CINCINNATI -- Last year 650 people listened as a new Cincinnati mayor rolled out ideas for a city on the upswing: a Mt. Airy beer garden, bike trails, a renaissance of neighborhoods and a “commissioner of fun.”
It was Sept. 18, 2014, and Mayor John Cranley gave his first State of the City address inside a Music Hall grand ballroom. His speech began with a U2 song and ended with Guns and Roses, and in between he quoted John and Robert Kennedy, played a slideshow of future projects and promised, “Our beautiful historic city is young at heart again.”
Contrast that with the 2013 State of the City speech in which a reflective Mayor Mark Mallory spoke about his legacy after two terms in office, strolling around a living room set at Ensemble Theatre in Over-the-Rhine.
Each year Cincinnati’s mayor is required by charter to give a State of the City speech. But the speeches themselves, and the pomp surrounding them, are unique.
On Monday night, Cranley will give his second State of the City address at the Champions Club at Great American Ball Park in front of hundreds.
“It is a sort of the Super Bowl of the year for local politics,” said David Niven, a University of Cincinnati political science professor. “So it is the place to be for everybody in the orbit of city hall.”
Long before politicians could tweet news, or council meetings were broadcast live, citizens relied on annual speeches to see their leaders.
“Its original purpose was a step toward open government and accountability by elected officials, and that made the State of the City speech more important,” said University of Dayton marketing professor Randy Sparks. “Now it is much more of an event built around political insiders.”
These days, it’s hard for a mayor, or any leader, to deliver an annual speech that will truly excite a crowd. Even the audience for the president’s State of the Union address has dropped steadily over the years, Niven said.
That’s why these annual speeches have had to become bigger, grander and more eye-catching.
Take Gov. John Kasich, who has turned his State of Ohio speech into an annual road trip, setting up his podium in politically significant spots from Clinton County to Medina.
“It’s the same idea. To make this more and more of an event,” Niven said. “It’s hard in any speech for words alone to excite people...especially since part of the speech is about filling potholes.
“Mayors want to instill this with a bit of magic,” he said.
Past mayors have used videos, slide shows, music, lights and stage props. Mallory was famous for telling jokes.
And they always pick a significant venue. Recent spots include: Duke Energy Convention Center, Aronoff Center, Playhouse in the Park and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
But Cranley is the first to choose Great American Ball Park.
“You look for a grandiose setting for delivering the speech. It helps the mayor look presidential, it helps him look mayoral,” Sparks said. “That’s because there isn’t much about the speech that will make a splash in any significant way...People who attend the speech already know what the mayor is going to say.”
Yet, a grand event has become an expected tradition.
“You do kind of feel responsible to continue what your predecessors have done,” Niven said. “If we were thinking this whole thing up anew it might not be a big speech and a big event. But there’s kind of a joy in keeping the tradition of it that matters to mayors and governors and presidents.”
Sean Comer, director of Xavier University’s government relations, has heard a handful of State of the City speeches. He’s attending Monday night and encouraging his students to go, “so they can see how the sausage gets made.”
But students aren’t the typical attendees. Who usually shows up?
“People who either have a vested interest in being there, or are political insiders” Comer said. “There are people trying to be seen, and be seen talking together. And some people are working the room to get their issue out there.”
Does the speech itself matter?
The speech matters most to political insiders and city employees, because they take the most direct impact.
“This is really a navigation plan that the mayor announces,” Niven said. “Whatever priorities he puts in that speech are his marching orders. He’s saying, ‘This is what I intend to do, so let’s get going.”
For Cranley’s allies and opponents, it is a rare chance to peer inside his mind.
“They want to hear, what are the problems important enough to highlight in the speech, and what big ideas does he have,” Niven said.
For example, last year Cranley showed a slideshow of future projects, including a beer garden in Mt. Airy Forest and he talked about bike trails.
“That was before the parks levy was announced so it was a bit of foreshadowing,” Comer said.
In June Cranley revealed a plan to overhaul city parks with a 1 mill levy. If voters approve it in November, it would renovate 13 city parks and historical sites, including bike trails in Mt. Airy Forest, a riverfront marina, and the long-anticipated Wasson Way and Oasis trails.
Recently Cranley talked to WCPO about an activation plan for entertainment at neighborhood parks such as beer gardens, art shows and concerts.
“A mayor has to plan for sound bites and build them into the speech almost like advertising slogans,” Sparks said. “Or it will be a missed opportunity for him.”
Mayors shape their brands by choosing issues they believe will deliver the best results, Sparks said.
Cranley's speech Monday night will focus on three main themes: improving public safety, helping neighborhoods and addressing child poverty.
“Mayor Cranley is trying to build his brand,” Sparks said. “He’s relatively new so he wants to be forward thinking,”
In the first part of the speech, Cranley will highlight this year’s achievements: securing funds for improving streets and fixing the city’s outdated fleet, a Cincy Stat program to streamline government and uncover waste; and plans to guarantee more work for minority contractors.
He will also talk about economic development deals that created 1,237 jobs and retained another 1,101 in the city this year, his office confirmed.
But he will also have to answer for the rise in city gun violence, and how the city handled the tense firing of former Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell.
Whatever Cranley says to memorialize the highs and lows of 2015, unlike leaders of the past, he will actually speak the words himself.
Not so with early presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson, who wrote their own speeches, but sent underlings to deliver them, Niven said.
That wouldn’t happen nowadays, he joked. “A public official would never miss an opportunity to say their speech on the stage."