A year after infighting crippled Charter Committee, party is ready to endorse in city elections

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-24 07:42:11-05

One of the city’s proudest political traditions, the Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati, was so crippled by a brutal split in 2015 over a parks levy that many wondered if it would recover.

The party that champions transparency and good government fell victim to political infighting in the fall of 2015. At issue was whether to support a property tax levy proposed by Mayor John Cranley to fund city parks.

Now, after more than a year of rebuilding, it appears the Charter Committee has regained a full board of directors and will make endorsements for City Council and Cincinnati Public School Board Elections this year.

“We’re at full strength," said Bob Dehner, conveyor of the Charter Committee. "I know some people out there don’t want to buy that. The heart is still beating.”

Those who opposed the park levy believed it was bad government. Many who supported it or wanted to stay out of the fray believed the anti-levy crowd just didn’t like Cranley.

The levy overwhelmingly failed at the polls. In the aftermath of the election, eight of the 34 Charter board members resigned.

“Sometimes we get caught up in the politics of the city,” Dehner admitted. “We try to look at data and then take positions we can all agree on. Sometimes it’s easier said than done.”

The Charter Committee has almost always had at least one of their party members seated on Cincinnati City Council since it formed in the 1920s as a political reform movement. Some of the city’s most well-known political figures such as Chris Bortz, Jim Tarbell and Marian Spencer were all Charterites.

Former City Councilman Jim Tarbell, who holds the title, "Mr. Cincinnati," was elected as a Charterite.

That longevity has earned the city’s Charter Committee an important distinction – it is the oldest third party still operating within a city in the nation, Dehner said

This year, however, as the Charterites regain their footing, they’re just getting started on vetting candidates to run or endorse in an already crowded City Council field.

The committee added 11 to 12 new board members, replacing those who had resigned, and are currently looking to hire a new executive director – a job that has been vacant for five years. Charter also opened a new headquarters on Stark Street in the Brewery District of Over-the-Rhine.

Next, the Charter Committee will interview City Council candidates in March, and will produce a slate of candidates in April or May. In the summer they will endorse school board candidates

There are no plans to endorse a candidate in the primary race for mayor in May, Dehner said. Cranley is running for a second term. Challenging him are Rob Richardson Jr., former University of Cincinnati board of trustees chair, and City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson.

Marian Spencer, the first African-American woman to be elected to Cincinnati City Council, ran as a Charterite.

“My hope is that a new energy can be revived and Charter can be a significant. Because there is still a need for Charter,” said Kevin Flynn, a council member who is a former acting president. “In my heart I will always be a Charterite. I believe there is a need to get away from the party politics and clashes we see over and over again in the political realm.”

Flynn, currently the only Charterite on council, isn’t seeking another term in office. 

"It was frustrating to see people leave a board over a parks levy," Flynn said. "That's why I'm very pleased to hear that Charter has reinvigorated itself."

Charter endorsements in city elections are more than just tradition – they do seem to carry some weight.

“I still think that it means something,” Dehner said. “We are the good government stamp of approval.”

In the 2013 City Council race, four of the six candidates endorsed by Charter won, including Flynn and Vice Mayor David Mann.

And the committee will be endorsing a number of candidates this year: five to seven City Council candidates and three to four school board candidates.

“It’s a place where people can come together and proactively push the types of good government initiatives that put Charter on the map all way back in the 1920s,” said Colin Groth, a former president of Charter. “My hope is that we hold onto those unique and quirky Cincinnati institutions that make us who we are.”

Groth resigned from Charter in December 2015, but said he did it not out of dissatisfaction but to spend time with other organizations such as Beyond Civility.