in a useful fashion.

NAJOLI: Yes.

Yes, I support the proposed amendment. The culture of corruption at City Hall must end. This amendment removes the ability of a compromised member of council to continue having any influence on the future of the body or the direction of the city's business. It is for this reason that I decided to run for mayor – to bring about bold changes and end the "business-as-usual" mindset that persists at City Hall. It is embarrassing that these changes were not instituted years ago by those who have been on City Council. As an outsider of local politics, I have long observed City Hall and wondered why council would so brazenly betray public trust. A special prosecutor would have the ability to quickly investigate the matter without conflict of interest for the good of the people. 

PROPHETT: No. 

I recommend that the motion brought forth by Council Member Mann be amended to expand the commission's scope. The commission should focus its attention on the plausible impact that the 1999, strong mayor charter change has had that led to the culture of corruption in City Hall. 

PUREVAL: Yes.

A special prosecutor is a common-sense reform to provide accountability and transparency to the investigation of council members. But we have to do more to prevent corruption in the first place.

The best way to do that is to increase transparency. Right now, our ethics disclosures for local elected officials do not provide enough information to hold our elected officials accountable for relationships with people who might have business in front of the city. This is true for both gifts and salaries. Fortunately, we have a model in Ohio for improving our disclosure standards. The state legislature in Ohio has much more rigorous ethical reporting standards. The first thing we should do to drive more transparency and prevent ethical violations is to raise our ethical standards to meet those of the state legislature. This is a Day One action item for my administration, and it's a very distinct and simple way to provide more transparency in the process.

THOMAS: No.

If someone is indicted, the city solicitor has the power to investigate. This amendment would be a wasteful duplication and complicate a procedure that already exists. The argument that the solicitor would be pressured not to prosecute his or her bosses is demeaning to me. The more pressing need is to bring more transparency and integrity to City Hall. Creating more bureaucratic levers and mechanisms is only going to muddy the water.    

otr development
Credit Courtesy / KEAN Development & Cincinnati City Planning Office
After a delay due to concerns over the project's lack of affordable housing, the majority of council in February voted for the controversial development proposal at Liberty and Elm streets, backing Mayor John Cranley.

What role do you think the mayor should have in negotiating development deals?

BEGTRUP: We deserve a City Hall that we can trust, which is why I am not taking any money from developers with business in front of the city. The people of Cincinnati deserve leadership that will always do the right thing for Cincinnati, not the right thing for wealthy campaign donors. Cincinnati businesses deserve a fair playing field.

The mayor must set a vision for an equitably growing Cincinnati and create values and priorities that guide development. For example, any development deal that receives incentives from the city must have community engagement and buy-in and must fit into a larger plan for affordable housing and transit. It is then the responsibility of the city administration to negotiate development deals and the role of council to evaluate those deals in alignment with our shared values and priorities.

MANN: As the elected leader of the city, the mayor inevitably will have some involvement in development.  He provides political insights to the city administration including the city manager and development officers.  He may be needed to break impasses. His role can be very helpful and constructive so long as he respects the guardrails inherent in our charter.  The city manager is the CEO and chief administrative officer.  The city manager has independent authority and responsibility to the three legs of city government – city manager, mayor and City Council – and, ultimately, to the citizens of our city.

NAJOLI: The mayor oversees, leads and supervises the city's movement in the right direction. Development means the 'act or process of growth.'  Given this definition, the mayor has a primary role in development. This role is three-part: overseeing progress through the administrative arm of city government; leading negotiations through the powers vested in the mayoral office; and supervising policymaking through the dedicated work of City Council. A great mayor is a facilitator who paves the way for good development by using leadership theory to empower actions that keep the city moving in the right direction. As a graduate of a doctoral program in organizational leadership, I have come to understand that the finest leaders are individuals who model the way and inspire broad-based action. As mayor of Cincinnati, I will bring my leadership insights along with previous experience as an educator and public servant to city government to facilitate the growth that our city needs.

PROPHETT: The mayor should not be involved in direct negotiations, but he/she and City Council should have oversight responsibilities.

PUREVAL: We have seen what happens when politicians ignore rules and guidelines. We need to be skeptical about any politician getting involved in the specifics of development deals. The charter provides a strong framework for us to follow. We should empower the professionals working in City Hall to negotiate with developers.

As mayor, it will be my responsibility to set the vision for the city -- to set priorities with respect to growing our economy, developing our infrastructure and our small businesses. I will empower my team, and the city manager and their team, to act on that vision and execute on those goals.

It will be my job to be aware of the patchwork of development, but it will not be my job to negotiate specific deals. That should be left to the professionals.

THOMAS: The mayor should not be directly involved in any development deals. His or her role should be to allow the manager and his team to use their gifts and talents to negotiate with developers. The mayor should expect the city manager to negotiate the best deal that’s in the city’s best interest. Then the mayor and manager should present the recommendation to council for discussion and input and eventual approval. Under a clearly defined charter, there shouldn't be any problems. Critical to all of this is the hiring of a city manager and trust that he or she will hire the best and brightest administrators. The mayor and the council should get out of the way and let them do their job.   

joe biden american rescue plan
Credit Andrew Harnik / AP
President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan at the White House, Thursday, March 11.

The city of Cincinnati is set to receive more than $290 million in stimulus from the federal American Rescue Plan. In general, how should these funds be used?

BEGTRUP: The stimulus funding is a tremendous opportunity to transform the future of Cincinnati. Every dollar should be spent making Cincinnati more affordable, equitable and safe while catalyzing and attracting more investment from the business and philanthropic communities to address systemic inequality and poverty in the Queen City.

Here are seven big ideas for stimulus funding

  • Boost small business recovery and growth. Create a central hub for Cincinnati small business support and fund a minority seed fund for investing in early-stage Black- and women-owned businesses, which were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
  • Fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Whether Issue 3 passes or not, we need to take action to address the tremendous lack of affordable housing in our city. $50 million from the stimulus would catalyze a public-private partnership to start solving this problem that City Hall has kicked the can on.
  • Lead the country in reimagining policing. Fund the Citizen Complaint Authority and create a $1 million grant for the collaborative agreement to fund citizen-initiated new ideas to improve police-citizen relations.
  • Rethink mobility. While we're repairing roads, let's build a multi-modal transportation system that supports buses and bikes.
  • Fix the parks. Many of us found respite from the pandemic by visiting our city's beautiful parks, but City Hall has long neglected their upkeep. Let's rebuild these Cincinnati gems.
  • Support our schools. Being a parent of school-aged kids this year was tough, and CIty Hall was out to lunch. Let's create a liaison at City Hall responsible for collaboration with Cincinnati Public Schools, and let's invest in things that support Cincinnati working families, like our recreation centers, mental health services, and walkable neighborhoods.
  • Engage citizens and let them decide. So far, City Hall has attempted to spend all the stimulus money before it even arrives, and without any public input. Let's set aside 1% ($3 million) of funding for participatory budgeting, a process for empowering the people of Cincinnati to determine how the money is spent. Neighborhoods, streets, schools, parks... it's your money, how do you want it spent?

MANN: The $291 million in stimulus money is a historic opportunity for the city. The first priority is to help this community, its citizens and businesses recover from the economic, social and personal toll of the pandemic.  The city administration has laid out a list of needs and possibilities. I want us also to dream about some transformational initiatives for our community. We need jobs and development. We need equity for all citizens. 

I am asking citizens to complete a survey online at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/CincinnatiStimulus

There is an open-ended question asking for suggestions for "one big idea" with 10% of the money or $29.1 million. I anticipate creative ideas and a big idea that really moves and inspires this community.

NAJOLI: I celebrate the influx of these funds into our city coffers. These funds should be used to STIMULATE our local economy. The following nine areas, listed in no specific order, capture a basic detail of what this entails:

  • S – Shore up the city's reserve and contingency accounts to gird up for volatility.
  • T – Table solid funds for affordable housing as this will help solve many other ills.
  • I – Invest in STEAM programs to develop a core of future workforce and culture.
  • M – Maximize digital infrastructure and connectedness of all 52 neighborhoods.
  • U – Undertake repayment of monies owed for the construction of the streetcar.
  • L – Lure new companies into the city to create jobs for a post-pandemic rebound.
  • A – Act to build a new Western Hills Bridge and keep the Viaduct for bikes/park.
  • T – Transform the Beekman Corridor by improving desirability to reverse decline.
  • E - Endow businesses that lost revenue during COVID to catalyze quick recovery.

PROPHETT:

  • Essential services: To ensure the city maintains basic services in the following areas: police, fire, public works, sanitation etc.
  • $50 million into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund
  • Public hearing to determine where the remaining funds are allotted with a portion going to the rainy-day fund.

PUREVAL: We will have to wait for federal rules to understand what can be accomplished with this money. However, in general, these funds should be used to advance our top priorities and accomplish what we must in order to win the next decade. We have to make sure prosperity is shared in every corner of our city by rebuilding our economy after COVID and prioritizing equitable growth.

We need to recover and rebuild our economy so that all families can thrive. We need to keep families in their homes, connect unemployed workers with in-demand jobs, and direct funding to struggling restaurants. As mayor, I will grow our economy by streamlining the process to start a business and attract new companies and skilled workers to Cincinnati. And I will fight to share prosperity more equitably by expanding Black businesses ownership and home ownership, reforming the city bidding process, and taking on the racial health disparities of COVID-19.

We also need to continue to reform and improve our police department and invest in public safety so every neighborhood is safe. And we need to improve access to affordable housing and basic services like public transportation to get families back on their feet.

THOMAS: We need to do a comprehensive review of what areas have the greatest need. Then we need to prioritize investing in essential services. My gut tells me this includes utilities, community safety, and local businesses on the brink of shuttering their windows. But we must know the facts before we make any investment. Once we get the city's budget balanced and the economy shooting on all cylinders again, then we can start to address the other issues in Cincinnati. These include funding for affordable housing, investment in community infrastructure, and support for nonprofits serving their communities. Let me be clear, these are all incredibly important projects for the city to invest in, but we need to plug the holes in the ship before we build another mast.

All answers have been edited for style.