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'Bullish on Cincinnati's future,' outgoing Mayor John Cranley talks 20 years at City Hall

john cranley
John Minchillo
In this March 21, 2018, photo, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley listens during a City Council meeting at City Hall.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley is wrapping up his two terms in office and is in the midst of his quest to become the Democratic nominee for Ohio governor in the 2022 election. His departure as mayor ends a total of 20 years at City Hall after previously serving as a member of City Council.

For an episode of Cincinnati Edition, WVXU's local government reporter Becca Costello and Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson spoke with Cranley about the victories and challenges of his tenure as mayor and why he's running for statewide office.

Becca Costello: Mayor Cranley, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Of the time that you've been at City Hall, I think the most memorable are going to be the last two years because of the pandemic and because of the corruption charges against some council members. Obviously, that's brought a lot of attention to local government. But what are some things from the first six years as mayor that are maybe overlooked, some policies that you worked on earlier on in your time at City Hall?

John Cranley: Well, thanks for having me. The city is the only major city in Ohio to ever make a comeback. We were declining my whole life - the story of the '70s and the '80s and the '90s and early 2000s was decline and racial unrest. I'm proud to have been part of it with many people over 20 years to help take racial injustice issues seriously. And to invest back into our city. And, you know, cities are either growing or dying, and we're growing again. And that's an incredible fact. And I don't know anyone who doesn't think the city's better today than it was eight years ago. You know, not only is Over-the-Rhine a role model neighborhood for the country, but Walnut Hills, Price Hill, and Madisonville, Westwood and Avondale, just to name a few, are showing enormous progress. And I'm incredibly proud of being part of this team over many years. And to have played a part in defying the macro trends of Ohio and the macro trends of the Midwest.

vine street
Courtesy of 3CDC
1201-1213 Vine Street, before and after 3CDC bought the buildings.

Howard Wilkinson: You're finishing up eight years in this office, and there's no question you've had your share of successes. But can you point to one thing or one issue where you might have done better? I mean, everybody makes mistakes. Everybody gets Mulligan's. Can you look at one area where you say OK, we could have done more?

Cranley: Well, sure. I mean, I ran and was elected with six members of council to stop spending on the streetcar. And obviously, I stayed true to that position. But three members of council switched and so they had a veto-proof majority. You know, I certainly wish the streetcar well, now that it's here, but you know, that was $150 million in capital and about $5.5 million annually in operating dollars that I think could have been spent better elsewhere. I believe that everything we do as a city, you have to go through the opportunity costs. And while it's certainly the case, now that the City Council has made it free, that some people are enjoying the streetcar, there's a whole lot more good that could have been done with that $150 million. And it's just not a sustainable model to spend that kind of money to make so few people's transportation more convenient.

Having said that, and the earlier question about the last two years, despite the COVID and the council members who broke the law - you know, last year during COVID, we did something that had never happened before, which was passed a county-wide levy on a vision that I put in place when I was elected mayor to truly expand public transportation in a real way to help people get to and from their jobs by expanding bus service throughout Hamilton County. And this is a levy, as I'm sure Howard knows, that has failed six times previously, all the way back to Ted Barry and Tom Luken trying to get it passed in '73 and '74. And so I'm very proud that even in very adverse circumstances, we were able to move our region forward. And similarly, if you look at the outdoor dining in downtown Over-the-Rhine during COVID, we really took the opportunity of remote work to really invest in the pedestrian friendliness of our downtown and our Over-the-Rhine. And now it feels like a European city when you walk through Over-the-Rhine and all the outdoor dining that goes on literally for miles. So it's a very exciting time.

outdoor dining covid
Jason Whitman
People gather for food and drinks in the Over-the-Rhine as restaurants and bars begin to reopen in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Saturday, May 16, 2020.

Wilkinson: You are the one mayor under the "stronger mayor" form of government who's really taken those new powers and run with them. You've been criticized sometimes for negotiating directly with developers who want to do business in the city. And you've said many times you do this honestly and within the law. And you mentioned the indictments over the past few years of City Council members who didn't, or apparently did not follow the law. Do you think that you might have set a bad example for them, and kind of encouraged them to bypass administration? And get involved in dealing directly with developers?

Cranley: Absolutely not. I mean, I'm fairly — I mean, I almost — if I didn't know you so well, I'd almost be offended by the question. I mean, the reality is that the voters voted to make a stronger mayor. And everyone in the city expects to be able to contact their elected mayor to get something done. The City Council allegedly broke the law. And they need to look in the mirror for that, and not deflect any blame to someone else. I will say I'm the opposite. I don't - if you look at what we've done in the last 10 years, which is bucked the trend of decline - I believe it started after the horrible racial injustice events of 2001. And I believe that the Collaborative Agreement, 3CDC, put us on a trajectory of goodness. And that started with Mayor Luken, and was succeeded upon by Mayor Mallory and myself. And so in my opinion, the opposite is true, which is that it is not a coincidence that when we switch to a stronger mayor form of government, that our city turned the corner, and we had leadership. I do not believe if we didn't have the stronger mayor leadership, we would have had the Collaborative Agreement, or 3CDC. You know, Mayor Mallory took the leadership reins to get The Banks project - which was stuck in the mud - out of the ground, and it was one of his great accomplishments. And so, I believe that that required strong leadership in the mayor's office, by the mayor, exactly as the voters approved, and is exactly as we've been trying to do.

Wilkinson: Just a quick follow up on that: What do you think is the proper role for the mayor, for City Council, for the city manager in these development issues? I mean, how do you get all three to stay in their own lanes?

Cranley: Well, that's been laid out very clearly multiple times by the city manager, by the city solicitor, and by the authors of the charter amendment, including Jeff Berding and Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine, Aaron Herzig, and others. And at a big picture level, the way I believe the best way to understand the new system that we've had now for 20 years - it's not that new anymore - is that the mayor is the, for lack of better word, sort of an externally focused role. And that when we say the state of Ohio, the governor or, you know, a congress person or a nonprofit group or community council group, the city is communicating and dealing with people externally. That the mayor should be able, within reason, to represent the interest of the administration. And that the person or entity or group that they're dealing with, has some sense that the mayor speaks for the administration.

However, whenever I've done that, I've always clarified that that is subject to due diligence to professional review. And that city council is a completely separate branch of government. And they may take a different view of any particular item we put in front of city council. What was retained from the old system, is that on internal matters, like personnel, and hiring, and civil service, and merit-based hiring, that the city manager is to be the chief executive officer, and that's where I think the role of the mayor is constrained in interfering in personnel matters, which I haven't done. And that is the way, I think, is the easiest way to understand the three branches: that the mayor is sort of a head of state and can interact effectively on behalf of the city to external groups. The manager is to have a great deal of authority internally, and the council of course is a legislative body and has its own ability to provide checks and balances by controlling the purse and legislation.

john cranley
John Minchillo
A local resident criticizes Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley in 2018 on his recent actions regarding City Manager Harry Black during a City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, March 21, 2018. With one council member absent Wednesday, Cranley removed a proposed buyout proposal for Black from the council meeting agenda. Cranley asked Black to resign, but Black balked.

Costello: So mayor, let's talk a little bit more about your particular style of leadership and relationship as mayor to City Council. Your critics would say that you're not a collaborator. Some have criticized you as having this kind of "my way or the highway" approach. Do you feel like you could have done more to work with City Council and accomplished more of your policy goals if you had worked closer with them, especially your fellow Democrats?

Cranley: No, I'm very proud of — with the exception of the streetcar, I can't think of anything major that we didn't get accomplished that we've been trying to work on. You know, we're building the largest solar farm in America. Cincinnati will be the first major city to be carbon neutral. And 130 electricians are working on that now. And we reduced poverty, I believe faster than any other city in Ohio in the last 10 years. We were the first major city in Ohio to get body cameras on all of our police officers. We've done extremely exciting work to make immigrants feel welcome working with the Archdiocese (of Cincinnati) to provide municipal IDs and the MARC, Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition. And so no, I'm just very proud of everything we've done together. And I think we've had a tremendously successful relationship with Council. Obviously, there were members of Council who broke the law repeatedly. And they're going to have to deal with those consequences. But the big picture, which is reduction of poverty; bucking the national trend where shootings are down instead of up over last year - one of the only major cities in America where shootings are down this year. I wish they were down even more; they're still far too high. But I think all of that is a testament to the success that we've been able to have working together on so many issues, even in spite of COVID, in spite of George Floyd, in spite of indictments, we've been able to get things done.

Wilkinson: You're campaigning now for the Democratic nomination (for governor) next year. If you end up winning the primary, and if you win the general election against Mike DeWine or Jim Renacci or somebody else, you're likely going to be going to a Statehouse with a large majority of the legislature still in Republican hands, and may be veto-proof as well. How are you going to handle a Statehouse full of Republicans?

Cranley: Well, Howard, as you know, I've been able to work with all the Republicans on City Council very well. In fact —

Wilkinson: But this is a different group. These are different people.

Cranley: Well obviously. I'm not suggesting it's a perfect analogy. I'm saying that I have a long history of working with Republicans. As you know, Becca points out that sometimes Democrats criticize me because I'm too willing to compromise and to work across the aisle. And so I will start with the premise that we will try to get things done for the good of the state regardless of party. And I will always do what I've always done, (which) is do what I believe is right. And that's the other thing - I'm not a proponent of the idea that you do people - that 'I'll scratch your back, and you scratch my back.' I believe what the public wants out of public officials is for people to vote their conscience on everything. And that's what I've tried to do as mayor. And maybe that's exacerbated people at times when I have stayed consistent with, you know, opposing spending that I think is wasteful. But the bottom line is that when I give people my word, they know that they can take it to the bank. And I've been very candid and open about my opinions on any topic ever. And I believe that that will help me in the Statehouse. But big picture, Howard, what I'm committing to do, which is to build infrastructure of WiFi for the whole state. That's the number one issue in the most small town and rural parts of the state, which are the most Republican. I'm committing to legalizing marijuana, which is now being introduced by Republican legislators, but Governor DeWine has promised to veto and he wants to keep it a crime; I want it to be a business. These are fair differences that the voters will choose between. But the good news is that every Democrat supports it, and now a small number of Republicans support it, which could get me to a 51% ability, whereas if the Republican wins the governor's mansion again, you need a veto-proof majority in favor of legalized marijuana. So I believe that there are a tremendous amount of opportunities for bipartisan work, especially when it comes to infrastructure, WiFi, fixing roads and bridges, and a variety of clean water issues to clean up the algae bloom out of Lake Erie, etc.

Costello: Mayor, I know that corruption has dominated in this interview as it has the news cycle over the last year-and-a-half, two years. But it is something that, if a casual observer is only paying attention to some things, I think they're more likely to pay attention to that. So when we talk about this issue of people trusting their local government, and this idea that that trust has been broken because of all of these headlines — obviously a lot has been accomplished over the last year in Council especially, and you working with Council. So without kind of rehashing what's already been done, what do you think still needs to be done to help repair that trust with the public?

Cranley: Well, I think most importantly, is the voters need to hold people accountable who broke the public trust. So, you know, Howard was asking me about Columbus. Mike DeWine signed the bill HB 6, which the Trump FBI has called the most corrupt utility scandal in America. The scandals in Cincinnati that council members were indicted for - if you look at the affidavits filed by the FBI, I opposed the deals that were being peddled. And according to the FBI, allegedly bribed. In each of the cases, the fundamental fact pattern was that you had a private interest asking the city for public money for a private interest. And in all the cases, I was very clearly publicly opposed to the deals that led to bribery corruptions. Conversely, Mike DeWine signed HB 6. So he collaborated with the corrupt deal. And so to answer your question, I hope that at the city we elect honest people, and I hope at the state, we elect honest people who don't get into really bad deals for taxpayers that are the result of bribery and corruption.

Costello: In the few minutes that we have left, I know, mayor, you've been meeting with Mayor-elect Aftab Pureval regularly as he prepares to take that office. What kind of advice have you been giving the mayor-elect in terms of what he might be doing when he takes office in January?

aftab pureval
John Minchillo
Then-Democratic congressional candidate Aftab Pureval speaks to the crowd alongside Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, left, outside City Hall during the "March for Our Lives" protest for gun legislation and school safety, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Cincinnati.

Cranley: You know, I'm not going to share my private advice, but I will tell you that we have had a tremendously enjoyable transition. We've been meeting weekly. We had dinner with Whitney and my wife Tina, we all went out to dinner together. And you know, he's my mayor on January 4, and I wish him the utmost success and I am very bullish on Cincinnati's future, and excited to see what he and the new council will do.

Costello: Well, I think that's all the time that we have. Mayor Cranley, thank you so much for joining us. And Howard, thank you for joining me in this exit interview of outgoing Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.

Cranley: Thank you. Thanks for having me.