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Politics
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: Cincinnati Voters Will Pay Attention To Crowded Council Field - Eventually

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As wise as they were, even the reformers of the 1920s who gave Cincinnati its council-manager former of government probably never dreamed an election like the 2021 City Council election would take place.

A race with dozens of candidates, many of them complete unknowns, running for nine seats. And out of those dozens, only one ran and won in the last council election four years ago.

It will be the largest field since I began covering Cincinnati politics 39 years ago – the largest during that period being 2005 when 31 candidates filed and qualified for the ballot.

No less than 43 candidates filed petitions with the Hamilton County Board of Elections by the 4 p.m. deadline Thursday. We know already that 32 have sufficient signatures and will be on the ballot. Another seven filed petitions that are still being checked by the board staff. And four more will be reviewed by the board of elections itself.

But the thing that makes this election unique in the years since Cincinnati adopted a city charter and a nine-member council elected at-large is not the number of candidates, but the number of new faces that could take their places in council chambers in December.

We are looking at the possibility of a complete turnover of all nine council seats. And an election where five – a majority – are guaranteed to be council newbies.

That is truly remarkable.

And that kind of sea change will be performed by a minority of city voters, probably in the neighborhood of 25% to 30%. And those same 25-30% will also be choosing a new mayor, either clerk of courts Aftab Pureval or City Council veteran David Mann.

We can sit around and debate all day about whether the electorate cares about this year's city elections. My calendar says it is still August. The election is Nov. 2.

There has never been and never will be a city election in this town where people have spent the summer fretting over the council election.

Even this year, when there is plenty of fretting that could be done.

We have a very weird situation here, with three council members – Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld and Tamaya Dennard and Republican Jeff Pastor – charged with felony bribery charges in 2020; Dennard is in prison and the other two are awaiting trial.

Replacing the three indicted council members were two Republicans – Steve Goodin and Liz Keating – and Democrat Jan-Michele Lemon Kearny. A third Republican appointee – Betsy Sundermann – took the place of Amy Murray, who left council in 2020 to join the Trump administration.

Of the four appointees, Kearney has the best chance at being elected on her own. She's a Democrat in a Democratic city, with a following in Cincinnati's Black community. The three Republicans have a much higher hill to climb in a city that is so overwhelmingly Democratic that Donald Trump could get only one in four city votes last year. Not to say they can't do it; just saying they will have to work twice as hard to succeed.

Four other council members are term-limited out this year – Independent Chris Smitherman (who plans to run for county commissioner next year), and Democrats Chris Seelbach, Mann (the mayoral candidate) and Wendell Young, who faces a state charge from the "Gang of Five" scandal.

That leaves Democrat Greg Landsman as the only current council member who ran and won in the last council election.

There are – and never have been in the council-manager era – no party designations on the ballot for Cincinnati City Council.

But of course, all three political parties – Democratic, Republican and the Charter Committee – are running slates of endorsed candidates, many of them are first-time candidates for council (or anything else) and will struggle trying to break out of the pack and make an impression on voters.

Some don’t have to worry so much about name recognition – two Charter candidates, Jim Tarbell and Kevin Flynn, are former council members who have run and won before. Both are still well known to most of the electorate.

Others, like Democrats Michelle Dillingham and Jaime Castle, may not have been included on the list of endorsed Democratic candidates, but they both have potential. Dillingham has run strong campaigns for council twice before, losing the ninth and final spot on council by only a handful of votes. Castle ran an impressive campaign as an underdog candidate in the 2nd Congressional District last year; she won the Hamilton County portion of the district over Republican incumbent Brad Wenstrup.

A lackluster mayoral campaign is not helping when it comes to ginning up interest in the council race. Mann has yet to unload on Pureval for his lack of City Hall experience or the rookie mistakes of his 2018 campaign for Congress, when, by all rights, he should have been able to knock off Republican incumbent Steve Chabot.

Mann can be excused, though, because his wife Betsy, a beloved figure in Cincinnati politics, has been battling a serious illness.

Pureval apparently learned his lesson in the 2018 congressional election – the lesson being that sometimes in politics, the less you talk the better. Less talk equals less opportunities for sticking your foot in your mouth.

Do Cincinnati voters care whether or not their city government is free of corruption – which it has clearly not been in recent years?

My answer is yes, they probably do.

They just don’t know what to do about it when there is a small army of candidates to wade through on the ballot.

Jared Kamrass, who heads the Democratic campaign consulting firm of Rivertown Strategies, offered me another good reason why the voters' enthusiasm level may be low.

"From the election of Trump to the election of Biden and everything that has happened since, voters may just be in a mood to take a break from politics. They've had enough for now. That could well be said in Cincinnati."

We will have to see if the voters wake up and take notice. It's not going to take place in August; I can assure you of that. Not even in September. Check back with me in October. If they are going to care, it will probably be in mid-October.

Regardless of turnout, though, Cincinnati City Council is going to be a very different animal come the swearing-in ceremonies on Dec. 1.