Mean Girls? Nope, just Cincy politics

Posted at 9:44 AM, Nov 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-19 09:44:44-05

One of Cincinnati's worst political rifts in recent memory began three years ago with a debate over a $100,000 portable toilet.

From there it spread to disputes over the streetcar, Over-the-Rhine parking, a parental leave policy for city employees, street bike lanes, human services funding, Syrian refugees and a failed parks tax.

The long-standing feud between Councilman Chris Seelbach and Mayor John Cranley, both Democrats, had been known only to political insiders until a few weeks ago.

But the battle over the Issue 22 proposed city parks tax, which Cranley spearheaded and Seelbach openly criticized, brought the tension out into the open. 

When voters overwhelmingly defeated what Seelbach described as “Cranley’s tax,” on Nov. 3, he celebrated on Twitter. 

While political bickering isn’t unusual, a years-long rift between elected leaders of the same party doesn’t happen often in Cincinnati.The last big political dispute here might have been the “Gang of Five” on City Council in 1998, said Tim Burke, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

Burke is worried the feud is wasting time, energy and ultimately, money. And experts say the public is now noticing that city leaders are pulling in opposite directions. 

“This is one of the more frustrating ones to work through but it’s not the only time we’ve had that kind of a problem,” Burke said. “I think it holds everybody back from getting things done, and I think it’s doing that here.”

Cincinnati Councilman Chris Seelbach

In separate interviews, Cranley and Seelbach each blamed the other for the rift.

Seelbach said the mayor yells at him and is a bully. He believes the mayor excludes council from decisions and uses a pocket veto to kill items without giving council a chance to vote on them.

Seelbach's grudge began in January 2013 when the mayor publicly criticized him for asking about the cost of bringing “Portland loo” portable toilets Downtown. 

“All I asked for was the facts. We just asked for how much it would cost,” Seelbach said. “He manipulated something I had done for political gain. That is what started all of this.”

Cranley said he tries to work with Seelbach, but it is difficult when he refuses to attend weekly Democratic caucus meetings. He believes city business should come ahead of personal disagreements, so he ignores Seelbach’s frequent criticisms of him on social media. 

“I’m not going to let the fact that he said something mean about me two weeks ago on Facebook impede the city’s business,” Cranley said. “I’d like to work with Mr. Seelbach even though we didn’t see the Portland loo in the same way.”

If neither side is willing to make amends, what will this feud mean for the city going forward?

Mayor John Cranley

“The downside for Cincinnati is it leaves you spinning in circles sometimes,” University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven said. “At some point it becomes, ‘You guys are fighting like kids.' And there’s a reason why we don’t put kids in charge of city government."

Burke believes this rift is causing a waste of time, energy and money. The most notable fallout was the failure of the parks levy, he said.

“If it wasn’t for the negative reaction to John Cranley that got louder and louder as we got closer to the election, I believe the parks levy could have been adopted,” he said. “It was a good idea. Yet, instead of trying …  to make it something that everybody could get behind, instead everybody went to war."

From Political Favorite to Political Rival

Seelbach remembers when Cranley used to describe him as his “favorite City Council member” and text him questions during meetings.

It was 2012, Seelbach was serving his first term on City Council and Cranley was enjoying a break from public service, having finished several terms on council. 

“He would watch the meetings live and text me and give me questions to ask. They were good questions,” Seelbach said. “He used to give me advice and I would take the advice.”

John Cranley and Roxanne Qualls at a mayoral debate in 2013.

Their relationship changed when Cranley began his run for mayor against then vice-mayor Roxanne Qualls, another well-known Democrat. Since Seelbach liked both, he planned to stay neutral.

Then Cranley criticized Seelbach and Qualls for proposing the city potentially buy a solar-powered free-standing toilet in Findlay Market, Seelbach said. 

“We just asked how much it would cost,” he said. “Then John Cranley goes all over the radio stations and says, 'Roxanne Qualls and City Council want to spend $135,000 on luxury port-o-potties.' It was a complete lie.”

But Cranley said he never mentioned Seelbach in the radio program. And since their heated mayoral race, he and Qualls have even played host at an event for Hillary Clinton together.

“From my point of view, it was always about the issues, and the Portland loo was an issue. Not that Chris Seelbach is a bad person. This was a bad idea for taxpayer money,” Cranley said.

CINCINNATI. FEB. 1 ,2015 -- Cincinnati Parks announced the city will open its first "Portland Loo" at Smale Riverfront Park.

Once voters elected Cranley mayor, their relationship grew more strained, Seelbach said.

Neither Seelbach nor fellow Democrat Wendell Young received committee chairmanships, and the mayor gave them seats far apart from one another in council chambers. Seelbach said his seat is so far to the edge of the council semi-circle that “I’m practically in the clerk’s lap.”

While complaints about seating might seem petty, they likely underscore to a larger issue, Niven said.

“That kind of thing feeds on itself … every slight looks bigger and every disagreement looks personal,” he said. “That’s the danger of falling into this web of, not disdain, but lack of connection.”

A similar snub actually led to a federal government shutdown in 1995. That came after Newt Gingrich claimed President Bill Clinton ignored him, and forced him to sit in the back of Air Force One and exit from the rear after flights to and from Israel. Later Gingrich admitted this caused him to take a harder line on the government shutdown impasse, Niven said.

“The practical danger of this is you lose sight of the larger point of all this,” Niven said.

Can A Park Tax Defeat Lead to a Truce?

In the aftermath of the park levy defeat, Cranley wrote an open letter to the city promising to listen more and try harder to work with City Council.

For a few days, there seemed to be a truce between the two sides.

But a week later, Seelbach got upset because he believed the mayor was trying to steal his speaking role at the unveiling of the Charlie Harper murals at the Duke Energy Convention Center. This had been a pet project for Seelbach. Ultimately, both leaders spoke at the event.

Then this week Seelbach criticized the mayor for announcing that Syrian refugees would not be resettled here. In a joint public statement with Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, who is another frequent critic of Cranley, they said that refugees should be welcomed.

“Just two weeks ago, Mayor John Cranley announced he would (stop) making unpopular unilateral decisions,” they wrote. “Today’s decision was again made without any consultation.”

For his part, Burke seems exhausted by the dispute.

“I fear a lot of this -- we are going to have to live with it,” Burke said. “It doesn’t mean that we will stop trying to encourage people to talk to each other.”

It would help if Seelbach, Simpson and Young would attend the weekly Democratic caucus meetings, he said.

This is a weekly tradition for party leaders here, but since Cranley became mayor, hardly anyone shows up, he said.

In two years, Seelbach has attended two meetings and Simpson and Councilman Young have each come once.

Simpson declined an interview and Young did not respond to an interview request for this article. But Seelbach said he doesn’t attend the meetings because nothing gets done.

“Its yelling and arguing with us about polices (Cranley) doesn’t agree with,” he said. “I have not found that productive.”

But Burke disagreed. He said the two meetings Seelbach attended both ended with meaningful work on issues.

"John can be loud, but it was productive. They had a good exchange,” Burke said. “I know Chris is quick to say that John yells, and we all know that John can be loud… but a part of it is simply his speaking style.”

He added that overcoming misunderstandings is "how you get things done.”

Out Goes Laid-Back Mallory, in Comes Cranley

Former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory

When two-term Mayor Mark Mallory left office in late 2013, there was a dramatic shift in leadership style.

Seelbach described Mallory as laid-back, inclusive and easy to work with. He sees Cranley as divisive and polarizing, but admits he is an extremely hard worker.

“In some ways, they are polar opposites,” he said.

A leadership change can trigger a shift in power, said Stacie Furst-Holloway, director of the masters psychology program at the University of Cincinnati and former head of undergraduate programs in organizational leadership and human resources.

“They clearly have less power than they did two years ago,” she said. “Under Mallory’s term, they likely had a tremendous amount of influence. They probably felt as if they were doing their job and had a huge sense of pride in making a difference.”

She can see the rift from both sides. Seelbach and the other critics of Cranley, Simpson and Young, are likely frustrated and have to find new ways to be effective.

“It’s Cranley’s prerogative how he wants to run the city because he is the mayor,” she said, yet perhaps he could make a broader impact if he was more inclusive.

“If council has any influence in terms of his electability, he should start paying attention to that right now,” she said.

Yet Cranley said he has a good working relationship with the other six members of council, many of whom are not Democrats.

As for Seelbach?

“If it’s going to help the city, I’m very interested to try to make sure his feelings aren’t hurt,” Cranley said. “Because what I care about is moving the city forward."

If Cranley pivots, then his critics need to meet him halfway, Furst-Holloway said.

“If Cranley opens that door, then they need to walk through it."