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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: Why Cincinnati has only 10 council candidates this year, a record low

cincinnati city hall
Jason Whitman

For the first time in living memory, Cincinnati voters can count the number of City Council candidates on the fingers of their hands.

That's right. There are only 10 candidates for nine seats on Cincinnati Council this year — and nine of them are incumbents.

Truly astonishing.

It's especially remarkable in that the 2021 council race had a field of 35 candidates trying to claw their way into the top nine. So, how do we go from 35 council candidates just two years ago to only 10 on this November's ballot?

Two main reasons:

  • Two years ago, there were plenty of open seats for non-incumbents; this year there is not a single open seat.  
  • This is a very Democratic city — somewhere between 75%-80% vote for Democrats in head-to-head contests; and unless your name is Liz Keating, the only Republican on the nine-member council — you're simply not going to win.

There was only one incumbent council member running for re-election two years ago — Democrat Greg Landsman, who was re-elected with ease. The following year, he left council to run successfully for Republican Steve Chabot's U.S. House seat.

In 2020, three council members — Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, and Republican Jeff Pastor — were arrested on federal corruption charges and left council.

Republican Amy Murray resigned in 2020 to join the Trump administration.

Four council members — Democrats David Mann, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young, and independent Christopher Smitherman — couldn't run again because of the city's term limits rule.

All of the open seats drew a small army of candidates, 35 in all.

They were a mix of incumbents who had been appointed to their council seats (such as Republicans Steve Goodin and Betsy Sundermann, and Democrat Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney); non-incumbents who had run for council before and lost; and a host of unknowns who had absolutely no hope of finishing in the top nine.

All of them attracted to the race like moths to a flame — which is something that doesn't usually turn out well for most of the moths.

In the end, eight Democrats and one Republican were elected, with Kearney as the top vote-getter and the Republican Keating taking the ninth and final spot.

How did that come about? Eight of nine endorsed Democratic candidates winning?

Chalk it up to one thing: The power of the slate card

The slate card used by the Cincinnati Democratic Committee and the Hamilton County Democratic Party was used with pure genius in the 2021 council race.

It contains, of course, the names of all nine endorsed Democratic Party candidates and can be delivered to the Democratic voters of the city in a multitude of ways, like a slip of paper passed out at the polling places on Election Day that voters can take with them to the voting booths.

It can be delivered to Democratic homes via snail mail, to email inboxes and through social media.

Will Rogers once described himself as not being a member of any organized political party; he was a Democrat.

Ol' Will couldn't say that these days. The Democratic Party in Hamilton County is extremely well organized and their voters very disciplined.

In 2021, Democratic voters clearly took those slate cards into the polls with them. Most of them voted straight down the Democratic ticket. The only one of the nine endorsed candidates who didn't win a seat was Phillip O'Neal, who finished 11th.

All eight incumbent Democrats will be on the party's slate card again, as will a first-time candidate, Anna Albi, a Madisonville community activist whose key issue is reducing gun violence.

One of the incumbents, Seth Walsh, who replaced Landsman on council, is running under the cloud of an ethics investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission. That could create an opportunity for Albi, who has already shown an ability to raise campaign cash.

The only thing Keating has to worry about in her bid for re-election is the collateral damage that Democrats' anger over the MAGA Republicans in Columbus and Washington could cause her.

But Keating is no Trump apologist; she has no use for the MAGA crowd and has built a reputation as a hard-working, serious-minded council member who offers a different perspective on a solidly blue council.

The only thing she lacks is a spot on the Democratic slate card.

That slate card will be the key that unlocks a door to a City Hall office for decades to come.

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