Analysis: Cincinnati is about to get its most powerful vice mayor yet
Cincinnati may be on the verge of having its most powerful vice mayor since the council-manager form of government began in 1925.
"Powerful" and "vice mayor" – words I would never have dreamed I'd use in the same sentence. And I've been around Cincinnati politics for nearly 40 years.
But Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, appointed to the vice mayor position last week by Mayor-elect Aftab Pureval, is likely to be exactly that.
A few vice mayors have had influence before, but the vast majority – before and after the city went to a "stronger mayor" form of government in 2001 – have had little to do except fill in for the mayor as president of council when the mayor was off doing other things.
And before that duty was written into the charter change of 2001, the vice mayor had little to do but attend ribbon-cuttings and smile a lot at public events when the mayor didn't feel like going.
It was kind of a sorry existence for most of them.
And certainly not a stepping stone to higher office.
But Kearney could change all of that.
Since her appointment to council in March 2020, Kearney has proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with. She is not, by any means, a politician dependent on Pureval or anyone else.
She has been an influential figure in Cincinnati politics and the city's Black community for decades, mainly because she is the publisher of the Cincinnati Herald, a weekly newspaper that carries a lot of weight among Black Cincinnatians.
Being appointed to council just raised an already prominent profile.
Of course, Kearney ran for a full council term this year; and, of course, many assumed that her fellow Democrat, Greg Landsman, would be the top vote-getter in an oddball election where there were 35 candidates on the ballot and only one elected incumbent - Landsman, who was first elected to council in 2017.
Kearney stunned a lot of people by ending up as the top vote-getter, with 28,672 votes – 1,676 more than second-place finisher Landsman.
Ordinarily finishing first would be only worth bragging rights – although before 2001, it would have made her mayor under the "weak mayor" form of government.
It was worth quite a bit more this time around.
It's not going to be simply a matter of Kearney filling in as the presiding officer of council when Pureval is away, for one reason or another.
There is one very obvious reason why Pureval would want the top vote-getter as his vice mayor.
Kearney can, and probably will, function as something of a "majority whip" on a City Council with eight Democrats and one Republican. In Congress or a state legislature, the whip is a person in the leadership who counts votes and makes sure there is a majority for the agenda of the leadership – in this case, the mayor.
It’s likely that Kearney will be in line with much of what Pureval wants to get done on his legislative priorities – issues such as community-based policing, affordable housing and rebuilding a local economy hit hard by the pandemic.
And she won't hesitate to speak up to Pureval when she has a disagreement over the details. She will be heard.
"Jan-Michele is highly regarded and well-prepared to lead,'' said former mayor Mark Mallory, who is a mentor to Pureval and part of his transition team. "And, yes, she can function as sort of a majority whip."
Mallory, who was mayor from 2005 through 2013, had Roxanne Qualls, who had been mayor under the pre-2001 weak mayor system, as his vice mayor in his final years in office.
Qualls, Mallory said, functioned as his majority whip. Mallory learned from his years in the Ohio General Assembly just how important a good whip can be.
Six of the newly elected Democrats have no experience on council whatsoever; all of this will be new to them.
"They are going to be looking for guidance,'' Mallory said. "And Jan-Michele is someone they would look to. From that standpoint, choosing Jan-Michele as vice mayor was a no-brainer for Aftab."
There is another reason Kearney's appointment makes perfect sense. But it is one no one talks about out loud.
She might be looked at by some as a potential rival to Pureval.
Mind you, Kearney has never even hinted at an ambition for the mayor's office. Although it would be hard to blame her if she did. Perhaps after Pureval has left the scene?
Pureval won election with 66% of the vote over City Hall veteran David Mann, who ran a surprisingly weak campaign. It's hard to say what might have happened had Pureval had a stronger opponent. He probably would have won anyway, but who can say?
Keeping Kearney close to him as an integral part of his leadership team is probably a smart move. Lincoln-esque, in a Team of Rivals sort of way.
Although Kearney is not a disgruntled rival. She was happy Pureval won.
And the new mayor is hoping to make sure she stays that way.