CINCINNATI -- Ninety-six years ago, a group of civic-minded leaders banded together to make Cincinnati a better place. Concerned primarily with good government, the organization that came to be known as the Cincinnatus Association helped put an end to the system that had allowed "Boss" George Cox to rule the city and Hamilton County with an iron fist.
The effects of the Cincinnatus Association's early efforts are still felt today; although the city has come to adopt a strong-mayor government structure, its fingerprints still linger on Cincinnati's city charter.
The association's members hope their influence will again change minds -- and reshape the city -- in this election cycle. On Tuesday, the group met and voted to back a new, $48 million levy to fund Cincinnati Public Schools and expand access to preschool for low-income families.
The Cincinnatus Association's education panel -- its word for committee -- began studying the issues about two years ago, and it decided to back both the CPS and Preschool Promise proposals a year in. Panel members regularly provided updates and information to the rest of the association.
Education panel co-chair Kent Friel even worked behind the scenes to get both groups -- both of which include Cincinnatus Association members -- to agree to combine their levy proposals into one ballot issue.
"We thought it needed to be one rather than two, and worked with both sides to make that happen," said Friel, who predicted that at least one of the levies would fail if both were considered separately.
So it may seem odd that the evening the vote to endorse the education levy was to be held, the organization invited a vocal opponent of the levy, the conservative, anti-tax group COAST, to debate its supporters.
COAST sent Matthew Wahlert, a schoolteacher, past CPS employee and the Republican nominee for Ohio House District 32, to present the case against the levy to the Cincinnatus Association, arguing that the city doesn't need "another government program funded by taxpayers." CPS should instead pursue partnerships with the private sector, he said.
"We try to have robust debates," association President Elliot Grossman explained. "We worked hard to find organized opposition to the education levy, and COAST did offer Matt Wahlert to us. I thought he was very well-researched on the subject."
Wahlert's argument, though well-researched, failed to dissuade the Cincinnatus Association. That may be because his presentation followed pro-levy arguments by CPS Superintendent Mary Ronan and John Pepper, former P&G CEO and current CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Both Ronan and Pepper are Cincinnatus Association members.
"This will double the number of children in quality pre-K," Pepper said. "If you're serious about poverty, you have to vote for this levy."
The Cincinnatus Association members cast their votes on the education levy endorsement via secret ballot; 35 members voted for it, with just two against.
"In 2016, the primary mission of the Cincinnatus Association is to attack poverty in Greater Cincinnati," Grossman said. "The best way to attack poverty -- the best way to help more people achieve the American Dream -- is to provide a better education for all children. And the best way to improve education is give children an earlier start by providing quality preschool. The Cincinnati Education Levy offers both."
The Cincinnatus Association also endorsed a 1-mill, 15-year replacement levy for Hamilton County Parks and a renewal levy for Hamilton County Children's Services. No one spoke in opposition to either issue, and both were endorsed by voice vote.
Whether the endorsements have the desired effect remains to be seen. Despite the organization's successful effort to get the CPS and Preschool Promise levies combined, Friel characterized the group's influence as "modest."
"I don't want to overemphasize our role -- I think the Cincinnati Business Committee will have a stronger role than we do -- but it's a more universal role of an independent group," Friel said.