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Analysis: Cincinnati's 2021 Council Race Has The Potential To Reshape City Hall

Bill Rinehart

You may find this hard to believe, but as of Wednesday, 75 people had gone to the Hamilton County Board of Elections and picked up petitions to run for Cincinnati City Council this year.

Seventy-five people with petitions to run for one of only nine seats on City Council. Incredible.

Far more than I have ever seen, and I have been covering Cincinnati politics since 1983.

That doesn't mean you are going to see 75 names on the ballot in the November election. Many of those people – mostly people you have likely never heard of, unless they are kin to you or live on your street – will never file those petitions. Many will struggle to get the signatures of 500 Cincinnati registered voters that they would need to qualify for the ballot.

But you may see 35, or some number a little north of that – which would still be a massive field trying to finish the election in the top nine.

Why, you ask?

Because there is so much potential for a sea change on council this year. Every seat is up for grabs.

Of the nine present incumbents, only one – Democrat Greg Landsman – will be running for a second term, having been elected to council four years ago.

Four others will be term-limited off; and most of them say they are running for mayor this year. The term-limited include Democrats David Mann, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach, all of whom plan to run in the May primary for mayor, as well as Independent Christopher Smitherman, who may yet enter the mayoral scrum.

Four people now serving on council were appointed and have never been on the ballot for council.

There is Republican Betsy Sundermann, appointed in March 2020 when Amy Murray left council to go to work for the Trump administration.

And, because of the extraordinary spectacle of 2020 when three incumbent council members were arrested on federal corruption charges, there are three more council members who were appointed last year – Democrat Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney and Republicans Steve Goodin and Liz Keating.

The filing deadline for council candidates – who run without party designations on the ballot – is Aug. 19. But the campaigns have already started; savvy candidates have already raised some money, put together campaign organizations and will soon launch campaign websites or already have.

And by March, or April at the latest, the three Cincinnati political parties – Democratic, Republican and the Charter Committee – will begin the process of endorsing slates of candidates

So who, you may ask, are the top tier candidates in the early going? Kevin Flynn was a no-nonsense, by-the-book council member who decided not to run for re-election in 2017. He's back now and is clearly near the head of the line in this year's election. So, too, is Democrat Michelle Dillingham, a longtime community activist who has come very close in two previous council elections. She has a large following; and this may be her year.

Matt Woods, president of the Charter Committee, told WVXU that Jim Tarbell, the former council member and vice mayor, has told Charter he will run this year. Tarbell has near-universal name recognition among Cincinnati voters, after decades on the Cincinnati political scene.

Who else is in the top tier?

  • DemocratJaime Castle of Mount Washington, who works as a substitute teacher, impressed a lot of people in her party when she took on the unenviable task of running against Republican Congressman Brad Wenstrup in the sprawling 2nd Congressional District. She lost, but she did win the eastern Hamilton County portion of the district, taking 54% of the vote. She made a lot of friends in that campaign and will be well-organized.
  • Bill Frost, a native of Great Britain who came to Cincinnati in 1988 as an engineer and became a U.S. citizen in 1995. A former president of the Pleasant Ridge Community Council, he has been a leader in the Charter Committee in recent years. He is likely to head Charter's slate of endorsed candidates.
  • Cam Hardy of Mount Airy, who has been an indefatigable crusader for better bus service and public transportation, has been one of the most high-profile activists in the city in recent years and surely has developed a following that would be more than happy to give one of their nine council votes to him.
  • Brian Garry, a progressive Democrat who has run for office numerous times and failed, is a tireless advocate for the homeless in Cincinnati. If he grows his base beyond progressive Democrats, he might just have a shot this time.
  • Dale Mallory, a former Democratic state representative and member of the Mallory political dynasty, could be a force to be reckoned with on name identification alone. If he runs, he would have substantial support from Black voters.
  • Jeff Cramerding, a Democrat who has helped run many local campaigns for Democrats and Charterites, is well known and well connected. He'll likely raise plenty of money to become a serious candidate.
  • Meeka Owens, a Democrat from North Avondale, has been quietly putting together a campaign for council for many months. She has worked on many local Democratic campaigns and is well liked and much respected. She will almost surely have a Democratic Party endorsement.
  • Derek Bauman, an Over-the-Rhine resident and a former Mason police officer, ran in 2017 and finished 14th out of 23 candidates. He's been a high profile community activist and may have grown his base since then.

Other candidates will emerge as contenders in the months to come. And we will be keeping an eye out for them.

But two things about the 2021 City Council election are apparent: There is enormous potential for change at City Hall, more than there has been in decades, and voters will have no shortage of choices.

It will be hard for many Cincinnati voters to pare this field down to nine.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.