© 2023 Cincinnati Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

Cincinnati's First Mayoral Primary Fell On 'The Day That Changed Everything'

The remains of the World Trade Center stands amid the debris in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
Alex Fuchs
The remains of the World Trade Center stands amid the debris in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

September 11, 2001. A day that is seared in the memory of all who lived through it, a day of chaos, destruction, anxiety and more than a little heroism in a nation that was awash in grief and disbelief over incredibly deadly terrorist attacks.

And, in Cincinnati, we were holding an election. An election for mayor. Even though only a relative handful of voters could bring themselves to participate on that horrible day.

Somehow, some way, Cincinnati held its first mayoral primary on one of the most awful days in American history.

Even the two principal candidates in the primary – Charlie Luken, who was then serving as mayor under the old top vote-getter system - and Courtis Fuller, the WLWT reporter and anchor, could scarcely believe it was happening amid the chaos and grief.

"Surreal is an understatement,'' Luken told me. "It was not about me; there were people dying and families suffering all over the country. But here, in Cincinnati, it was one of the weirdest days imaginable. It was the oddest day of my career in politics."

Fuller – who won the 9/11 primary but lost the general election to Luken in November – said the day began with excitement over a much-anticipated primary election.

"But then, the politics of the day got pushed to the back-burner and suddenly the election seemed irrelevant,'' Fuller said.

So, why was this primary election being held in the first place?

The irony is that New York City, the epicenter of the terrorist destruction, had already begun its own mayoral primary on that sunny September morning. After the hijacked airliners slammed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, bringing them crashing to the ground, city officials suspended the primary election, to be completed two weeks later.

Cincinnati, further removed from the center of the destruction, went on with its primary – even though only 15% of the city's registered voters cast a ballot that day. And even though, on that day, there was no American city which felt truly safe; no one knew if, at any moment, there would be more terrorist attacks and where they would occur.

The 9/11 mayoral primary came about because of a city charter amendment passed by Cincinnati voters two years earlier, which provided for direct election of the mayor and gave the mayor more authority than the office had had since the creation of the council-manager form of government in 1925.

It provided for a field-race primary election in September (which has since been moved to May), with the top two finishers in the primary facing off in the November election for a four-year term as mayor.

Everyone expected Luken - a longtime council member, mayor and one-term congressman – to be a candidate in the primary set for September 11.

Fuller's candidacy was something of a surprise. He was a familiar figure to most Cincinnatians for his work as a journalist at Channel 5; and he had become a much admired and leading figure in Cincinnati's Black community. Fuller took a leave from his job as a journalist to run for mayor – his first and only run for public office.

There were two other minor candidates on the primary ballot that day, but they weren't a factor. They ended up splitting 7.7% of the vote.

It was entirely a contest between Luken, the experienced veteran politician, and Fuller, who had made a living covering politicians, not being one.

This election was long before the expansion of absentee voting and early voting in Ohio. Only 31,582 Cincinnati voters went to the polls that day – about 15% of the total.

Surprisingly, Fuller won the primary with 54% to Luken's 38%. It was widely assumed that Fuller's campaign did a better job mobilizing Fuller's base in the Black community. In November, though, the turnout was considerably higher and Luken was elected mayor with 55.5% of the vote.

But, on that grim and quiet primary election night, Fuller was the winner. And there was no crowing or celebrations after the results were tallied.

"On any other night, I would be celebrating with a glass of champagne in my hand,'' Fuller said. "But this day was not about me. It was a day of mourning in the nation, in the world. And here in Cincinnati."

Fuller said he and his campaign staff had discussed whether or not to ask the Hamilton County Board of Elections to postpone the election because of the shock of the terrorist attacks, but said it became clear that the Board of Elections, which had its polling places up and running long before the attacks on the Twin Towers, was not going to shut it down.

Fuller remembers casting his own ballot early that morning at a church in College Hill and then going to the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters on Central Parkway in Over-the-Rhine.

"I was at the FOP and they had the television on; that's how I found out about it,'' Fuller said. "I'd had a full day of campaigning planned, but, after that, I shut it down and went to my office at our campaign headquarters and stayed there all day, watching the TV like everyone else."

Luken was living in a townhouse in the West End at the time, within walking distance of his City Hall office. He voted early in the morning at Taft High School.

"There was a television set on in the principal's office and I heard someone scream,'' Luken said. "That was how I learned what happened. And, suddenly, the election seemed like the most irrelevant thing in the world."

Luken went straight to his City Hall office where he consulted with police and fire officials, the city manager, and department heads.

"We had people out checking the city's water supply to make sure it was secure and police checking on everything that moved,'' Luken said. "It seems unlikely now, but at that point, we didn't know what the next target of the terrorists would be. But, to tell the truth, we didn't know what we were doing. Nobody knew how to respond to this."

Luken issued a statement advising Cincinnati residents to go home from their jobs and spend the day with their families. And he ordered all city offices to shut down.

"I think the public was way ahead of me on this; they were already leaving work and going home,'' Luken said.

On an ordinary night, Luken would have gone to the Board of Elections office to watch results come in and to do interviews with the TV crews and other reporters present.

"I stayed away that night,'' Luken said. "There was nothing to say. Nothing that would have made sense in the middle of this."

While most Cincinnatians were going home to be with their families that morning, most Cincinnati journalists were rushing to their newsrooms to cover the unfolding disaster – and learning by the hour of people and families from our area who either lost their lives or lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks.

Lit candles are placed in front of a sign on Sept. 14, 2001 as a memorial for the victims of the the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
David Karp
Lit candles are placed in front of a sign on Sept. 14, 2001 as a memorial for the victims of the the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

I was at the Enquirer at the time. And, although we were in shock like everyone else, the decision was made to put out an extra edition of the newspaper that afternoon. An "extra" was a rarity in the newspaper industry; the Enquirer had not done one since Dec. 7, 1941 – after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

That night, as the polls were closing around the city, I went with then-Enquirer City Hall reporter Greg Korte (now the national political correspondent at Bloomberg News) to the Board of Elections downtown to cover the results.

I had covered every election night since 1974, but there was never one quite like this. I had never been so distracted, never found it so hard to concentrate on the task at hand – which was to report on an election that suddenly, to most people, seemed irrelevant.

We muddled through it. We did our jobs. As millions of Americans did, in all walks of life on that horrible day; and some of them in the most dangerous of situations.

It was, as Charlie Luken said, "the day that changed everything. Everything you thought you knew about the world was tossed out the window.

"Since then, we have all had to think of the world in a different way. Everything changed that day."

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