These are the top 9 stories to watch in 2018

Mueller's Russia probe, FC Cincinnati and more

CINCINNATI -- Look, folks, 2017 is going to be hard to top.

The year had it all: Papa John's begging Neo-Nazis to not buy their pizza. "Very fine people on both sides." A suicidal robot. Well-founded anxiety about nuclear annihilation. Mario Batali apologizing for sexual harassment AND sharing a cinnamon roll recipe all in the same email. Spicey. The Mooch. Covfefe.

Speaking of President Donald Trump, he did some of the things he promised he'd do if elected -- which brought a fair amount of social strife: The travel ban. Rolling back protections for young, undocumented immigrants. A crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities that seems to have had more bark than bite.

There were plenty of downright horrible and deeply troubling stories, too: The Las Vegas massacre. The Texas church shooting. Charlottesville. Otto Warmbier.

Not to mention, an ever-growing list of politicians and media figures brought down for sexual harassment and assault. The #MeToo movement became one of the biggest storylines of the year -- if not the decade.

To prepare yourselves for 2018, here are the stories we think are worth watching -- in no particular order other than how I sent them to my boss:

1. Russia, Russia, Russia.

Yes, it really is all about Russia. If not Russia directly, then it's about who knew what and when. And what they did about it.

This dominated news in 2017, and we expect that continues next year as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation moves closer to the president's inner circle.

Michael Flynn, briefly Trump's national security adviser, is the biggest figure Mueller has snagged in his net so far. Flynn left the White House in February, only acknowledging that he had given an incomplete account to Vice President Mike Pence of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

After Trump forced Flynn out, he asked FBI Director James Comey to end the bureau’s probe in the matter, according to Comey’s account. Comey refused, and Trump fired him, too.

As it turned out, Flynn hadn't just misled Pence: He'd also lied to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak. And that's a crime, one that Flynn acknowledged just a few weeks ago in pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate with Mueller's investigation.

Trump has been publicly dismissive of Comey and of Mueller’s continuing investigation, and was often generous in his appraisal of Flynn, except to say his adviser could not stay on the job after misleading his vice president.

But the day after Flynn's guilty plea, Trump changed his story: In a tweet, he suggested he knew at the time that Flynn had lied to the FBI. John Dowd, Trump's lawyer, claims he wrote that tweet. Still, it’s unclear why Trump, or even Dowd for that matter, would cite lying to the FBI as a reason for firing Flynn. Doing so suggests the president knew at the time that Flynn had done something that is against the law, and therefore the investigation could not be as frivolous as he’s been portraying.

 

As for why Flynn might talk with the Russian ambassador, sources familiar with the matter have told the Associated Press, Bloomberg and CNN that Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, directed Flynn to contact Kislyak and other foreign officials about a United Nations Security Council vote on Israeli settlements. That communication took place in December, about a month before Trump officially took office and while Barack Obama was still president.

As of mid-December, Trump hasn't ruled out pardoning Flynn, saying he didn't want to talk about it just yet.

2. Ohio's Senate and gubernatorial races

Expect the president to loom large in this storyline, too.

The major question facing candidates: Will the wave of populism that helped Trump win Ohio continue in 2018? Or will the backlash to Trumpism drive the race?

The Senate race is shaping up as a rematch between incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown and state Treasurer Josh Mandel.

If Trump's win in Ohio really was about economic populism, it's advantage Brown: The Democrat from northeast Ohio has longtime support among blue-collar labor unions. He opposed the North American Free Trade Act, or NAFTA, voting against it back when he was a congressman. In today's hyperpartisan environment, he's applauded Trump's executive order withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Mandel, a Republican also from northeast Ohio, hopes Trump's victory was more about social populism -- and there's some solid evidence it really was all about white resentment of minorities. He's tweeted support for Mike Cernovich, a right-wing personality who's promoted the unfounded "pizzagate" conspiracy theory that claims Democrats harbor child sex slaves at a pizza restaurant. In that same tweet, Mandel blasted the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil-rights group that called out Cernovich for his actions. Mandel himself is Jewish and said he "believes the ADL is dead wrong for creating hit lists on American citizens."

He's also taken a cue from Trump's hard line on immigration: He backed legislation that would punish "sanctuary cities" after Democratic Mayor John Cranley announced Cincinnati was one, though there's room for debate as to whether Cranley's claim is true. Like Trump, he's also tweeted his disdain for journalists.

Brown beat Mandel by 6 points in 2012. But it was a presidential election year, which usually sees more Democratic turnout. And Brown also had the benefit of the Obama campaign's sophisticated get-out-the-vote machine. That means Mandel might have an advantage this time around.

In the governor's race, state Republicans will have to decide whether to stick by establishment candidates or pick a Trump-like outsider. Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor are the establishment candidates, with DeWine considered the frontrunner. He has wide name recognition, thanks to being an active player in Ohio politics for decades. DeWine picked Secretary of State John Husted as his running mate, removing a younger rival from the primary. U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, a wealthy businessman and Trump supporter, is the outsider in the race. Renacci tapped Cincinnati Councilwoman Amy Murray, a former Procter & Gamble executive, as his running mate.

Richard Cordray, a former attorney general who lost his reelection bid to DeWine in 2010, is viewed as the frontrunner in the Democratic field. He went on to head the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he drew endless criticism from Republicans for his aggressive approach to the agency's mission. Cordray also created some controversy when he left the post last month to run for governor, appointing his own interim successor while Trump did the same. A court ruled in Trump's favor.

Several Democratic rivals have been campaigning for months, chief among them Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton and former state Rep. Connie Pillich. Elizabeth “Liz” Walters, a former Ohio Democratic Party executive director, worries that Whaley, Sutton and Pillich will be pushed aside by Cordray, who political analysts think is the Democrats’ best of hope of being elected governor. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O'Neill is also running in the Democratic primary.

3. Kentucky's pension problem

Will Kentucky lawmakers tackle their pension problem in 2018?

Theirs is one of the worst-funded public pension systems in the country: According to official estimates approved by the boards of trustees for the state’s various retirement plans, it's at least $41 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years. Other estimates are double that amount.

The deficit is a combination of consistent underfunding by the state legislature, massive losses from the Great Recession and a growing lifespan of retirees along with a shrinking state workforce. The Kentucky Employees Retirement System board of trustees told state lawmakers in early December they need to spend $2.8 billion over the next two years on a retirement plan that covers state workers and police officers. That’s $954 million more than was required the previous two years.

And those numbers don't include the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, which is governed by a separate board of trustees. When you include them, state budget director John Chilton said he expects the state would need an extra $700 million a year.

Local governments -- think Covington, Campbell County and the like -- will have to shoulder some of the burden: All together, they would have to pay an additional $317 million each year for the retirement plan that covers local city and county government workers.

 

Gov. Matt Bevin has proposed a 500-page bill of reforms, including moving new workers to a 401(k)-style plan. But that's garnered significant opposition from state workers, with a handful of public school boards voting to give teachers the day off to travel to the Capitol to protest should Bevin call a special session before the end of the year. He conceded he's unlikely to do that given how the withering opposition seems to have weakened the plans support among House Republicans. They've been in power for less than a year after nearly a century of Democratic rule in Kentucky and now have some of their ranks embroiled in sexual harassment scandals.

An analysis of Bevin’s proposal by Cavanaugh Macdonald Consulting said it would cost taxpayers an extra $4.4 billion over the next 20 years just in the retirement system that covers public school teachers. Bevin has not released a similar analysis for retirement plans that cover state and local government workers.

The state ended the most recent fiscal year with a $138.5 million deficit. State economists predict the government is headed for another shortfall next year of $155 million.

Bevin has indicated he wants to impose mid-year budget cuts of 17.4 percent to cover the shortfall and replenish the state’s savings account. But most state agencies outside of his direct control, including the judicial branch and the department of education, have resisted.

4. New City Council

Three fresh faces join Cincinnati City Council next month. That's the biggest batch of newcomers since a major shakeup in 2011 saw four incumbents knocked out.

Democrats Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman and Republican Jeff Pastor replace Kevin Flynn, who decided against running for reelection, Yvette Simpson, who ran for mayor and lost, and Charlie Winburn, who was term-limited.

 

On council, they'll be responsible for overseeing major projects that could shape the future of the region. That could possibly include infrastructure around an FC Cincinnati stadium and most certainly a replacement for the Western Hills Viaduct. The new council also will play a large role as the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority plans to take a tax levy to county voters, given the system draws a huge chunk of its funding from the city's earnings tax.

Flynn and Winburn were important allies to Mayor John Cranley on a number of issues, though a gulf grew between Winburn and the mayor over the past 18 months. It's not clear yet if Cranley will enjoy the same ease in passing his agenda as he did over the past four years, because we're still waiting to see how alliances might shake out on the new council.

Dennard was an aide to Sittenfeld, who most political observers think is looking for a run at mayor in 2021. So is Councilman Christopher Smitherman, who Cranley tapped as his vice mayor. Although it's worth mentioning: No vice mayor has gone on to become mayor since Cincinnati moved to its "stronger mayor" system in 2001.

5. Will Major League Soccer come to Cincinnati?

We should know the answer to this sometime in January. At least, we hope.

Major League Soccer announced earlier this month that Nashville would get one of two coveted expansion slots. We expected the second club to be announced shortly thereafter. Instead, MLS decided to wait until the new year.

FC Cincinnati's bid seems to be in a good spot. Leading rival Sacramento Republic FC is having money trouble. Detroit is considered a longshot.

 

Plus, MLS Commissioner Don Garber seemed to say all the right things: He told us FC Cincinnati had "an unbelievable pitch. They did a wonderful job. I’m confident they’re in a good spot.”

He also said this: “We want to have finalized agreements before we announced teams.” And FC Cincy's lawyers have been working overtime, trying to finalize a contract.

Read those tea leaves as you will.

6. Peltz joins P&G board

The Procter & Gamble Co. announced in mid-December it would put activist investor Nelson Peltz on its board -- even though a final vote count showed he fell 498,312 votes short of winning the board seat on his own. That came after a monthslong proxy battle that cost at least $65 million, the most spent on such a fight in U.S. history.

Peltz's razor-thin loss -- a fraction of a percent -- was a signal that shareholders thought he had a point. And the day of P&G's annual meeting, he seemed to foresee the future: Even if he'd lost, Peltz thought P&G should still invite him onto the board.

 

He and his investment firm, Trian Fund Management, claimed an "overly complex organizational structure" stymied P&G's growth and discouraged innovation at the Cincinnati-based maker of Tide detergent, Pampers diapers, Gillette razors and Crest toothpaste. He had proposed, among other things, dividing P&G into three autonomous branches rather than the 10 global business units it now operates.

P&G is one of Cincinnati's most important companies with about 10,000 local employees, thousands of local shareholders and a history of civic contributions that have shaped the region. The prospect of seeing it vivisected in pursuit of greater profits sparked vocal resistance from P&G's existing board of directors.

In announcing its decision to let Peltz join the board, P&G said both sides found common ground on other issues.

For example, the company agreed to modify its executive compensation practices to promote sales growth and shareholder return that exceeds levels achieved by its competitors.

7. "And this one belongs to..." somebody else.

It was not a good year to be a Cincinnati sports fan. At least for our two teams in the big leagues.

The Reds ended their season 68-94, same as last year. They haven't had a winning season since 2013. They've been rebuilding. Attendance has suffered. At Redsfest in early December, owner Bob Castellini thanked the folks who've stuck around. He promised things would get better, that we'll start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

"I'm very optimistic that we're going to see improvement this year," president of baseball operations Dick Williams said.

And, four losing seasons aside, Williams told WCPO columnist John Fay that fans are willing to stick it out.

"We feel like we're seeing positive momentum," Williams said. "The second half of the year the performance of the pitchers gave us a boost."

The Bengals season pretty much ended with that brutal Monday Night Football match against Pittsburgh. It might've ended Adam Jones' career with the team, too. Then six days later, any overly optimistic fans' hopes died with a dismal performance against Chicago.

Firing offensive coordinator Ken Zampese two games into the regular season didn't turn the Bengals into a winning team, but at least they scored some touchdowns. Now plenty of folks want coach Marvin Lewis on the chopping block; ESPN reported Lewis already decided he's leaving. WCPO's Ken Broo says the problems run far deeper.

Personnel decisions won't be the only big issues dogging Mike Brown next year: The Bengals face a showdown with Hamilton County over payments for some game-day expenses. The club negotiated those payments, for cleanup and security, as part of its 26-year lease at Paul Brown Stadium. Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune says he has no intention of handing over the money, about $2.67 million due early next year to cover the current season.

8. Medical marijuana (maybe recreational, too)

Ohio's medical marijuana program, approved by state lawmakers and the first in the Tri-State, is supposed to be rolled out by September.

Regulators have written hundreds of new rules. In November, the state named its first 24 licensed growers. Still to be decided: Who will land the right to process, test and dispense the state's legal medical pot.

 

There's a new wrench in the regulatory machinery, though: Cincinnati investor James Gould, who failed to secure one of those 24 growing licenses, uncovered that Ohio hired a convicted felon as one of its lead application reviewers. He's threatened legal action against the state for its handling of the licensing process and alleges several missteps by the state in its scoring of applicants.

Gould and business partner, Ian James of Columbus, say they will pursue an effort to make recreational marijuana legal in Ohio in 2018. The duo led the failed ballot initiative in 2015 -- dubbed Responsible Ohio -- which aimed to legalize recreational and medical marijuana but limited the pot growing operations to a handful of investors.

The proposed Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Amendment is vastly different, Gould said: Ohioans 21 or older would be able to legally grow, possess, process, dispense and use the drug. Commercial production and dispensing of marijuana would occur under a state-based system that licenses and regulates those businesses, like liquor licenses. Residents 21 and older could grow marijuana at home, although the number of plants isn't listed in the plan so far. Landlords and property managers can forbid renters from home cultivation.

Signatures for the measure would be due in July for the November ballot.

9. The opioid epidemic

Sadly, we need to keep watching this in 2018. And likely for years after that. Statistics show heroin and opioid continue to have a stranglehold on our region.

But could 2018 be a turning point? Many people see signs of hope.

 

Local leaders hope to expand the presence of quick response teams, which visit residents who've recently overdosed and connect them with addiction counselors. The Health Collaborative is leading an effort to intervene with overdose victims at hospitals, and to better identify people struggling with a substance abuse disorder. That way, doctors and nurses can make those people aware of their treatment options.

The University of Cincinnati's Institute for Crime Science is using data to predict where and when overdoses might spike -- giving first responders time to warn people who are addicted. The project also looks at how addicted populations are linked together, so that quick response teams can reach out to an overdose victim's friends and offer them help, too.

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This story contains prior reporting from WCPO's Lisa Bernard-Kuhn, Dan Monk, Jake Ryle, John Fay and Ken Broo, as well as Adam Beam and Julie Carr-Smyth from the Associated Press.

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