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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: What to expect from Cincinnati's new council and mayor

City Council Members Sworn into Office
Jason Whitman
/
WVXU
Mayor Aftab Pureval and elected City Council members are sworn into office during a ceremony at Washington Park, Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

Murray Seasongood and the Charterites of the 1920s probably never envisioned something like what happened in the bitter cold on a bright sunny day in Washington Park Tuesday.

2022 council mayor swearing-in ceremony washington park
Jason Whitman
/
WVXU
The set-up for the swearing in of Mayor Aftab Pureval and elected City Council members during a ceremony at Washington Park, Tuesday, January , 2022.

Seasongood and company created the council-manager form of government in the 1920s, a system that has survived nearly a century, with periodic tinkering and a major change in 2001 from a mayor who essentially was a glorified ribbon-cutter to a "stronger" mayor who can have an enormous impact on City Hall, for good or ill.

Never, though, have we in Cincinnati seen a mayor and City Council quite like the diverse collection of individuals who were sworn into office Tuesday in outdoor ceremonies.

As a journalist in Cincinnati for nearly 40 years, I've seen about two dozen City Council and mayoral elections come and go.

None have had more potential impact on the future of the city than the one we held last November.

A new 39-year-old mayor in Aftab Pureval – the son of an Indian father and a Tibetan mother who came to Ohio, as their son said in his short acceptance speech Tuesday, to a new nation where they "had nothing and knew nobody."

aftab pureval
Jason Whitman
/
WVXU
Mayor Aftab Pureval during a ceremony at Washington Park. Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

A nine-member City Council, elected by only 24.2% of the city's registered voters, that is made up of eight of the nine endorsed Democratic candidates and one lone Republican, Liz Keating, who would not have been there taking the oath of office Tuesday morning had she not reached out and won over a whole lot of Democratic and Independent voters.

Eight out of nine Democrats – that's simply a reflection of the state of Cincinnati politics these days. Most Republicans left town for the suburbs, the exurbs and beyond over the past several decades, leaving behind a city where Joe Biden won 75% of the vote last fall.

The last time Republicans held a majority on Cincinnati City Council was 1971 and they lost it that year. The odds of the GOP getting back on top in the city are slim to none. And slim's left town.

Nonetheless, I still have colleagues in the national news media whose jaws drop when I burst their bubbles by telling them that Cincinnati is a deep blue city and has been for a long time. They hear the name Cincinnati and automatically think Taft.

That train left the station long ago.

The diversity of this group is unlike anything this city has ever seen. That, too, is just a reflection of the changing demographics of Cincinnati.

The city's first Asian-American mayor, Pureval, presiding over a city council made up of five Black members (Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, Meeka Owens, Victoria Parks, Reggie Harris, and Scotty Johnson) and four whites (Greg Landsman, Jeff Cramerding, Mark Jeffreys, and Keating).

Six are brand new to council, never served before, either as elected or appointed members (Owens, Parks, Harris, Johnson, Cramerding, and Jeffreys). Harris is the first openly gay Black man to serve on council. Johnson is a former Cincinnati police officer. Parks is a former county commissioner and protégé of the late Todd Portune.

This is a most interesting bunch.

Some of these newbie council members may be relatively new to politics, but they are all smart enough to know one thing: make good on promises and you'll get re-elected. And, hopefully, make the city a better place in the process.

And you can bet that Pureval knows that. He's run for office four times in the past five years. But if he wants to settle down for eight years as mayor of this city, he will have to produce results.

If he is re-elected in 2025 and serves another four years, he will be only 47 when he leaves the mayor's office – which, in politics, qualifies him as a "young politician" who can (and would likely want to) move on to bigger and better things.

Pureval has an ambitious agenda, one that revolves around four basic issues: affordable housing, public safety, climate change and racial equality.

And the new mayor, in his interregnum period, pared down the number of council committees from seven to five; chose five of his fellow Democrats to chair them; and gave council members the ability to focus on the issues that interest them the most, the issues where they have the most expertise.

Landsman, the only council member to win a second term last fall, gets the pick of the litter for being the senior council member. He will chair the Budget and Finance Committee, which gives him a huge role to play in deciding how city funds are to be spent.

Johnson, after a career as a Cincinnati police officer, was a no-brainer choice for chair of the Public Safety and Governance Committee.

scotty johnson
Jason Whitman
/
WVXU
City Council Member Scotty Johnson is sworn into office during a ceremony at Washington Park. Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

Kearney was the top vote-getter in a council race with 35 names on the ballot. The first major decision Pureval made after the election was to name Kearney vice mayor, where she can function as a majority whip with less experienced council members who will look to her for guidance. She will also chair the Healthy Neighborhoods Committee.

Owens will chair the Climate, Environment and Infrastructure Committee, while Harris gets the Equitable Growth and Housing Committee.

meeka owens
Jason Whitman
/
WVXU
New City Council Member Meeka Owens at the swearing-in ceremony at Washington Park. Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

We already know Pureval is a skilled politician, one who has learned from the mistakes of his 2018 congressional campaign. He burst onto the scene in 2016 and ousted a Republican incumbent in the county Clerk of Courts Office, ending decades of GOP control of that office.

He knows how to win; and he's learned from his loss. And, in the 2021 mayoral campaign, he was elected over fellow Democrat David Mann by a margin of nearly two-to-one.

He's well-connected with the Democratic Party in Washington from his congressional campaign; and he has a relationship with the Biden administration where his phone calls to the White House are likely going to be returned.

And he goes into office with eight Democrats on council and a Republican who may be more conservative than the rest but not the sort who is going to take instruction on how to vote from her party's headquarters. Liz Keating is a free agent if there ever was one.

Liz Keating swearing in, 2022
Jason Whitman
/
WVXU
Cincinnati Council Member Liz Keating at her swearing in, January 2022.

These eight Democrats ran as a team and they seem to genuinely like each other. And most of them are grateful to Pureval for his help in getting them elected. They are going to disagree on some issues, but they are likely to be able to work out their differences without the kind of nastiness we have seen out of council in recent years.

If Aftab Pureval can't get most of his agenda for the city through this City Council, then we are seriously over-estimating him as a politician.

This new mayor has the world by the tail. And he knows it.