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Politics

Democrats sweep election for 8 of 9 seats on Cincinnati City Council

new cincinnati city council
Photos Courtesy of the candidates
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Collage by Jennifer Merritt
Clockwise from top left: Jeff Cramerding; Reggie Harris; Mark Jeffreys; Greg Landsman; Victoria Parks; Meeka Owens; Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney; Scotty Johnson; Liz Keating.

All but one of the candidates with a Democratic Party endorsement won seats on Cincinnati City Council Tuesday. Liz Keating is the only Republican to retain a seat.

Eight of the nine endorsed candidates secured enough votes, including incumbent Greg Landsman. He says the endorsed candidates put a ton of energy into the election.

"We made sure that they came together, that they worked together," Landsman said. "We invested in this team because they are the right group of people to lead this city."

City Council's new nine members are:

  • Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney (D)
  • Greg Landsman (D)
  • Jeff Cramerding (D)
  • Reggie Harris (D)
  • Mark Jeffreys (D)
  • Scotty Johnson (D)
  • Liz Keating (R)
  • Meeka Owens (D)
  • Victoria Parks (D)

This election had the greatest opportunity for change at City Hall in decades, with only one incumbent - Landsman - running for a second term (plus four appointed council members appearing on the ballot for the first time).
Keating finished ninth in the vote count with 1,538 more votes than Michelle Dillingham, as of about 11:20 p.m. Tuesday.

"To me, it was more about listening to everybody and what they wanted to see from council members, versus going out there trying to make headlines and trying to just shout my message out," Keating said. "I think that's going to be important going forward: being able to listen and learn from people and have a lot of voices help guide me."

Keating was also endorsed by the Charter Committee.

An unprecedented series of events set up this year's ballot, most notably the arrests of three council members on federal corruption charges last year: Tamaya Dennard (D), Jeff Pastor (R), and P.G. Sittenfeld (D). Republican Amy Murray resigned her seat in early 2020. Another four council members couldn't run again because of term limits: David Mann (D), Christopher Smitherman (I), Chris Seelbach (D), and Wendell Young (D).

The result? Six entirely new faces on council.

After eight years of four-year terms, council is back to the two-year terms it had from 1925 to 2013 after voters approved the switch in 2018. Every council seat is at-large, with no neighborhood or region-specific representation. Efforts to adopt a district model for council have so far failed.

Incumbent Republican Steve Goodin, who was appointed to council in Nov. 2020, failed to retain his seat.

"I'm very, very proud of what we did on ethics reforms," Goodin told WVXU. "I know it ruffled a lot of feathers around City Hall but I do believe over time folks will see that the ban on developer contributions was absolutely the right thing to do."

Republican Betsy Sundermann has served on Council the longest of the four appointees, taking the seat Amy Murray resigned in early 2020. Sundermann declined an interview Tuesday night.

What to look for with a new council

Corruption has been a major talking point during the campaign, but it will be interesting to see how much action the new council pursues given a slew of legislation passed over the last few weeks:

This new council will have to establish a relationship with newly elected Mayor Aftab Pureval.

Pureval's campaign emphasized the need for change at City Hall; he urged voters to "choose change" and "support innovation," distancing himself from John Cranley's eight years in office.

"David Mann did a lot for our city and I think he's to be commended for his years of service to Cincinnati," top council vote-getter and incumbent Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney told WVXU. "Aftab is a fresh voice. Aftab is just super smart, creative, and I am so looking forward to working with him."

Cranley's stint as mayor undoubtedly changed the office, making it more powerful, but each new council member has a unique perspective on the charter-defined role of that office.

A recent report from the National Civic League recommends scaling back mayoral power to combat corruption; that would require a charter amendment initiated either by voter petition or a vote of council. Whether a majority of the new council agrees with that analysis (or makes it a priority) remains to be seen.

Meet the new council members

Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney has served on council since March 2020, taking the seat Tamaya Dennard resigned after being arrested on federal corruption charges. Lemon Kearney is chair of the Neighborhoods Committee. She worked with Interim Council Member Liz Keating to secure funding for a long-awaited recreation center in the Villages at Roll Hill. Lemon Kearney is president of Sesh Communications and owner of The Cincinnati Herald. She lives in North Avondale with her husband Eric Kearney, a former state senator and current president of the African American Chamber of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

She says, "A big issue has been safety, and it's been pedestrian safety and also gun violence. Those are two huge issues facing our residents across all 52 neighborhoods. Another issue is that folks love development in their neighborhoods, but they don't want to be displaced, and that's that goes across the city."

Greg Landsman is the only candidate on the ballot who had been elected to council before. Landsman was first elected in 2017 and was part of the "Gang of Five" controversy less than a year later. Landsman's recent legislation includes the creation of a new ethics and good government counselor for the city, the key piece of overall anti-corruption reform.

Jeff Cramerding of Price Hill is a labor lawyer and union leader for the University of Cincinnati faculty. He's been involved with the West Price Hill Community Council for more than 20 years and is a founding member of Price Hill Will. He has helped run many local campaigns for Democrats and Charterites and got the Democratic nomination this year.

Cramerding tells WVXU his top priority is to return Cincinnati Council to its traditional role, "which is one, to set the priorities for the city; two, to fund those priorities; and three, to hire and evaluate the city manager based on these priorities." He says people are concerned with "what they've always been - safe and well maintained streets, parks and recreation centers, and being able to provide basic city services."

Reggie Harris is a retired professional ballet dancer, trained clinical social worker, and licensed therapist. He's currently working at The Community Builders, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. Harris is relatively new to Cincinnati, having lived here since 2015. He's on the Board of Directors for the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority and is board chair for Equality Ohio. The endorsed Democrat is a precinct executive for the party and a member of the executive committee.

"I'm blown away, I am relieved, I'm humbled. I'm honored. I'm grateful," Harris said of the results. "But I also feel validated. My team and I crafted a robust strategy that was meant to reach as wide of a cross section of Cincinnati with our message as possible. And I think that we are succeeding and doing that succeeding and reaching across aisle."

Mark Jeffreys started his own predictive and data analytics company, 4Sight, after working 16 years at P&G. Jeffreys is an elected trustee on Clifton Town Meeting, where he leads the Parks Committee and the Transportation and Public Safety Committee. His non-profit "go Vibrant" is responsible for the interactive flying pig and foot piano at Smale Riverfront Park. Jeffreys is one of nine candidates endorsed by the local Democratic party.

Jeffreys says the new council gets along well and will work well with Mayor Pureval.

"I'm really looking forward to what that could be," Jeffreys said. "Because, you know, honestly, people are tired of divisive politics. And they really want problem-solving. And that's really what I think we need to do. And now it's on us to get to work."

Scotty Johnson is a retired Cincinnati Police Officer. Johnson worked for CPD for more than 30 years as a beat cop, school resource officer, SWAT negotiator, and public liaison. He served as director of security for Mayor Mark Mallory. Johnson lives in Mt. Airy.

"And with collaboration and a collective focus, there's nothing we're not going to be able to do," Johnson said. "We do understand it's time to get to work now … And we've shown that collaboration beats division any day - any day."

Johnson says the Democratic slate has proven they can work together.

Liz Keating has been on City Council for less than a year. The Republican was appointed to the seat last December when P.G. Sittenfeld, a Democrat, accepted a suspension after being arrested on federal corruption charges. While on council, Keating worked with Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney to secure funding for a long-awaited recreation center in The Villages at Roll Hill. She has advocated for mental health resources for police officers and authored a "resign to run" charter amendment that ultimately failed a council vote that would have sent it to the ballot. Keating is the marketing director for The Jim Stengel Company. She lives in Hyde Park.

Meeka Owens of North Avondale works for the Hamilton County Clerks Office and has been contact tracing and coordinating vaccine distribution during the pandemic. She co-founded the Greater Cincinnati Voter Collaborative last year. Her son Justin is a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force.

She told WVXU, "One of the first things I want to identify is how we're going to fund our Affordable Housing Trust Fund. That's going to be critical. I want to start bringing leaders together in how we move our housing forward. There's a lot of leaders who are already primed, who have already given the data and the research, and now it's just really bringing folks around the table and getting it done while we identify revenue source(s)."

Victoria Parks of College Hill served the rest of County Commissioner Todd Portune's term after he retired in December 2019, previously serving as his chief of staff since 2016. Parks authored the county's declaration of racism as a public health crisis and declaring Juneteenth a paid holiday for county employees.

Parks says that experience in county government will help her at City Hall.

"I know what communities do things better," Parks said. "I've enjoyed a bird's eye view of the local governments here. So I'm really excited to take my experience to the city and to just give back what I have."