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Why Isn’t This Man Smiling?
Life in City Hall with Mayor John Cranley
“Here’s what I think of when I think of John Cranley. When I was mayor and John was on council, John would come down to my office with no appointment, which is actually how I preferred it. I had this candy dish that had little chocolates and other little candies in it. And without even thinking, he would always go to that dish, pull out candy, and start eating it as he talked. He used to crack me up, because he would just come in and wipe this thing out.
“I like the quirkiness of that because it really shows his human side. If John had come into my office and eaten five pieces of candy and I took him out of my office and said, ‘Hey, how was the candy?’ he would say, ‘What are you talking about?’ [Laughs] I don’t even think he’d be aware of the fact that he just consumed five pieces of candy in my office, because, you know, he’d be focused on the issue or talking about something that we needed to work on. He’s just a very focused and very driven person.”
It was a skillet-hot morning in late June and a line of kids in green T-shirts along a wall at Eighth and Main streets were waiting to provide the backdrop for a mayoral announcement. Cranley was there to unveil the mockup of a mural inspired by the pop artist Tom Wesselmann and talk about the ArtWorks summer mural program.
After freestyling on the value of art, Cranley was anxious to get back to the shade of the Mini Cooper he arrived in. There was time for only one question, which was OK, because really there was only one question to ask. What was it like to meet Lionel Richie?
“It was great,” the mayor said, still beaming. A couple days earlier he’d checked out Richie’s concert at Riverbend Music Center and paid a visit to the seasoned R&B crooner backstage, where he presented him with the key to the city. Keys to the city are the prerogative of the mayor, who was elected to the office last November after years spent slugging it out in the city council trenches. But for a scrappy politico, Cranley seems pretty familiar with Lionel Richie’s career. “He’s written so many amazing songs. I mean, he wrote ‘Lady’ for Kenny Rogers,” the mayor pointed out. “And he was a principal writer of ‘We Are the World.’ ” He was hardly breaking a sweat. Cranley described watching the American Music Awards in 1985, when he was 10. It was the year of “Thriller,” and fans expected Michael Jackson to walk away with everything. But Richie held his own against MJ, Bruce Springsteen, even Prince. Cranley asked Richie about that night, and the singer described the shock of winning, and then how when it was all over, he left the awards to attend to the recording of “We Are The World.”
This is the moment in the story when a journalist will feel the need to extemporize on the colorful anecdote he or she has just been handed, and from it draw sweeping deductions about the subject. Maybe there is something to be said here about how, just like Richie going from achievement to achievement in a short amount of time, it had been a very productive month for the mayor. A few days before, General Electric had publicly announced it was moving its U.S. Global Operations Center (and up to 2,000 jobs) to The Banks downtown. On top of that, Catholic Health Partners were set to build a $60 million headquarters in Bond Hill. And about a week ago, City Council passed a budget with few alterations, a balanced budget that avoids layoffs and might as well have been written in Cranley’s hand.
Or maybe this is the place to muse that Cranley has yet to have his “We Are the World” moment. Because, if he has gotten an impressive amount done in his first six months on the job, it’s possible that it will have been at the expense of the next six months. When he wrote his post-budget op-ed piece in The Cincinnati Enquirer, what was intended as a victory lap read a lot more like a takedown of one council member who would not go along. (“Councilwoman Yvette Simpson—who supported the previous budgets that hurt our city’s credit rating—criticized this year’s budget despite failing to offer a single proposal to cut spending yet complained we aren’t spending enough money.”) If the brief but intense streetcar odyssey at the start of his mayoralty suggests how hard the mayor takes defeat, what’s followed has some denizens of City Hall wondering if he knows how to handle success.
Days after the ArtWorks press conference, Cranley was set to go on vacation. First, though, a bon voyage final press conference in his City Hall office. It was a sparsely attended affair, a few reporters gathered around his conference table. The office is auspicious; its marble walls and old wood surfaces breathe so much gravitas that it takes a lot of time and care to stake it out as a personal workspace. Packed with Sister City knickknacks the way the conference table was padded with interns filling out the empty chairs, it feels like he hasn’t fully moved in.
Somebody asked about relations between him and city council. Fair question: It has been an acrimonious half-year. Members frequently fight each other in the open, and the overall vibe has often been like an awkward family dinner where nothing good can come of asking for the biscuits. The mayor regularly frowns and stares in disbelief at the ceiling when things are stated that do not sound right to him.
So, are his interactions with council getting better? “I think so,” Cranley suggested. “Relations are improving across the board.” For vacation he was heading off to Munich, Germany, a Sister City, and then to Jordan, where he would ride a camel. That question and answer will be hanging in the air when he returns.
To illustrate how things are getting better with the members of city council, the mayor mentions Wendell Young, pointing out that he and the councilman recently made a trip to Cleveland to study how that city has attained a far better percentage of minority contracts than Cincinnati. Young is a fellow Democrat, a former police officer, U.S. Air Force veteran, and assistant to the police academy commander who chaired the Public Safety Committee during Mark Mallory’s second mayoral term. But Young campaigned for Roxanne Qualls, the other Democrat in last year’s election, and Cranley kept that in mind several times as his administration launched. He remembered it when Young was not informed of plans for the mayoral and council inauguration (Young found out about the day’s events when they appeared in the news). He remembered it when putting together his list of committee heads, stripping the ex-cop of the Public Safety Committee chairmanship and replacing him with Christopher Smitherman, an iconoclastic, Republican-leaning independent who had campaigned for Cranley. Young learned that from reading the paper, not from Cranley.
“During the campaign he had asked me to support him, and [said] that if he were to be elected, I would be his vice mayor,” says Young. “He supported me when I ran, which made it very difficult to say no to him when he wanted my support. But I didn’t like the people around him. It was never a case of not liking him. It was what I could see that he was going to owe—and who he was going to owe favors to—that was a problem for me.” Among the folks Young is alluding to is the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), the anti-tax, anti-development, anti-gay, anti-public projects, and anti-tax break (usually) group that reliably despises and belittles Democrats but made a point of giving Cranley an endorsement (which he ultimately rejected) in the middle of a campaign that he eventually won by peeling off votes from COAST-friendly demographics.
“I think, at center, he’s a decent guy,” says Young of the mayor. “I think he cares about the city—I really do mean that. It’s just that I’m not really able to talk about the new John Cranley because he’s a guy I don’t know.”
But this is politics, after all, and going forward Young thinks he and the mayor can find some shared space. He mentions the mayor’s Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee as one possibility. “He says he wants to reach out and have a better relationship, but I don’t know yet what that relationship could look like,” Young says. “I agreed to work on a committee that he’s putting together to try to do a better job of bringing minorities into the city workforce, in terms of getting contracts and such. I think that’s great. I support him on that. I did not support him when he was trying to kill the streetcar. I did not support him when he killed the parking deal [with the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority]. So we have been at odds about things, but for me it’s not personal.”
Maybe what we need is for everybody to take a trip to Cleveland: city hall workers, corporate leaders, that dude in the sombrero who shows up at council meetings. Please, pass the pierogies.
Cranley was calling department heads “incompetent” and badmouthing city staff before he was sworn in (see the banishment of Milton Dohoney). Once he arrived at city hall, he seemed to go out of his way to kick veterans as he tossed them overboard. And efforts to undo previous agreements have unsettled some of those who do business with Cincinnati. “If you have business with the city and every agreement is subject to renegotiation midstream, why the hell do business with the city?” says one local lawyer. “I’ve heard that many times.”
“With John there are winners and losers. And he wants to get his way. So he’s willing to throw anybody under the bus if it works to his ultimate position,” says one former city hall insider. “He spins things a lot of ways, and if you try to unwrap the layers of his spin, there’s going to be truths, half-truths, half-lies, and complete lies.”
Councilman Chris Seelbach also campaigned for Qualls last year. Last summer, his name appeared in a news story about a shouting match that boiled up when Cranley’s campaign manager, Jay Kincaid, encountered Seelbach outside a church festival packed with political hopefuls and berated him in front of onlookers. According to Seelbach, the shouting hasn’t stopped since Cranley won the election. For a while, he says, the mayor practically had him on speed dial. “He was calling me at 10 o’clock at night, once a week, yelling and screaming about something,” says Seelbach. Finally, “I had to hang up on him one night.”
Seelbach, who is 34, is active on social media, and says that the mayor will emphatically point out when he disagrees with something that’s been posted mentioning him. “If I post something on Facebook, he will, I guess, read every single comment [beneath the post]. He personally is calling me about this.” Seelbach says he and Cranley had a conversation about how they could have a better relationship, and one of the things it came down to was for the councilman to not, in the mayor’s words, “attack him on social media.”
Seelbach sees what he calls “bully-like qualities” in the mayor. “I can tell you that so many leaders of this city have come to me and said: ‘I don’t know what to do.’ ‘He has made me cry in meetings.’ ‘I don’t know how to work with him.’ ‘We just seem to not be able to get on the same page.’ Now, he would probably think that his style is a style that works, and that he is getting done what he wants to get done. Does it piss everyone off, and does it make people scared of him, and does it make people not happy in their own job? Yeah.”
“He has—as I do and most politicians do—a tendency to anger when things pile up or when he feels he’s being picked on,” says former mayor Charlie Luken.
What does the mayor think of the way he interacts with council members, constituents, the lifers in various city departments? Sitting at his conference table one morning, he is asked if he has a temper.
“Certainly I’m a passionate person,” he responds.
Does he call people up at night in a rage and shout at them?
“Only to my loved ones,” he says with a tight smile. A smile that projects the exact opposite of what a smile is meant to project.
That’s all he wants to say about it?
Cranley doesn’t answer. But the smile remains.
He did not come gently into this world. Amniotic fluid had entered his newborn lungs, keeping him from breathing. He wasn’t turning pink. Once the nurses got him breathing, the infant John tried so hard to respirate that he blew out a lung. He spent the first few days of his life in intensive care.
His father, Jay Cranley, sees a pattern from the start: His son was a natural born battler. John grew up fit but compact; today he stands roughly five-foot-seven. “He had to fight all the way through because of his stature,” his father says. “He wanted to play sports because he was smart and not ungifted in athletics. And so he fought.”
His parents were both transplants, and they brought quite different philosophies: Susan is a Colorado Springs–born Democrat who has served as president of the Cincinnati Public School Board, and Jay is a Republican estate planner who hails from Boston and still swings an impressive New England accent. They had John in 1974 and Mike a year later, then bought a house in Price Hill, in 1976. Price Hill gave both boys a notion of turf and a sense of identity—knowledge bound up with Ridgeview Avenue, Carnation Avenue, Schulte Drive.
To Cranley, Price Hill is not a place you ever really leave behind. Every year around the holidays the brothers do a run around the neighborhood with friends they’ve known since they were kids. They hit St. William’s and St. Teresa’s and other local landmarks, and then stop at the house, where Susan Cranley serves coffee and sweet rolls. Plenty of neighborhoods are full of people who take care of their houses and have deep feelings about the block. But few neighborhoods define themselves that way quite so much as Price Hill, where an identity has been built for decades around such matters. It is widely declared to be a place where children grow up and never leave, often raising their own children on the same street, or even in the same house, where they were raised. It’s an insular place. Direct, unpretentious, unabashed, unironic. Those plaid shorts the mayor wears in the photo with Lionel Richie that he tweeted? Price Hill, baby!
On the Cranleys’ cul-de-sac, kids still play kick the can. Growing up, the neighborhood was full of children John’s age, and a crew accumulated block by block as kids walked together to school everyday. There was never any problem to get two teams together to play football or baseball. “All of John’s friends had gathering places where parents knew they were safe with each other,” says Susan Cranley. “I don’t think any childhood is totally idyllic. But growing up in Price Hill—it’s a pretty good gig.”
Catholic school was a part of his Price Hill education. “I sent John to St. William,” says Jay Cranley. “I thought it would be important for him to grow up in this neighborhood and be taught in the local Catholic school. We made sure he was getting the proper education. Then, I knew St. Xavier High School would take over after that.
“All I can say about John is, when you’re raising your child you’re guessing, Did I do the right thing? Did I make the right decision? Always guessing. At the same time, you’re always thinking, to be realistic, your child is going to fall at some point, and when they do you want to be there to catch them. Well, I never had to catch John. I was always there but I never had to catch him.”
Jay and Susan were all for fun, but they were also vigilant. When it leaked that her son was going to go steady with someone, Susan told him it was OK, but first the girl’s family had to come over. “He went ‘What?’,” she recalls. “He knew I meant it and that put the kibosh on it.” (Though he did have steady girlfriends in high school.)
As a teenager, Cranley spent parts of his summers at an aunt’s farm in Texas, baling hay and riding horses. Years later, when a 2,000-pound cow escaped from a Camp Washington slaughterhouse and wandered into Clifton, the family joked that John, the only member of city council with experience roping calves, should have been deputized to round up the renegade.
Unable to start on the football team at St. William, he became the guy who knew where all the starters were supposed to be on all the plays, and made himself indispensable. (Always finding ways to compete.) Dinner table discussions at home could be contentious, what with a father who was a staunch Republican, a Democrat mother, and a son who leaned left and loved to debate. His nascent skills got plenty of practice; Jay was on him, testing his beliefs, questioning him with “if you accept this, then you must also believe....” Jay’s father, John Jr., a vascular surgeon who moved his family from Boston to get away from Democratic politics there, also pushed. He avidly read papal encyclicals and supported them. John read them, too, and loved to give as good as he got when debating papal authority with the family patriarch. They were debates that probably only got hotter as Cranley picked up spiritual ammunition, first at John Carroll University, then at Harvard Divinity School, with a degree from Harvard Law in between. Call it a Jesuitical method of debate, or a short guy’s will to take the prize, but Cranley has always found ways to match up.
As Luken, Cranley’s political mentor, puts it, “He happens to be smarter than 98 percent of us in terms of intellect. But viscerally he’s a west side guy.”
A key date in the future mayor’s life. Cranley had tried out for a part in a student play at St. X, which is known for its inspired theater program. The way he tells it, his m.o. for getting into Theatre Xavier was entirely tangential, albeit believable. “I was just getting in a play to meet girls from St. Ursula,” he says. “I wasn’t any good at sports, I’d been cut from the tennis team...” But others say he enjoyed the stage.
The play was The Fifth Sun, and its subject was the life of Oscar Romero, the late Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador. Romero started out a conservative, but as the military junta imprisoned and tortured leaders among the country’s disenfranchised peasantry, he became a powerful voice for the poor. After urging Jimmy Carter to cut off military aid to El Salvador—and ending America’s back-channel funding of the death squads—Romero was a marked man. He was saying mass in 1980 in the Salvadoran capital when a gunman parked a car outside the Church of the Divine Providence. It was a typically hot day and the church doors had been opened. Balancing his rifle on the car door, the man fired into the church and put a bullet in the archbishop’s heart.
While performing The Fifth Sun the high school cast was simultaneously studying the social context of the play. “Essentially you had an oligarchy running the country and the economy didn’t really provide opportunities for the people,” says Cranley. “It was hard to have economic hope, so the priests in essence started saying the structure of the government was inconsistent with human dignity.”
Cranley played three small parts, including a campesino who gets gunned down in the course of the narrative. Blood packets were emptied by the dozen. In the midst of the production’s run, events conspired to transform the meaning of the play. On the morning of November 16, it was reported that six Jesuit priests living in San Salvador, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter were all gunned down at their residence by members of the army. The killings had a direct connection to Cincinnati; some Jesuit instructors at St. Xavier knew the priests who had been killed.
When you are a teenager, a murder that happened nearly a decade before is a very long time ago. Suddenly the play was about what was happening in the immediate present, involving people around you, people you saw every day. The production had been playing recorded movie music as the curtain went up, but that night they switched it out for NPR’s report of the killings. It was a bold gesture that startled the audience. “I still remember that chilling feeling that I was going on stage pretending to be shot and killed literally hours after Jesuits had been murdered for their beliefs and ideals,” says Cranley.
“It was amazing. And John, to be specific now, was highly emotional,” says Michele Mascari, a drama teacher at St. Xavier who directed that production. “We had to preface our rehearsals with conversation. We had to cry with each other.
“His character was slain as he was helping a Jesuit; he was travelling with the priests who taught reading and saw to the needs of nearby peasants in villages and were ambushed and slain by machine guns. So every night his innocent self, John Cranley, runs to say ‘I’m coming,’ as the priest says something like, ‘Go bring that bag of food…’ I know that that was difficult, but also somehow cathartic. And I think it was a big part of him being moved in his current direction.”
It was a big night for bowties. Swells, pols, civic fixtures, and their would-be-replacements, all coalescing at the Presidential Ballroom of the Westin Hotel for the Niehoff Lecture, an annual fund-raiser for the Mercantile Library. They had come to hear biographer Robert Caro expound on what it’s like to live with Lyndon Baines Johnson in your head for decade after decade.
Cranley was there, and when he shook the scholar’s hand, he waylaid Caro for a considerable amount of time, gardening the mind of the master. Cranley has read The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of New York’s über-planner Robert Moses, and most of Caro’s ongoing biography of LBJ. There is no finer delineator of American power than Caro, and Cranley is an apt pupil of the uses of power. And so they talked for a stretch of Johnson’s feud with the Kennedys, and how this Southern president got a Civil Rights bill passed into law.
Hard as it is now to contemplate, there was a time when Cranley had absolutely zero political power. It was 2000, his first campaign. Still finishing up at Harvard Divinity, and thus completely mojo-free, Cranley agreed to let an MTV team follow him around as he ran for the 1st District congressional seat held then (and now) by Republican Steve Chabot. MTV seemed like a golden chance for him to garner some attention. (The resulting documentary’s single best line comes on Election Day. After the polls close, Cranley and a staffer are sitting in a Wendy’s drive-thru waiting on their burgers, and the exhausted candidate blurts out, “Let’s get some fucking beer!”) As the film progresses you see the 26-year-old Cranley gain name recognition, raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in an ultimately unsuccessful effort, and end up a rising star.
He began as an unknown who by his own admission had never even held a job before, one whom Howard Wilkinson sketched memorably in the Enquirer: “If you want to know what it is like hearing him give a political speech, imagine Jerry Mathers doing a Bobby Kennedy impersonation.” Yet the campaign clearly impressed the veteran political reporter. “He looks like the neighborhood kid who ran his bike through your flower bed, and he has all the hand-chopping, hair-brushing moves that have come to be known in American politics as ‘Kennedyesque.’ The kid knows all the words; he seems to be learning the tune, too.”
Late in 2000, after Todd Portune was elected a Hamilton County commissioner, the outgoing councilman attempted to pick his own successor. But then-Mayor Luken, who had been impressed in his dealings with Cranley, muscled in to have him finish out Portune’s term. “He was my right hand guy,” Luken says today, and he arrived at an interesting time in city history. Cincinnati had recently voted to turn the job of mayor—then a ceremonial title going to the top vote-getter on the council—into a player with specific powers. With a city manager still on top, this wasn’t an executive mayor, but he or she would now appoint committee chairs, veto council actions, and have a huge hand in controlling the flow of legislation.
Working in tandem, Luken and Cranley used the new “strong mayor” powers to go after regional bureaucracies—including the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority and the Housing Authority—that the city had only limited control over. They demanded changes to boards and input on policy matters, threatening to reexamine future Cincinnati cooperation and hold back money.
“The mayor for the first time had influences beyond City Hall, and those were exercised,” says Luken. “Take for example Downtown Cincinnati Incorporated, where I wasn’t happy with the way it was working. Withholding funding, changing the leadership, reexamining the relationship. Historically DCI was something out there that the mayor just funded.”
Cranley was testing the limits of mayoral power before he got elected mayor. Heck, before he’d even been elected to city council, which didn’t happen until November 2001. By then he was chairing the Budget and Finance Committee, as well as the Law & Public Safety Committee. But just when the public was beginning to evaluate the new system, events unfolded that had the critics questioning the political system on a far deeper level.
On April 7, 2001, Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old African American, was shot and killed by patrolman Stephen Roach after a lengthy chase through Over-the-Rhine. Thomas was the 15th young black man killed by Cincinnati police in six years. On April 9, the Law & Public Safety Committee held a hearing on the shooting. As council members entered the chamber, they were greeted by protesters carrying signs that read “COP KILLER” and chants of “No justice, no peace.”
Thirteen years on, the footage of that committee meeting (which lives in digital perpetuity on YouTube) still retains its weird power. Or perhaps, lack of power. After about an hour, Mayor Luken gets up and leaves, and protesters’ voices start drowning out the chairman’s as he tries to maintain order. Cranley has to ask someone to find him a gavel—which he more or less pounds futilely for nearly three hours. Protesters squeeze in on all sides of the attending council members, and voices rain down from all corners. By the end, Cranley is standing, jostled, wedging an occasional word in—but he mostly seems to be taking info from protesters and officers, and holding down the office. Finally he announces that riot police have been withdrawn from outside, a demand of the demonstrators, and adjourns the meeting. “Call off the demons!” a voice says on an open mic, and then the mic goes dead.
That night, rioting began. For three days demonstrators marched and hurled cans and rocks at cops, who returned fire using beanbag rounds. The city was put under curfew. In the aftermath, some laid the blame on Cranley and Luken, as if unplugging the meeting could have unplugged African-American anger. “You know, for years the most common criticism has been we should have just shut it down, turned off the cameras, forced people out of the room,” says Cranley. “And there have definitely been times when I think that might have been a better approach. But there was so much anger, there needed to be a venting, an opportunity to yell at the government.”
After the riot subsided, a federal investigation was launched and Cranley was instrumental in gathering the various sides uneasily present that day—law enforcement, government, black leaders, and victims of police abuse—together in meetings with federal officials. Those meetings eventually resulted in the so-called Collaborative Agreement that led to significant police reform, which is cited even today as a sign of what collaboration can make possible.
In his subsequent eight years on city council, Cranley helped usher through legislation banning racial profiling in the city and enacted groundbreaking legislation that extended civil rights protection to members of the LGBT community. And much of it, quite possibly, happened because of who he was—a guy from Price Hill. Where, as Charlie Luken says, the belief in law enforcement is foundational. Even a middling student of political power would know that regional identity helped LBJ get the Civil Rights Act through Congress when a Kennedy couldn’t. Cranley is no middling student.
If a Zen master is an embodiment of placid calm, let’s just say that St. X didn’t raise no Buddhist. But if it’s being able to master 3-D chess while those around you seem to be fumbling with Chinese checkers, maybe Cranley is the sensei of city politics.
In his years on council, Cranley has studied how things get done, and is applying that knowledge as mayor to help his things get done—sometimes with council, sometimes in spite of it. That riot-inspired collaborative agreement was the blueprint for putting disparate parties into a room this year to solve our public pension problems (a federal judge will call the shots: we’ll see how it turns out).
As a councilman, Cranley was an architect of tax increment financing (TIF) districts, which wrangle tax monies from new development in a specific area, setting them aside for future community-driven capital and infrastructure projects (say, new streetlights or streetscaping) in that same neighborhood—a way to further increase the impact of neighborhood economic development. He knows those devices as well as anybody, and as mayor—hungry for a budget that would boost our sagging credit rating and not involve layoffs—he put them to unintended use. He made a switch to now use TIF money to pay the debt obligation for projects that had been created and funded under a separate neighborhood development program, Focus 52 (a Mallory administration initiative specifically designating non-tax revenue dollars for projects). By doing so, he freed up those dollars to cover operating costs, but effectively wiped out the TIF availability for future neighborhood use. The sensei reveals his ninja within.
“Sometimes I think John thinks he’s the Boston mayor. He can get really tough,” says Luken.“He’s a tough guy and he believes that he is the strong executive mayor, or at least that’s the way he’s gonna act, and I think that’s good. But he is tough and he will figure out what he’s gotta give and what he’s gotta get and what he’s got to trade to get where he needs to go. I’m not talking about anything unethical or illegal, but he’ll make deals.”
For a vivid sense of how power is applied at present, one could hardly do better than observe the proceedings on April 30, the day the council debated legislation determining the future of a special bike lane planned for a stretch of Central Parkway leading into downtown. What made the debate extra special was that the motion to accept federal funding for the project had already passed, 9–0, last year during Mallory’s tenure. But Cranley was not there last year; he opposed it, and now it was being “reevaluated.” After recent attempts to kill the project had been fought off, there was now going to be a vote to either modify the lane—chopping down trees and building a detour to preserve parking spaces—or else kill the thing entirely.
The takeaway? Previous agreements—whether they be about streetcars, plans to privatize parking and parking meter collection, trash collection, downtown development projects, and more—should not be assumed to be agreed upon until Cranley has had his say.
It was a funny kind of meeting. As it began, Cranley traffic-copped the usual rapid-fire votes on agenda items, but after a few had been decided it turned out that councilmembers were working from differing calendars. Which is to say, they did not all know what they were passing when they passed it. After a brief pause to make sure the latest agenda was in everyone’s hands, more voting proceeded.
Then came the bike ride. What unfolded could be described as an aerodynamically unsound downhill slalom on fixed gear bicycles. Don’t even think about coasting.
The special bike lane on Central Parkway received a little open-ended airing. Councilwoman Yvette Simpson declared that the project spoke to the “true progressive nature” of the city, and regretted having to accept the compromise (and added cost), but said it was preferable to losing the whole project. This was followed by a brief, unscheduled detour led by councilwoman Amy Murray, who complained about the transformer boxes being installed for the streetcar, which, like the Central Parkway bike lane, will cost parking spaces. This, of course, gave the mayor a chance to kick the streetcar one more time.
But then Cranley returned to the topic at hand. He said he didn’t understand the need for a bike lane; didn’t understand why riders couldn’t just use renovated sidewalks; why there needed to be lanes on both sides of the avenue, when bikes could flow north and south within the same lane; and noted that the law said bikes already have a right to the street, so why restrict automotive liberties? The suggestion was that folks better take the compromise, because it all could be revisited again. And so it passed, 5–4.
Seemed like that was that. But really, things were just getting started. Here’s the tick-tock on how it went down:
Councilmember Chris Seelbach, perhaps not without reason, asks a few questions to make sure that “nothing else tricky will happen, no surprises,” given that an ordinance regarding funds for the bike lane already passed once before, and that promised funds will dry up by May 1 (the next day!) if it passes but sits on somebody’s desk this time around.
This was met with a tribute to council’s virtue from Christopher Smitherman, and then the council shifts to an emergency ordinance: another bike project, which Cranley is all for—a bike share program (public bikes available for a small cost from stations scattered around downtown) paired with some funds for a few other off-road recreational trails, notably the Wasson Way project.
This prompts councilman P.G. Sittenfeld to ask, with seeming sweetness and light, just why this ordinance comes now, when few had even heard of it until recently, and since council will be discussing next year’s capital budget in just a few weeks? He offers a warm embrace of the mayor’s goals, while simultaneously hinting he knows more than he is telling.
Cranley responds that the money comes from unspent, already set-aside funds, and explains the urgency of passing the motion right now: The backers of the bike share program want to get it running this summer. Oh, and also: “Some bike magazine is coming to town or is in town or was in town recently, and they thought that having the firm commitment from council for bike share would move up our rankings nationally quite substantially as a bike-friendly city.”
Have you ever watched a game of polo played on bikes? Those suckers can stop, go, circle, and float in place like nobody’s business.
Sittenfeld: “It is a great and helpful explanation,” he congratulates the mayor, adding off-handedly that in that explanation’s wake he only had “I guess, one other question before supporting this.” What effect could this have on other, unnamed bike projects?
It develops that if council passes this bike share ordinance, it will de-fund several other trails, and one lane on Woolper Avenue, which council has already funded. Who knew?! Which gives Seelbach a chance to say, in effect, See? This is what I meant about tricky stuff. Which just destroys the mellow groove Sittenfeld has been laying down. Undaunted, Seelbach asks why this motion popped up today, instead of going through a typical committee process.
Cranley interjects that it did go through the Major Transportation and Regional Cooperation Committee.
Proving once and for all that this council meeting is not totally scripted, Murray, a frequent Cranley supporter and chair of the transportation committee, looks a little confused and says that it never got discussed in her committee, but bikes sure would be talked about in the future. Which forces Cranley to gently explain that it had gone into her committee, she just was not at that meeting.
Take a break, reader. Get up and wiggle your arms, get a Popsicle, we’ll wait…are you back?
Now councilman Kevin Flynn, who was at that meeting, says bikes did come up, but they did not get voted on. You have to imagine the mayor would really like to say something funny here. Instead he attempts to right the ship: Actually it did get a vote, and you and that other guy there, David Mann, made it a 2–0 vote to bring it to the council floor.
So, to recap: Nobody knows anything about it now, they can’t seem to remember if there was a committee meeting on it or if it was voted on in committee, and the chairwoman of said committee is being brought up to speed on her own committee’s work in real time.
“Why don’t we just have a vote and see where it goes,” Cranley urges. Sittenfeld attempts to raise a motion to put it off a week—the better to learn exactly what the heck they are voting on—but Cranley says, Uh-uh. He’s already started the roll call. But then he backs off—and Sittenfeld’s motion fails! In the end, they have a vote and Cranley’s bike share ordinance prevails.
And if for certain only one person up there knows exactly what the vote was for and what it meant, if there is any justice, at least one result should not be in doubt: Cincinnati’s rating in an unnamed bicycle magazine deserves to go through the roof.
There’s a word that pops up unexpectedly, repeatedly, in council debate, just enough that you can tell an argument has been taking place in slow motion for months since Cranley was elected mayor: Progressive. The mayor has spun that word his way, for he considers it very much a part of who he is. It’s there on his résumé, and he brings it up in conversation one morning in his office.
“I think if anything there’s just been a fight among a very small group of progressives as to what the definition of being progressive is,” he says. “But candidly, in the African-American community, and in the part of the community that wouldn’t describe itself as progressive, meaning self-identified conservatives, [people] are feeling pretty good about things. And I think, frankly, progressives in the city are feeling pretty good about things, on the whole.
“To me, progressive should be defined around expansion of opportunity in the tradition of the civil rights movement, in the tradition of those trying to reduce poverty…that’s certainly my definition of the term. Weirdly, in the last couple of months you’ve seen an attempt to define progressives merely around a few transit issues.”
Except that it’s not just around a few transit issues. “When I think of the word, I really do think that [it] signals a willingness, an interest, and a passion towards progress, and moving things in a positive, future direction,” says Yvette Simpson. Endorsed by the Democrats and Charterites, Simpson is a lawyer and recent MBA grad who, since being elected to council in 2011, has focused her efforts on youth outreach (developing the Youth Commission of Cincinnati), small business development (establishing the Small Business Advisory Council), and addressing issues of human trafficking and prostitution. Throughout her tenure on council, she has explained her stances on issues in forward-looking terms: What’s the long-term, big picture effect? Does it advance us toward the type of city we want to be? What are the humanitarian considerations?
By Cranley’s own definition, he is somebody who is getting back to basics. And yet his definition of “basics” is not the same as Simpson’s.
“John, by his nature when it comes to certain things, tends to move slower,” she says. “He likes to slow down, which is why you’re seeing a lot of reversal of a lot of innovative things.... For instance, incentivizing corporations over small businesses. We cut $3 million in small business funding from this budget, yet we just approved millions of dollars of incentives for big organizations. So I would say no, he’s not progressive.
“John was the person who supposedly empowered TIF districts in order to create more community input and community oversight in projects, but now he’s taken that away in favor of incentivizing developers. Then again, he’s the guy who’s in the seat now, as opposed to a councilmember, and he’s maybe gotten a little older.”
Cranley may have just turned 40, but he’s hardly slowing down in his political life. There are those who suggest he could go on to higher office. Councilman Christopher Smitherman suggests a multitude of possibilities for the mayor he says is doing a great job. “I think John has the political mind to run a statewide race,” Smitherman says. “It takes a toll, on your family, on your body and your mind, but I see him going toward congress or senate. I see him as lieutenant governor, running on a ticket…or even a possible governor. And if he ever ended up as governor, then it would put him in line to be president. I think we have a rising star with John.”
A good question to ask the mayor about. And just when it was about to be asked, who should enter his office but his wife Dena, bringing a vase of flowers to brighten up the room. Dena Cranley is a vibrant management consultant whose family hails from Jordan. She is heiress to the Gold Star Chili empire, and when she laughs it is with full-throated glee.
She describes how she met John at a meeting of the Bacchanalian Wine Society about nine years ago. He made an instant impression: When he introduced himself as a councilman, she shot back how much she disliked city council. A few nights later they met at a fund-raiser, and talked for hours. He asked her out and they had dinner at Boca.
“And that night I heard this voice in my head saying, You’re gonna marry this guy,” Dena says. “Of course I’m arguing with this voice! I’m like What? He’s in politics, and.… But that was it. We got married in November of 2006, and had a child in ’09, and life is good.”
Ask Dena where she thinks John will be in 10 years and she shoots her husband a quick look. “In the private sector,” she says, and then laughs heartily. He laughs too, though not quite so much.
Is that what you think, or what you want? she is asked.
“Umm, no comment,” she says, before adding, “That was the deal, I think.”
“That wasn’t the deal!” Cranley interjects, as the laughter fades away.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue.
Photographs by Jonathan Willis.