CINCINNATI -- Do you want to play kickball with a Cincinnati City Council candidate?
Or do yoga, shoot hoops, recite poetry, go for a bike ride or paint artwork alongside someone who wants to win your vote in November?
This election season in Cincinnati is shaping up to be very untraditional as a crowded City Council field packed with newcomers is trying anything and everything to get voters’ attention.
“I think you can make a legitimate argument that this is one of hardest offices to campaign for in the entire state,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “This is the entire direction of the city on the ballot in one chaotic mess.”
Cincinnati is unique from other major cities in Ohio because it votes on the makeup of its entire City Council every four years. Other cities stagger their council elections, so only a few seats are open at any given time, Niven said.
So voters elsewhere aren’t choosing between 44 possible candidates for nine seats, like in Cincinnati.
“In the last few elections voter turnout has been low and that’s because we’ve been trying to do the same things we’ve always done,” said Tamaya Dennard, who is making her first run for City Council.
Dennard is running a very unconventional campaign with events such as kickball games and open-mic poetry. Upcoming events include a three-on-three youth basketball tournament, a Northside concert and a painting party with voters.
The Wine Wednesdays she hosts weekly at her campaign office have been a huge success in luring volunteers to write voter postcards, thanks in part to free wine and her mother’s homemade cheese balls.
“We have to engage people in a different way,” Dennard said. “Politics for a long time has lacked creativity… who says it has to be like that?”
Not Derek Bauman, a City Council candidate who is serving drinks to voters while guest bartending at bars across the city.
Or City Council candidate Henry Frondorf, who visited all 52 neighborhoods in the city over a single day, spending roughly 10 minutes at each one. A Facebook video of his July 22 adventure had gotten 7,313 views as of Thursday.
“There are a lot of challenges for these newcomers because their name has never been on the ballot before … in such a crowded field you have to come up with a way to cut through,” said Kevin Tighe, founder of Stratis Campaigns. “But cutting through the noise doesn’t have to be expensive.”
Getting attention is particularly difficult for candidates this year because there are so many of them.
Over the past two decades, the field of candidates running for one of nine City Council seats has ranged from 18 to 31.
But this year it could top 40.
So far, 44 candidates have picked up the necessary paperwork to run for City Council, and 12 candidates have officially made it onto the ballot. The deadline to file is Aug. 24.
“The chaos of the race invites people to think ‘Why not me?’” Niven said.
Because the field is so crowded it actually attracts even more political newcomers. If a candidate doesn’t win a City Council seat, they won’t feel embarrassed because they’ll have plenty of losing company, Niven said.
But newcomers don’t have the same name recognition, or the money, as the six City Council incumbents who are running for re-election, or even some of the better-known candidates who have run for City Council in the past.
“I was told I needed to raise $150,000 to have a chance. That’s tough to do. I have four kids at home,” said Frondorf, a construction industry manager who is making a first run for office.
Instead, Frondorf is relying on creativity and hard work to win votes.
“I’m getting out to the neighborhoods,” Frondorf said. “It’s one vote at a time.”
And there’s no shortage of interesting opportunities to meet voters this fall.
The Yoga Bar in Over-the-Rhine is hosting Friday night events for candidates to participate in hour-long yoga classes, followed by a reception with yoga enthusiasts.
Tri-State Trails is hosting a “Meet the Candidates Ride” next month for bike riders to spend a leisurely two-hour ride along the Miami and Erie Canal trails listening to stump speeches.
“There’s a huge payoff to being creative,” Niven said. “You want Cincinnati voters to remember you from a sea of candidates.”
And the single best thing Niven says that candidates can do to win votes is the most simple: knocking on voter doors.
“Meeting them on their doorsteps beats anything … it stays with them longer than anything you can mail to them,” Niven said.
Newcomer Jeff Pastor is relying on the “tried and true methods” to win votes for his City Council candidacy: going door-to-door, attending festivals and parades, and attending community council meetings.
He’s hoping his unusual bio helps voters to remember him. He describes himself as a ‘new age Republican’ who also happens to be black and Jewish.
“With a last name of Pastor, who is not a pastor, it is very difficult to forget that,” said Pastor, who teaches at King Academy Community School.
Newcomer Tamie Sullivan describes her City Council campaign as “lean and strategic,” with her son as campaign manager.
Why did Sullivan decide to make her first run for City Council?
“Because I realize that more people like me should run," said Sullivan, who is president of Sullivan Communications and a longtime community activist. "I always have believed that more women need to run and hold office. I kept saying that, and I realized if not me, who, and if not now, when?”