A week after controversial Children's hospital vote, city's top CEOs to question mayoral candidates

CINCINNATI -- A week after Councilwoman Yvette Simpson tried to force Cincinnati Children's Hospital to pay $14 million for a zoning change to expand, she will face the powerful Cincinnati Business Committee made up of the CEOs of the 25 largest employers in the city, including Children's CEO Michael Fisher.

While the CBC is nonpartisan and won't endorse in the mayor's race, this influential group of CEOs of companies including Fifth Third Bank, Procter & Gamble, Western & Southern Financial Group, Great American Insurance Group and the Castellini Group of Companies, wields tremendous power in the city and advocates hard for job creation and economic growth.

The CBC will meet with Mayor John Cranley and Simpson, who is challenging him for mayor, on Monday to hear about their visions for the city.

It is likely to be the only meeting the influential group will have with both candidates before the November election.

And the timing could be difficult for Simpson, who tried to force Children’s hospital to invest millions more in Avondale in exchange for a zoning change needed for their $550 million expansion. Her motion failed at City Council on Wednesday.

“I think economic development is critically important for our city - for job creation in the city, for helping to move people out of poverty,” said Gary Lindgren, president of the CBC. “So any time that you’re talking about a major job creation project that’s going to add significant benefits to the community …. votes on those types of issues are going to get people’s attention.”

At Monday’s meeting, the CEOs will ask questions about broad topics such as education, taxes and budget issues, but, Lindgren said, “a lot of it always comes back to economic development.”

“Job creation is critical in this community,” Lindgren said, who adds the group doesn't back a candidate in any election, but frequently gets involved in community issues, such as backing the Preschool Promise Levy last year.

Both mayoral candidates will also meet with the Cincinnati Regional Business Committee, which Lindgren also leads, sometime this fall. That group is made up of roughly 90 top leaders of the region’s largest employers.

The zoning change to allow Children’s to move ahead with their long-planned expansion, including a new emergency room and 10-story patient tower, was not expected to garner any opposition at City Council this week because the hospital wasn’t asking for any city funding.

So when Simpson introduced her motion on Monday to force the hospital to invest $14 million more in Avondale in exchange for the zoning change, it took many by surprise.

In an unusually blunt letter to City Council members on Tuesday night, Fisher called Simpson’s motion "deeply disappointing" and "not acceptable,” and that it "came as a complete surprise."

It also caused many Republicans to take notice, said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party.

“Republicans and common-sense Democrats have seen the sort of damage that can be done when you have a strong left-wing agenda,” Triantafilou said.

Republicans did not put up a candidate for mayor. Since Cranley and Simpson are both Democrats, Triantafilou didn’t want to praise either one. But he acknowledged Cranley is the clear choice for Republican voters, especially after this week.

“Clearly among Republicans this issue has helped Mayor Cranley,” Triantafilou said. “Certainly the common sense, pro-business, pro-growth position here was to support Children’s and candidly Mayor Cranley looks like the adult in the room with Republicans.”

It could also help Cranley win more GOP donations.

“He’s already a very effective fundraiser," Triantafilou said. "This is only going help.” 

The Children’s hospital issue could have a far-reaching effect on the mayor’s race, which has lacked focus and hasn’t gotten much attention from voters yet.

In past elections, polarizing issues such as the streetcar have defined a mayoral race.

But in this race, Cranley, who is considered the more moderate Democrat, and Simpson, the more progressive of the two, have actually shared many of the same positions. There hasn’t been a stark contrast between them, political experts say.

Until now.

“This a good, solid contrast moment for Mayor Cranley,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven.

“Cranley has had a hard time creating a sense of urgency in this campaign, whether communicating to the business community or anyone else. But the Children's Hospital issue gives him a nice, clear contrast in which he can say he believes in keeping Cincinnati open for business while his opponent wants to run the economy from City Hall,” Niven said.

After City Council voted for the zoning change, and against Simpson’s motion, both mayoral candidates made speeches with a pitch to the business community.

“This is the political season, and much of the rhetoric around this vote today is influenced by that,” Simpson said. “But I don't change my values based on an election. I have voted with the corporate community more than 99 percent of the time for incentives and capital support to encourage economic development.”

She insisted the hospital could do more to help Avondale, which has an average income of $22,000. The expansion would reroute Erkenbrecker Street and mean the demolition of a dozen or so houses.

Community activists pleaded with City Council to do more to preserve black neighborhoods and not to sacrifice them for development.

But Cranley insisted the hospital needs to stay in the city, and not expand elsewhere.

“Children’s is literally providing primary health care for the poorest residents of our city free of charge, including 2,200 residents of Avondale,” Cranley said. “Are our hospitals who have left the city doing that? Are they?”

Cranley also took the chance to paint himself as the pro-business mayor, who has brought jobs to the city, and would continue to do so if re-elected.

“I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to bring people and jobs back into the city,” Cranley said. “It’s not an accident we’ve added 7,500 jobs over the last four years. It happened because of leadership and approach.”

Niven believes this could be a defining moment for the mayor’s race, but experts say it would have carried more weight if it happened closer to the November election.

“This issue will make for a nice pitch to donors, but raising money hasn't been (Cranley’s) problem,” Niven said.  “What he needs to do is make clear what this race is about and why Cincinnati needs him in the job.”

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