CINCINNATI — With the race for mayor in full swing, six people are making their case for the top job in Cincinnati government.
Cincinnati voters will decide today which two of the six candidates will face off in November's general election.
WCPO sat down with candidates Gavi Begtrub, David Mann, Herman Najoli, Raffel Prophett, Aftab Pureval and Cecil Thomas to discuss their top priorities and why they should be elected Cincinnati's next mayor.
Gavi Begtrup said he wants Cincinnati to be a city where his kids want to raise their own kids one day, but he's worried current leadership at City Hall isn't cutting it.
"I'm running for mayor because I think we deserve a better future for our kids," Begtrup said. "I see a City Hall that just isn't solving our big problems."
He spoke to WCPO about his concern over the public's trust in its city government, after four City Council members were recently indicted on criminal charges.
"I want this to be a city that my kids want to stay in, and to do that we need leadership that's done with squabbling, done with all the indictments and focused on actually solving our big challenges," he said.
One of those big challenges is ongoing "systemic racism," Begtrup said.
"To know the history of our city has been riving highways through poor, Black neighborhoods and displacing tens of thousands of people, and we still do it today," he said. "Things were not even before this pandemic, but the pandemic hit the Black communities harder."
When asked about Issue 3 -- the ballot measure that would create a $50 million annual investment in affordable housing -- he said the fund is important, but criticized City Hall for not having already invested enough in its existing affordable housing trust fund.
"We had City Hall, City Council create a trust fund, and in that same ordinance, section one says we're creating a trust fund, and section two said we're going to figure out how to fund it. And they never did," he said.
David Mann is a veteran of public service, having served in the U.S. Navy before returning to local politics, both at the local level at City Hall and in Washington in the House of Representatives.
"There's a lot that's necessary to move this city forward, and I offer my experience, which is critically important, because the city is a huge enterprise," he said.
Mann called rebuilding the public's trust in City Hall "the single most important challenge for the next mayor and the next City Council."
"We're in the process of revising a number of laws, amending the charter. We're doing things that would establish a code of conduct that would remind council members they're not development officers," Mann said.
He came under fire last year when he suddenly adjourned a Budget and Finance Committee meeting after members of the audience jeered at a resident who spoke in favor of maintaining the city's full police budget, in the wake of heightened civil unrest prompted by the death of George Floyd.
"We went through a very difficult time some 20 years ago with the shooting of Timothy Thomas" in 2001, he said, referring to the incident that catalyzed the Collaborative Agreement between the city, the police union and the Black United Front and other civil rights advocates.
"The Collaborative Agreement is a growing document," he said, calling it something that continually needs to be refreshed.
Mann also said affordable housing is an issue that needs more done, but stopped short of endorsing Issue 3.
"The best affordable housing involves public investment, private investment, leveraged investment that is loans that the financial world is willing to make and good builders and good operators once it's built," he said, adding that the issue being on the ballot in itself is also a good thing.
"Because of Issue 3 and all of the conversation, the citizens of this community are going to see a lot more focus and emphasis on affordable housing, and that's good. We'll see what Issue 3 brings; we're going to address affordable housing either way.
Herman Najoli describes himself as a citizen of Cincinnati but an "outsider of politics."
An immigrant from Kenya, he's lived in the U.S. for the last 21 years and in West Price Hill for the last 14, but has not yet held public office.
He thinks that's just what City Hall needs right now.
"I feel like an outsider is the most ideal candidate to bring in the changes we want to see at City Hall," Najoli told WCPO. "One thing I will do is to go to all of the neighborhoods and mine ideas from residents on how we can make Cincinnati a trustworthy place for all."
He said he supports Issues 1 and 2 but "(doesn't) think they do enough" and that a "good mayor should be involved in (development deals) in the extent that they are facilitating the work of experts and helping the developers be able to move forward... but not necessarily drive those development deals."
As an immigrant to the U.S., he said equity and inclusion are also a top priority.
"We are known as the 'City of Seven Hills.' I want to create what we call a 'Seven Hill Lab,' which will be focused on bringing more equity, making Cincinnati a nexus of belongingness for all."
Issue 3, the city's affordable housing ballot measure, he said, was a "beginning."
"More like something that opens a doorway. I believe every system needs to have a shock that leads to disruption and causes attention to be focused on an issue," he said.
But he also speculated on other ways to fund affordable housing, such as municipal bonds.
"I was born in Cincinnati," Prophett said. "Spent my formative years in the West End, in Avondale."
Prophett served with the fire department for 13 years, along with time in the U.S. National Guard.
When it comes to public trust in City Hall, he said, "I think it starts with a value system; it has to be selfless, selflessness, selfless service. That you’re putting others, the need of others, especially the city, above your own."
He said, as mayor, he would put in place a certified city manager who would take charge on development deals.
"As the mayor, I shouldn't be involved in that other than possibly to make some introductions, but when we're talking about development, it should be our professional staff."
When it comes to equity in Cincinnati's communities, he said, his experience in public service would provide perspective.
"My experience as a firefighter, as a chief officer and as a cofounder of public medical, we’re going to transform public safety," he said.
"That’s going to be one of the efforts that we will use to get at these disparities that have been revealed as a result of COVID and the social movement that emerged after these bad killings."
The affordable housing measure on Tuesday's ballot, Issue 3, is one that he "strongly" supports.
"It's not a perfect measure, and we can always go back and re-tweak it, but that's what's on the table, and I'm strongly supporting it, because we're in the midst of a housing crisis."
Bottom line to his campaign, Prophett said, is "equity, fairness."
"What you're going to see is that (at) the end of my administration, my term, is you're going to see a much more fair and equitable city."
Pureval, the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, said he is looking to help Cincinnati recover from pandemic-related economic downturn and making that recovery equitable for everyone.
“I am laser-focused on recovery, economic recovery after COVID," he told WCPO. "I think if you run for mayor, you should have a plan… it starts with recovery, then into growth."
That plan involves making things more equitable for people disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and other economic slumps. As mayor, he said, Pureval will focus on "wealth creation, equity and ownership."
"My agenda, as it relates to equity, can be summed up in one word: ownership," Pureval said. "Black ownership of homes, Black ownership of businesses and Black ownership of neighborhoods. The economic downturn we saw in 2008, and now in 2020, disproportionately affected Black folks."
Amid recent indictments at City Hall, Pureval said, citizens should still be skeptical about politicians getting involved in development deals away from public eyes.
"It will not be my responsibility to negotiate specifics on these development deals," he said. "I’ll understand the constellation of deals that are going on, or might be going on, but then it’ll be left to the professionals to negotiate those deals.”
Pureval staunchly opposes Issue 3, the proposed charter amendment to allocate $50 million annually to an affordable housing trust fund. But, he said, that doesn't mean he's against funding affordable housing.
"We’ve got to get everyone at the table and fully fund the affordable housing trust fund," he said. "I think we do that, not by entirely relying on the general fund, those taxpayer dollars, but relying somewhat on the general fund as a down payment and leveraging those public dollars to get the institutional philanthropies, the banks, the universities that already have community development funds to fund the rest of the $50 million.”
Thomas, currently in his seventh year as an Ohio state senator, is a former Cincinnati City Council member. He took over as executive director of the Cincinnati Human Resources Commission after he retired from policing in 2000.
Through his time in public service, Thomas said, trust and transparency have been key, but recent indictments of three council members and a conviction of another has shaken public trust in Cincinnati government.
He's looking to become the "voice of reason."
"We need someone who has transparency, honesty, integrity, all of those things, and that’s me," Thomas said. "It’s that simple. A mayor has to have vision, and he also has to have the trust of the people that live in the city. The people have entrusted me with their vote for my time as a city council member as well as my time in the Senate."
So what should be the role of mayor in development? Thomas said the city manager should be the person who scopes out deals with developers.
“By me sitting down outside of my city manager with the developers, then you’re getting into those (improper) appearances," Thomas said. "I might be feeling right in my heart, but it’s the appearance of impropriety that creates the problems. And this is why I say, let’s stay in our lanes."
While restoring trust is one of his priorities, Thomas also wants to focus on growth and development to generate funds for social issues like poverty and affordable housing.
“I truly believe that poverty is the driving force of crime and all these other things that we see when it comes to the social determinant of health and the impact that has on the quality of life of people," he said.
But the Issue 3 charter amendment isn't the way to support more affordable housing, he said, saying "it could be very devastating" to the city's operating budget.
“What you don’t want to do is have that money spent when you don’t know the unintended consequences that could occur, which could probably cause a lot of layoffs," he said.
Instead, he may look at long-term plans that build affordable housing units over many years.
Amid calls last year to "defund" the police, former 27-year police officer Thomas said he would "re-imagine" how policing is done.
“Let’s bring mental health services, workers on the force as part of the employees on the force ... and know first hand, police officers would love to have social workers to have individuals to help these families when they go into these calls," he said.
WCPO reporter Mariel Carbone Thursday moderated a forum with four of the six mayoral candidates. Najoli and Prophett declined to participate. Watch that discussion below: