Commentary: The Cincinnati Mayor's Race, Post-Smitherman

Jan 29, 2020

First off, my apologies for writing about an election for Cincinnati mayor that is over 22 months away.

After all, we have the small matter of deciding the future of this country – and maybe the world – in the presidential election a little over 10 months from now.

You can blame Christopher Smitherman.

But don't be mad at him; he's choosing family over politics.

Things were slowly chugging along in the background of the 2021 Cincinnati mayor's race when Smitherman – the council independent who has some decidedly Republican views and many conservative friends – announced two weeks ago that he would not run for mayor next year.

His wife's death by cancer a year ago left him the single parent of five kids and he has decided that being a father to them is more important than running for mayor right now.

That announcement upset the conventional wisdom which said that Smitherman and his fellow council member, Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld, would certainly be the principal combatants to replace Mayor John Cranley, a Democrat who is unable to run for a third term.

This proves what we have known all along – that often in politics, the conventional wisdom is more conventional than wise.

A confrontation between Smitherman and Sittenfeld would likely have been Armageddon, particularly if anything comes of the independent counsel's criminal investigation of the "Gang of Five" text message scandal.

Sittenfeld was among the five council members basically holding illegal meetings by getting together on text messages to formulate strategy on saving the job of former city manager Harry Black and undermining Cranley. The five have already lost a civil suit brought by COAST (the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes), an organization that is allied with Smitherman.

We'll see, but that investigation could turn out to be a nothing-burger.

Sittenfeld didn't want to talk to WVXU about this plans just yet, but he has been out actively raising lots of campaign cash for the "Sittenfeld for Cincinnati" committee. Since he'll be term-limited off of city council in 2021, that money, logically, can only be for one thing: to run for mayor.

Sittenfeld at a 2019 event at City Hall.
Credit Jennifer Merritt / WVXU

You don't ask people to give you money on the off-chance that you might run for something one fine day.

Consider the raft of Cincinnati labor union leaders who hosted a "Labor Leaders Breakfast" Jan. 9 at Taste of Belgium in Over-the-Rhine. Ticket prices ranged from $500 to $2,700.

Those labor folks didn't fork over that kind of money because they want to tell P.G. please pretty please, run for something. They knew what they were paying for.

The absence of Smitherman from the scene does not mean that Sittenfeld can moon-walk his way through the 2021 election and ease right into the mayor's office at 801 Plum Street.

If more than two candidates file petitions to run for mayor, there will be a primary in May of that year, with the top two finishers facing off against each other in the fall.

It's probably a safe bet to forget about the Hamilton County Republican Party fielding a credible candidate for Cincinnati mayor.

There simply aren't enough Republicans in the city to elect a mayor.

"We're going to try to field a candidate, but at this point, I have no idea who that would be,'' said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. "I'd like to have an alternative for voters. Right now, none of the names being talked about represent our values as Republicans." 

Back in 2009, a relatively unknown foot surgeon named Brad Wenstrup, a veteran of the Iraq war, agreed to take on the thankless task of taking on Democratic Mayor Mark Mallory. The Republican Wenstrup, despite being a rookie candidate, had a respectable showing. It gave him a leg up a few years later when he took on U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt in a GOP congressional primary and sailed to victory and a seat in Congress he has held ever since.

"The Brad Wenstrup story is kind of a selling point when I talk to people about running in the city,'' Triantafilou said. "I say, 'This can happen to you, too.' "

Meanwhile, speculation about a possible candidacy has centered around a legendary figure in Cincinnati City Hall, Democrat David Mann, who has served as mayor twice before, back in the 1980s and 1990s, when the mayor was a figurehead with next to no real power.

Mann is head of the most powerful committee on council now, Budget and Finance, after serving several years as vice mayor. Mann was elected to Congress in 1992. But he lost two years later to Republican Steve Chabot in the Newt Gingrich "Contract with America" election.

Mann returned to city council in 2013. Last year, he celebrated his 80th birthday.

Wow, 80 years old? Running for mayor?

David Mann during his 2013 swearing-in ceremony.
Credit Jay Hanselman / WVXU

Well, the truth is he seems to have more energy than many men half his age. His shock of pure white hair is something he has had for decades, but it's not a bad reminder to the public that this is a person of substance who has been around the block and back.

He's no kid. He's most definitely an adult.

But whether he becomes a candidate for mayor or not remains to be seen.

"All I said was that I have been trying to contain the impulse to do that,'' Mann said of a recent Enquirer column suggesting he might run. "Although I don't dismiss the possibility."

Right now, he said, his campaign fund consists of $100. 

"I suppose we would have to go out and raise a whole lot more,'' Mann said.

While he is not at all happy with the recent tenor on City Council or the antics of the "Gang of Five," he absolutely refuses to say anything negative about Sittenfeld or his council colleagues.

"If I do this, I'd talk about my vision for what this city can be,'' Mann said. "Some days I think the 'good old days' weren't so bad, when we had people here like Bobbie Sterne and Gene Ruehlmann. Serious people."

Mann said there is much he has to weigh before he would jump into a mayoral race.

"The good news is I have time to think it through,'' Mann said.

In fact, he has months and months and months to think it through.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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