Whoever Wins Cincinnati's Mayor's Race Has A Lot Riding On Council Election

May 28, 2017

It's not surprising that, in Cincinnati, people who follow politics closely are fixated between the mayoral race between two Democrats – incumbent John Cranley and council member Yvette Simpson.

It is especially so because, in the May 2 primary, the paltry 11 percent of the electorate who bothered to vote in the three-candidate mayoral primary chose Simpson over Cranley by about 10 percentage points.

This Cranley-Simpson race is going to be the political equivalent of a WWE steel cage match.

But lest we forget, there is a city council race going on too.

And it is a big one.

A big one with three open seats and four-year terms at stake. In politics, four years equates to job security.

The three open seats belong now to Republican Charlie Winburn (term-limited out), Charterite Kevin Flynn (who chose not to run for a second term) and Simpson, who took herself out of the council election by running for mayor.

This year's council race could have an enormous impact on the direction of city government for the next four years and whether the newly-elected mayor will be able to get his or her way.

Get this straight – Cranley is by no means a shoo-in for re-election. But let's say for the sake of argument that he is re-elected. He is already working with a city council that is often difficult for him to control; and if the voters were to add three more council members who won't be singing from the Cranley hymnal, it could be a very long and bleak four years for the mayor.

So it matters. A lot.

There will be at least 14 to 16 party-endorsed candidates on the ballot; and there could be a couple of dozen more, if all the independent candidates file their petitions by the Aug. 24 deadline (although it's unlikely they all will.)

We're guessing something in the neighborhood of 25 candidates will be on the ballot, with nine to be elected.

Six of them will be incumbents – Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld, David Mann, Wendell Young, and Chris Seelbach, along with Republican Amy Murray and independent Christopher Smitherman.

Most people are assuming the incumbents have the money and name recognition to win another term, but there are no guarantees. When you get down to the ninth and 10th spots, there are usually very few votes that spell the difference between winning and losing.

Officially, this is a non-partisan election; no party designations appear on the ballot. But Cincinnati's three political parties – the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the Charter Committee – all endorse slates of candidates and get the word out to their voters.

Hamilton County Democratic chair Tim Burke (l.) and Hamilton County GOP chair Alex Triantafilou
Credit Provided

The non-incumbents who have been endorsed by the Democrats are Greg Landsman, who finished strong but lost in the 2013 council election and Michelle Dillingham, a community activist who did the same four years ago.

The newcomers on the Democratic slate are Avondale community activist Ozie Davis, former Sittenfeld aide Tamaya Dennard and Lesley Jones, the pastor of a church in Mt. Airy.

Passed over by the Democrats was former council member Laure Quinlivan – the former TV journalist who championed four year council terms and then lost her seat in 2013, the first election where terms were for four years.

Party leaders thought they needed at least four African-American candidates in a city that is nearly 50 percent black and African-Americans make up the party's most loyal voting block.

Davis, Dennard and Jones are black. Landsman, Dillingham and Quinlivan are white. Young is the only black incumbent.

That meant one of the challengers had to go; and it was Quinlivan.

Not that that stopped her.

She's already filed her petitions; and is out actively raising money.

In fact, on Thursday, she has a unique fundraiser, the likes of which we have never seen in 35 years of covering Cincinnati politics – a fundraiser put on by former journalists.

Hosted by John Faherty and Laura Trujillo, both formerly of the Enquirer, there are some familiar names among the 13 former journalists listed as co-hosts – among them Clyde Gray, Dennis Janson and Norma Rashid. The price tag for this event runs from $50 to $500.

"We former journalists support a former badass investigative reporter for Cincinnati Council,'' the invitation reads.

Quinlivan's principal advantage over the rest of the non-incumbents is name recognition.

The Charter Committee, too, has endorsed a slate of candidates. They include Derek Bauman, a former police officer in Mason and an ardent streetcar proponent; and Henry Frondorf of Westwood, a first-time candidate who created the Cincinnati Neighborhood Games, a friendly competition he says brings "all 52 neighborhoods together for fun and camaraderie."

As is their wont, the Charterites gave endorsements to candidates who are principally identified with the other political parties – "cross-endorsing," they call it.

They gave cross-endorsements to Democrats Mann and Dennard and Republican Murray.

Republican Party officials readily admit it is difficult for them to win in the city – they didn't even field a candidate for mayor.

But party chairman Alex Triantafilou said there are now three GOP candidates – Murray, Jeff Pastor, a teacher at King Academy Community School; and the newest addition, Seth Maney, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Clifton.

Triantafilou is high on Maney, although he says that it is always an uphill battle for a first-time GOP candidate in the heavily Democratic city.

"Seth is totally wowing everyone he meets in the party,'' Triantafilou said.

The GOP could recruit one or two more candidates before the Aug. 9 filing deadline for council candidates, Triantafilou said.

As for the mayor's race – the Charter Committee is officially on record, having endorsed Simpson before the May 2 primary. Their council candidates, though, are free agents on that subject.

The Republican candidates are likely to stay silent on the race, although there is a strong feeling that GOP voters will tend to vote for Cranley.

Among the Democratic incumbents, Young and Seelbach are outspoken in their support for Simpson. Mann has endorsed Cranley, while Sittenfeld hasn't spoken on the subject.

Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said his advice to the non-incumbents on the Democratic ticket is to steer clear of the mayor's race – the less said, the better.

"They would be ill-advised to jump into the middle of that,'' Burke said. "Why choose sides as a council candidate when you are out there trying to win votes from both Cranley supporters and Simpson supporters? Just stay out of it."

Chances are, they will take his advice.

There will be plenty of time to decide whether or not they are allies of a Mayor Cranley or a Mayor Simpson when  (and if) they get elected to council.