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They each have a ticket, but only one candidate will ride to city hall.
The battle to replace Mayor Mark Mallory this November pits two popular, white, pro–gay rights, pro-labor Democrats against one another. Two sides of the same coin, right? Not quite.
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and John Cranley, a former council member, finished the 2007 city council elections in a virtual tie—33,775 for Qualls, 33,772 for Cranley. But check around the edges and you’ll find disagreements that will likely determine the winner on November 5. (We looked into our crystal ball to predict that Jim Berns and Sandra Queen Noble—both lesser known and with less money—will not survive the September 10 primary. Only the top two vote getters appear on the November ballot.) Other issues may emerge before Election Day, but two are foremost: Building or scrapping the proposed streetcar system; and the wisdom of privatizing parking garages and meters.
“I think it’s one of the best races we’ve seen in a long time,” said Gene Beaupre, a veteran political science instructor at Xavier University. “They are both excellent campaigners with constituencies that go back a long way. It’s not a slay-the-giant kind of thing. They’re pretty evenly matched going into the race.” Here’s how the key issues have shaped up:
Qualls says she is committed to not only completing the first phase of the project but adding a line linking downtown to Uptown, in addition to seeking further expansion, all as a driver of development and job growth. Cranley vehemently opposes the streetcar, arguing that development will continue in Over-the-Rhine and elsewhere without it and that the money dedicated to it—estimated to be about $90 million in state and local funds—could finance other priorities in more neighborhoods. “There’s a huge windfall of [economic] opportunity created by cutting off the streetcar,” Cranley says.
Which candidate’s stance will be more popular on Election Day is far from certain.
“It’s probably split,” says Howard Wilkinson, the long-time political beat writer for The Cincinnati Enquirer now with WVXU. “You have a whole lot of west side activists and people in the African-American community, and the NAACP, who are very angry about [the streetcar project].”
Cranley decries the deal as a giveaway to Wall Street financiers, while Mayor Mallory and others couched their argument for privatizing the city’s parking garages and meters as the only way to avoid laying off police officers and firemen. It wasn’t. In May, council moved some money around in the budget and both departments averted layoffs. Mallory blocked a council majority effort to renegotiate the lease terms with the Port Authority—which will oversee the private operators of city meters for 30 years and garages and lots for 50 years—in exchange for a one-time payment to the city of $92 million and about $3 million annually. Public opinion currently appears squarely against the deal. But Qualls is optimistic that voters will change their minds. “As people actually learn the facts, they will find that many of their concerns are without foundation and that they have been misled,” she said, citing evidence that downtown meters won’t rise to $3 an hour until 2026 and neighborhoods can control where new meters go.
So they’ve staked out their policy turf. But how do they win? “In gross terms, I think that Roxanne gets the east, John gets the west, and they argue over the African-American vote,” Beaupre says. He, along with many others, was incredulous that no formidable African-American candidate had entered the race in a city with a population that’s roughly half black; however, that sets up a scenario where the African-American vote could break the east–west stalemate to elect the next mayor.
Cranley, a Price Hill native who has since moved to Hyde Park, expects to win the west side by a big margin. With no Republican on the ballot, west side and east side conservatives, if they vote at all, will likely favor his anti-streetcar stance and recent experience in the private sector, as an investor in the Incline District.
Cranley is counting on the votes of African-Americans—led to some degree by influential ministers and fellow politicians such as city councilman Christopher Smitherman—who oppose the streetcar and parking privatization. A sizable minority of liberal, white Democrats in central and east side neighborhoods could help put him over the top, given his past record on urban poverty, civil rights, and other progressive issues.
But that scenario only works if he can cut into Qualls’s base: east side and Uptown voters in general, and white, highly-educated liberals in particular. An Over-the-Rhine resident, she has been the top vote-getter in most central and eastern neighborhoods. (“She could be elected mayor of Clifton and Northside in a minute,” Wilkinson says.) African-Americans who support the streetcar—or at least who won’t cast their vote based on it—will be part of her coalition given the broad support she has enjoyed in that community for decades. A sizable minority of west-siders and conservatives, drawn by her no-drama brand of governance, could be her key to winning. (In Westwood back in 2007, Cranley edged her out by only 393 votes).
That brings us to intangibles such as likeability and trustworthiness. “Roxanne has an image of being this calm, controlled, very focused and logical politician who is very measured in what she says and does. She’s not considered extreme in any way,” Wilkinson notes. “Cranley isn’t considered extreme, but he is more of a live wire than she is.”
As of early July, Cranley said he was on track to raise $1 million, and Qualls was aiming for $700,000—ensuring that city residents will be bombarded this fall with mailers and advertising. Still, nobody outside of either campaign wants to call a winner. “Let’s put it this way,” Beaupre says. “I wouldn’t put down any money that I couldn’t afford to lose.”
The Crystal Ball
On One Hand…
Streetcar proponents have had two modest victories at the ballot box, which could favor Qualls in November.
…On the Other Hand
The project’s heartburn-inducing delays and cost overrun could bolster Cranley’s case.
According to Amy Searcy, elections director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, the number of Cincinnati voters registered with a political party is dwarfed by the number of independents.
Some prognosticators read the tea leaves of the 2012 presidential election and see a voting trend. Obama trounced Romney citywide by a margin of 105,000 to 34,000. Romney won just one of the city’s 26 wards—Ward 19, comprising parts of Sayler Park, Riverside, and Sedamsville on the west side. Democrats ruled everywhere else.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue.