Analysis: Cincinnati’s 2021 Council Race has the potential to transform City Hall

Believe it or not, by Wednesday 75 people had gone to the Hamilton County Electoral Committee collecting petitions to run for Cincinnati City Council that year.

Seventy-five people with petitions to run for one of only nine seats on the city council. Incredible.

Far more than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve covered Cincinnati politics since 1983.

That doesn’t mean you will see 75 names on the ballot in the November election. Many of these people – mostly people you probably never heard of unless they’re related to you or live on your street – will never petition these people. Many will struggle to get the signatures of 500 Cincinnati registered voters who would need to qualify for election.

But you might see 35 or a number a little north of it – which would still be a huge field trying to end the poll in the top nine.

Why do you ask?

Because there is so much potential for fundamental change in the Council this year. Every seat can be allocated.

Of the nine current incumbents, only one – Democrat Greg Landsman – will run for a second term after being elected to the council four years ago.

Four more will be discontinued for a limited period; and most of them say they are running for mayor this year. Tenure restrictions include Democrats David Mann, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach, all of whom plan to run for mayor’s office in the May primary, as well as the independent Christopher Smitherman, who may still run for mayoral.

Four people now serving on the Council have been appointed and have never voted for the Council.

There’s Republican Betsy Sundermann, who was appointed in March 2020 when Amy Murray left the council to work for the Trump administration.

And because of the extraordinary spectacle in 2020 when three incumbent councilors were arrested on federal corruption charges, three more council members were appointed last year – Democrat Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney and Republicans Steve Goodin and Liz Keating.

The submission deadline for council candidates – who run without a party name on the ballot – is August 19th. But the campaigns have already started; Savvy candidates have already raised money, put together campaign organizations, and will soon or have already started campaigning websites.

And in March or April at the latest, Cincinnati’s three political parties – Democrats, Republicans, and the Charter Committee – will begin approving lists of candidates

So who are the top candidates in the early stages? Kevin Flynn was a no-nonsense councilor who by law voted not to run for re-election in 2017. He’s back now and is clearly in the lead in this year’s election. Likewise, Democrat Michelle Dillingham, a longtime community activist who has come very close in two previous council elections. She has a huge following; and this could be her year.

Matt Woods, president of the charter committee, told WVXU that Jim Tarbell, the former councilor and vice mayor, told Charter that he would run this year. Tarbell has become a near-universal name among Cincinnati voters after decades on the Cincinnati political scene.

Who is still in the top division?

  • Mount Washington Democrat Jaime Castle, who works as a substitute teacher, impressed many people in her party when she took on the unenviable job of running against Republican Congressman Brad Wenstrup in the sprawling 2nd Congressional District. It lost, but it won the eastern portion of Hamilton County and received 54% of the vote. She made a lot of friends in this campaign and will be well organized.
  • Bill Frost, a native of Britain, came to Cincinnati as an engineer in 1988 and became a US citizen in 1995. As a past president of the Pleasant Ridge Community Council, he has served as a senior charter committee member for the past several years. He will likely top the list of Chartered Supported Candidates.
  • Mount Airy’s Cam Hardy, who has worked tirelessly to improve bus connections and public transportation, has been one of the city’s most high-profile activists in recent years and has certainly developed a following who would be more than happy to cast one of their nine council votes for him.
  • Brian Garry, a progressive Democrat who ran and failed several times, works tirelessly for the homeless in Cincinnati. If he builds his base beyond progressive Democrats, he could stand a chance this time around.
  • Dale Mallory, a former representative of the Democratic State and member of the Mallory political dynasty, could be a force to be reckoned with just because of the name identification alone. If he runs, he would have significant support from black voters.
  • Jeff Cramerding, a Democrat who has run many local campaigns for Democrats and Charterers, is well known and well connected. He will likely raise a lot of money to become a serious candidate.
  • Meeka Owens, a North Avondale Democrat, has been quietly putting together a campaign for the council for many months. She has worked on many local democratic campaigns and is very popular and respected. It will almost certainly have support from the Democratic Party.
  • Derek Bauman, a resident of Over-the-Rhine and a former Freemason police officer, ran in 2017, finishing 14th out of 23 candidates. He is a high profile community activist and may have expanded his base since then.

More candidates will emerge as contenders in the coming months. And we’ll look out for them.
But two things are obvious in the 2021 city council election: there is enormous potential for change in the town hall, more than it has been in decades, and there will be no shortage of options for the voters.

For many voters in Cincinnati, it will be difficult to reduce that field to nine.

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