Why endorsements still matter in City Council election – the tangible and intangible benefits

How PACs, unions, religious leaders decide

CINCINNATI – When Mark Mallory endorsed Derek Bauman, his words offered more than support. They also signaled to voters that Bauman, a first-time candidate, would lead like Mallory, whose eight-year mayoral tenure is viewed fondly by many Cincinnatians.

In a normal election, this kind of endorsement would give Bauman an edge over the other 22 candidates running for City Council.

But this year’s race lacks a central issue – like the streetcar four years ago – to neatly parse the field.

“It’s so much easier to run when you have a way to simplify the race,” said David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.

In this political environment, big-ticket endorsements become even more valuable. They reveal, in an instant, what a candidate values while simultaneously broadcasting that message.

However, the process that leads to an endorsement is quite opaque. Voters understand what a Republican is or what the Sierra Club represents, but what does a candidate have to do to wear these political badges?

Myriad groups and individuals endorse political candidates – political action committees (PACs), unions, religious leaders -- but most arrangements stick to this formula: In exchange for some combination of prestige, money and volunteers, the candidate promises to fight for the endorser in City Hall.

For example, Pete Witte, a Price Hill small-business owner, restarted his Partnership of West Side Residents (POWR) PAC to bring more attention to the city’s West Side.

After internal discussions between the five members, POWR has endorsed nine City Council candidates and John Cranley for mayor, spending more than $30,000 mailing out the slate to West Side voters.

The diverse and mostly Democratic ticket is, on the surface, at odds with a region that leans Republican and white.

“How do we convince a white Republican in his 60’s to vote for Tamaya Dennard, an endorsed African-American female Democrat?” said Witte.

Witte, himself, is a Republican, but he believes that West Side issues transcend party affiliation or race. As Dennard put it, “(Pete) knew that I was an advocate for communities before I was a candidate for City Council.”

Still, there’s no guarantee West Side voters will agree with every candidate on the slate.

“If that person is going to rip up our piece and say, ‘Hell no, I can’t support this group,’ so be it,” said Witte.

Niven said this is one reason the Cincinnati City Council race is one of the most difficult races in the state.

"What an enormous task it is to build a citywide coalition of people and finish in the top nine,” he said.

One group that cuts across geographic lines is labor unions. While they have declined from their mid-20th century heyday, their support can still sway elections. In 2011, unions across the state marshalled their members to the polls to resoundingly defeat Senate Bill 5, which would have limited collective bargaining power.

“Folks like the police unions and the firefighters, they view their future being on the line in an election,” said Niven. “A truly motivated union is not just trying to get its members to vote but is putting its members to work on behalf of the candidate.”

Two of the most coveted union endorsements in the area are from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council, which represent around 1,100 and 50,000 people, respectively.

While the FOP did not endorse Bauman, a retired police officer, he was particularly pleased to be on the AFL-CIO slate.

“For me, it’s more than just the politics of it,” he said. “It’s really standing with those people because we have shared belief systems.”

The FOP slate is determined by an eleven-member group within the union called the “1900 Club,” while AFL-CIO candidates are nominated through a “bottom-up” process starting with nominations from local union members.

Both groups interview candidates. Interviews and questionnaires are the norm, although some groups skip that rigmarole.

“(Pete Witte) and I, we met over a beer and just talked about what my goals were for City Hall,” said Dennard, talking about the POWR endorsement process. “He liked what he heard. We had a follow-up meeting, and then I got the endorsement.”

As Election Day looms, the utility of endorsements emerges.

If Dennard needs extra hands going door-to-door on a Sunday, Witte will rustle up some people to join her. Bauman’s name will populate union mailing lists throughout the region.

Real, tangible support like that is important, said Niven.

It helps fulfill what he calls the goal of every political campaign: “Make it easy for you to see why I’m the better candidate.”

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