CINCINNATI -- As Election Day edges closer, Cincinnati’s mayoral race is heating up with allegations and counter-allegations involving candidates Roxanne Qualls and John Cranley.
Many of the most pointed attacks, however, aren’t being made directly by Qualls or Cranley.
Instead, an army of surrogates – the most vocal supporters on each side – is handling the dirty work.
The most recent attacks launched by one side against the other are perhaps the nastiest so far in the mayoral race.
Qualls’ supporters have accused Cranley of “pay to play,” using campaign cash to win endorsements from prominent African-American politicians.
In return, Cranley’s supporters have begun a whisper campaign intimating that Qualls, who also is a Realtor, has improperly sold multiple properties along the route of the planned streetcar system.
Neither Qualls nor Cranley would comment for this article.
A Realtor, Qualls Sells Condos Along Streetcar Route
The $133 million streetcar system, which is under construction in downtown and Over-the-Rhine, has become a central issue in the mayoral campaign. Qualls supports the project, while Cranley is opposed.
One of the primary reasons supporters cite for building the streetcar is their belief it will spark redevelopment of underused parcels within a three-block radius of the 3.6-mile route, especially among those directly on the route.
A review of real estate transaction records by WCPO reveals eight of the 21 properties sold by Qualls are on the streetcar’s route.
They range from a property at 116 W. 14th Street that sold for $100,000, to a property at 400 Pike Street that sold for $430,000.
The properties were sold between June 2011 and the present, while Qualls was on Cincinnati City Council and actively lobbying for the streetcar.
An economic impact study commissioned by the city indicates residential property values along the route in Over-the-Rhine would jump 40.4 percent by 2025 if the system were built, while property values downtown would jump by 71.2 percent.
Among the properties Qualls sold is a condominium at 30 E. Central Parkway. It sold for $389,000 in March 2012 to Judi Craig.
Craig is vice president at Parsons Brinckerhoff, a consulting firm that served as design contractor for the streetcar project. In all, Parsons Brinckerhoff has received $13.8 million in city funding during the past few years for doing streetcar-related work.
Craig and others employed by Parsons Brinckerhoff have contributed to Qualls’ mayoral campaign and hosted fundraisers for her.
If Qualls earned the typical commission for the sales, between 3.5 percent and 7 percent, it means she was paid between $86,590 and $173,180.
But critics said the amount paid isn’t what’s important; rather, it’s the fact that Qualls was advocating at City Hall for the project and allocating more money for it – neither of which was ever disclosed publicly.
For example, on the same day in June she closed on the sale for a condo at 30 E. Central Parkway, City Council’s finance committee approved another $17.4 million to cover a shortfall in the streetcar project. Qualls chairs the committee.
The situation gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, some Cranley supporters said.
Qualls should’ve sought an advisory opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission about whether she should sell property along the streetcar route, they added.
“It’s a definite conflict,” said Jim Kiefer, a Cranley supporter. “She is chair of the budget and finance committee, and is privy to information about properties that other people may not be.
“A property along that route that would’ve sold for $15,000 now can sell for $100,000,” added Kiefer, who owns a furniture restoration business in West Price Hill. “She will end up making more profit from the sale.”
Ohio’s ethics law does not prohibit a person from serving in a public position simply because he or she has an interest in property that will be affected by an action of the public agency the person serves.
In order to protect the public by ensuring an official is not improperly influenced by his or her private property interests, the Ethics Law generally prohibits the official from participating in any property matter in which the official has an interest.
A fact sheet issued by the Ohio Ethics Commission states the law “prohibits an official from using the authority or influence of his public position, formally or informally, in any issue or question or other matter that would render a definite and direct financial benefit or detriment to the value of property in which he has an interest.”
Still, the same fact sheet adds, “an official is not prohibited from participating or voting on general legislation … that provides a uniform benefit to all or most property within the community, including his property.”
Jens Sutmoller, Qualls’ campaign manager, adamantly denied there is anything improper or illegal about the real estate sales.
Some supporters noted Qualls has always taken an interest in urban redevelopment issues since she first joined City Council in 1991, more than a decade before she became a Realtor.
Elected officials concerned about potential conflicts of interest may ask the Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion based on specifics of his or her circumstances.
That’s what Cranley did when he was a city councilman in 2008. Cranley asked whether his formation of a company to do development projects in Lower Price Hill constituted a conflict of interest. He told commissioners his company wanted to ask the city to approve a Tax Increment Financing district for one of its projects, and he planned on abstaining from the vote.
The Ethics Commission replied abstention wasn’t sufficient and advised Cranley he had a conflict. If Cranley got any financial benefit from the deal, he should either resign from council or end his ties to the company.
A few months later, based on the opinion, Cranley resigned from City Council.
The Ethics Commission offered similar advice to then-Councilman Chris Bortz in 2009. It advised Bortz he shouldn’t participate in any council decisions about the streetcar project because his family’s company owned properties along the route.
Unlike Cranley, Bortz kept the letter’s existence a secret for 10 months and continued to cast votes on the project. Once the letter was revealed publicly, he stopped but the damage was done. Bortz lost reelection to a fourth term in 2011.
The Ethics Commission’s executive director told WCPO that Qualls has never sought an advisory opinion from the group.
Kiefer thinks getting tens of thousands of dollars in sale commissions is a definite conflict. If Qualls thinks the matter is proper, he added, she should’ve disclosed the sales.
“If someone is running for mayor, the public has a right to know about this,” Kiefer said. “It seems odd this was never brought up before.”
Although Cranley declined comment, his campaign manager – Jay Kincaid – called the matter “disturbing.”
“What is important is transparency. We want the public to have trust in their officials,” Kincaid said. “It’s disturbing she hasn’t asked the Ethics Commission for an opinion on this.
“Even if there is nothing nefarious going on, the appearance is concerning,’ he added. “She should have been more forthcoming.”
Sutmoller said he doesn’t understand concerns about the sales. Any further comment about the matter would give it more attention than deserved, he added.
Cranley Accused of Using Cash to Get Black Support
As the campaigns head into their final two weeks, several Qualls’ supporters have used the Internet and social media to publicize their criticisms of Cranley.
Chief among the complaints is that Cranley hired ex-Councilwoman Laketa Cole to work on his campaign. Also, they have noted Cranley paid to hold an event at Integrity Hall, a Bond Hill facility owned by the family of Alicia Reece, an ex-vice mayor and current state representative.
Qualls’ supporters have said the facts explain why Cranley has won endorsements from Cole and Reece, along with the nod from ex-Mayor Dwight Tillery, who is Cole’s mentor.
All three politicians are African-American, and many observers think winning a majority of black voters could be the decisive factor in an otherwise close mayoral election.
Derek Bauman, an Over-the-Rhine resident and Mason police officer who is a high-profile Qualls supporter, has used Twitter to allege Cranley is buying their support.
Bauman and a circle of other local bloggers, including Craig Hochscheid and Brian Griffin, have criticized local media for not giving enough attention to the facts.
“Cranley is pay to play. This is common knowledge on the street,” Bauman has tweeted.
Another of Bauman’s tweets read, “I have tweeted how Cranley campaign paid Reeces $5,550 in the weeks before her endorsement.”
Trying to get media interest, Bauman tweeted, “Y is this not reported? … Cranley reports show how he’s paying Steve/Alicia Reece money to buy support.”
Bauman isn’t just a run of the mill blogger: He has introduced Qualls or spoke on her behalf at several events. Also, he is arguably the most well-known streetcar supporter.
Steve Reece, Alicia Reece’s father and a longtime Democratic Party activist, called the criticisms from white bloggers offensive.
“I find it insulting and racist to imply we can’t think, and to say money will influence who we will support,” Steve Reece said.
Active in politics since 1972, Steve Reece served as chief of staff for then-Mayor Ted Berry. He also ran for City Council and Congress decades ago.
Steve Reece said he has helped both Qualls and Cranley in the past, but that his ties to Cranley are much closer.
“I have supported John Cranley for Congress and he’s held events at Integrity Hall,” Steve Reece said. “I have supported Roxanne Qualls when she ran for Congress. As a matter of fact, I went to Washington to convince the Congressional Black Caucus to come here and support her when they did not want to come.”
Cranley has made an effort to cultivate closer ties to African-American politicians than Qualls, he added.
“When John decided to run, I had already built a relationship with him over time,” Steve Reece said. “Roxanne hasn’t been as sensitive to the African-American business community as I and many others would’ve liked.”
Despite the remarks, Qualls recently ranked higher than Cranley on a candidate scorecard issued by the African American Chamber of Commerce. Sean Rugless, a longtime friend of Qualls, heads the group.
Cranley’s campaign pays Cole $4,000 a month to serve as deputy campaign manager. Her hiring has prompted derisive comments by bloggers that support Qualls.
Kincaid noted Coles was elected to City Council four times “on a shoestring budget,” and holds a Master’s degree in public administration. “She is very good at grassroots organizing,” he said.
“The criticism she’s been getting is insulting and borderline racist,” Kincaid said.
Another common theme among Qualls’ supporters is the fact that Cranley didn’t attend 77 percent of the city’s Pension Board meetings while he was a member from 2004-08. During that time, he sent a representative in his place.
But using the same criteria, Qualls didn’t attend 97 percent of the Pension Board meetings between 1993-99. She, too, sent a proxy in her place.
Bauman said Qualls was more responsible because Cranley only sent a staffer to the sessions.
“To compare Cranley's aides as proxies to Bobbie Sterne, a former mayor and then-sitting council member, who was appointed by Roxanne to attend on her behalf at times, is laughable,” Bauman said.
Asked whether any of the rhetoric coming from either Qualls or Cranley supporters is over-the-top or inappropriate, Bauman replied flatly, “no.”
“The consensus between (Qualls) and I is that the accusations are coming from people outside of the campaign,” Sutmoller said. “I don’t know that it’s appropriate for us to really be commenting on the supporters’ accusations.
“We encourage them to always be factual, and I assume John is doing the same thing,” he added.
Kincaid isn’t satisfied. Qualls should correct her supporters when they make outlandish or improper remarks, he said.
Kincaid said he reprimanded a Cranley campaign volunteer after the person went on WDBZ-AM to criticize the Rev. K.Z. Smith. It occurred after Smith initially endorsed Cranley, then switched to support Qualls.
“We said stop it. We had that conversation several times with him, that he was going too far,” Kincaid said.
Sutmoller hasn’t had similar talks with any of Qualls’ supporters.
“Roxanne encourages all of our volunteers that are promoting her for mayor at the doors, on the phones and by other means to always keep a positive tone when talking about the candidates for office,” Sutmoller said.
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