CINCINNATI -- About a week before Cincinnati’s mayoral primary, Roxanne Qualls mailed glossy fliers to thousands of area residents that contained the name of the Charter Committee, a well-respected political group.
The fliers listed Charter’s name and office as the return address and, in some instances, as having paid for the campaign literature.
In all, two fliers were mailed with Charter’s permit. One was a “positive” piece, touting Qualls’ virtues.
The second piece was harshly critical of her main challenger, ex-City Councilman John Cranley.
The front of the four-page piece had a photo of a worried looking woman, with the text, “We need someone we can trust at City Hall.”
The back page – where Charter’s name and address were listed -- had the wording, “John Cranley. Right Wing Extremists. Conflicts of Interest. You just can’t trust him. Vote NO on John Cranley.”
To a casual observer, it may appear that Charter had endorsed Qualls in the race.
But the Charter Committee didn’t send any campaign material on Qualls’ behalf and alleges it hasn’t paid for any of it, either.
Charter had said it wouldn’t make an endorsement in the mayoral race until later in the month, after the Sept. 10 primary.
Michael Goldman, Charter’s executive director, told WCPO the mailings occurred due to an error and it wouldn’t happen again until the group made an endorsement.
“This was an internal problem. We regret it,” Goldman said. “It happened because Ms. Qualls has been endorsed by the Charter Committee in City Council races and is a sitting Charter (board) member.
“Charter will not be sending out any more materials relating to the mayoral election until such time that an endorsement has been made in the mayor’s race,” he added.
Goldman wouldn’t elaborate on what the problem was or who made it. He did confirm the confusion started when Charter’s bulk mail permit was used to pay for the mass mailings.
There is a connection between Charter and Qualls’ campaign: Joan Perkins, who serves as treasurer for the Qualls campaign, also is Charter’s secretary.
Jens Sutmoller, Qualls’ campaign manager, also wouldn’t elaborate on how the mix-up occurred.
“These questions are best answered by the Charter Committee since this issue relates to their internal policies,” Sutmoller said.
“Roxanne has been endorsed by the Charter Committee in City Council races and is a sitting Charter (board) member,” Sutmoller added. “The Charter Committee is clarifying its internal policies related to the use of the bulk permit.”
Nonprofit groups may buy bulk mail permits; the permits allow cheaper postal rates. Political candidates cannot use a nonprofit’s bulk mail permit unless he or she pays for the service.
The distinction is important because a nonprofit potentially could lose the mail permit if it lets a candidate use it without paying. Also, the candidate would be in violation of Ohio election law.
Philip Richter, executive director at the Ohio Elections Commission, hadn’t seen the fliers and couldn’t comment directly on them.
Still, Richter said any candidate’s use of a bulk mail permit must be fully compensated.
“Generally, a corporation is prohibited from making any type of (direct) contribution to an individual candidate,” Richter said.
“If that candidate makes a full reimbursement, there isn’t anything to prevent (the use of a bulk mail permit) because they’re paying for a service rendered.”
A review of campaign finance reports filed Sept. 17 – covering expenses made from July 1 to Sept. 10 – indicates the full amount may not have been reimbursed before the primary.
Reports filed by Qualls show her campaign paid $91.04 to Charter on July 16.
The two fliers were mailed to likely voters in Cincinnati, which means between 36,000 and 42,000 pieces were shipped.
A bulk mail permit allows fliers to be mailed for as low as 12.4 cents per piece, meaning the actual cost likely would’ve ranged from $4,320 to $5,040.
Qualls’ finance reports also show $6,046.87 was paid directly to the U.S. Postal Service. And three payments were made to Perkins, totaling $1,431 during the same period.
Charter’s endorsement is important in local political races because of the group’s long history in Cincinnati politics.
Charter's recommendation of a candidate typically conveys a commitment to the civic good and placing the public interest above political considerations.
Goldman declined to answer additional questions about the cost to use the permit, or whether Charter was fully reimbursed.
Although Charter hasn’t yet endorsed in the mayoral race, it has donated $10,500 to Qualls – the maximum donation allowed by a political party under Ohio law.
Still, it’s unclear whether Charter meets Ohio’s legal requirements to qualify as a political party. In fact, that’s why the term “committee” is used in its name, instead of “party.”
If Charter doesn’t qualify as a party, but only as a nonprofit organization, it cannot contribute directly to a candidate.
In Ohio, a group qualifies as a political party if, at the most
recent regular state election, the group polled for its candidate for governor in the state or nominees for presidential electors at least five percent of the entire vote cast for that office.
Charter has never fielded a gubernatorial or presidential candidate.
Despite the mix-up on the fliers, it didn’t help Qualls much.
Cranley placed first in the primary, getting 2,128 more votes than Qualls. Cranley got 55.7 percent of the vote, compared to 37.2 percent for Qualls. Voter turnout was only 5.7 percent.
Formed in 1924, the Charter Committee helped end the corrupt political machine operated by "Boss" George Cox, a Republican who dominated City Hall and local politics, arranging tasks like fixing tax rates for friends and contributors.
Charter successfully pushed to create the city manager form of government, which was designed to de-politicize the daily administrative tasks of municipal government.
In recent years, however, critics have said Charter has strayed far from its founding principles and backed some candidates that haven’t promoted transparency at City Hall.