Why I won’t run for public office: Bill Moyers’ advice to me

US journalist and commentator Bill Moyers
Image via Wikipedia

When I was first hired by The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1998 (my job interview was on day two of the Chiquita apology), I wasn’t sure if journalism was for me.

My job was as a news aide, the equivalent of a “copy boy,” which meant I did tasks like answer the phone, sort faxes, pick up proofs at the now soon-to-be closed “Western” (the Western Avenue printing plant) and other tasks that I’d either invent for myself to do or get asked to tackle. Things like finally entering tubs (literally) full of birth announcements – months and even more than a year behind the actual birth. We used to joke that the kids themselves could have called in if there was a mistake and ask for a correction. They were that far behind.

But the best part was who was working there with me. Night side at the Enquirer and the great folks on the copy desk, a few reporters I pestered to no end and a begrudging editor or two whetted my appetite even more and solidified my career goal. I wanted to be a journalist. But I had a dirty little secret: I’d once ran for public office.

The Northwest Local School District – located in northwestern Hamilton County – school board was my goal. I was 19 years old and a recent Colerain High School, a school in the district, graduate.

School board races, by state law, are non-partisan. Though affiliations are often touted and known by the public, officially they don’t exist. So, I didn’t run with any political party’s backing or even knowing one member of the local political scene. And I lost. Big time.

Wessels for School Board canvassing flier (1993)

I came in ninth – out of 10 on the ballot (plus one write-in). But I did get 3,325 votes (6.2 percent), about 3,450 shy of the third-place finisher, Helga Schwab (12.6 percent), an incumbent. Dan Mecklenborg – a leader of a movement, pretty sure the first, that was an organized opposition to a school levy – came in second. (It’s worth noting Mecklenborg was an early leader in a movement that spawned COAST, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes). I take solace in the fact that I was the last serious vote-getter. The guy on the ballot who finished last had about 1,197 votes. The person above me, Bruce Gehring, a current school board member, garnered about 4,750 votes.

A few people at the paper knew my political background secret and someone at the Enquirer, I can’t remember who exactly, told me I might not want to bring that up as I attempted to land the critical reporting internship and eventually a job. So, I didn’t. That was until someone found the column that former Enquirer reporter John Eckberg wrote about me at the time, photocopied and posted it all around the newsroom, including in the restrooms. It was a good-hearted jab at me – that made me slightly apprehensive.

After I lost the election I was invited by the Colerain Township Republican Club to get involved. They were the only ones who asked, so I did. They assured me they could help me get elected next time. That was even after a then-current school member and prominent youth pastor – who had a penchant for crying at the drop of a hat – had clandestinely asked me to drop out of the race on behalf of some community members and others in the race, promising similar later success. I flatly turned him down. That was not what democracy was all about, I told him.

Politics had soured me somewhat and, among other distractions and interests, by 1996 I was working at my college newspaper. It was, I rationalized, my first true love (I did a quasi-internship at WKRC-AM in 1992 and watched everyone there get fired after they were purchased by their former rival, Jacor, parent of WLW-AM).

But parts of me were always conflicted. I ran for office, even at 19, because I wanted to make a difference. School boards managed kids, so, I felt an adult closest in age to one of those kids ought to be on the school board. Despite this assertion, I was repeatedly told I was too young – something that still irks me to this day. This idealism doesn’t die easily. I still have it.

In 2004 I attended the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention in New York City. The closing session’s keynote speaker was former White House press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson and journalist, Bill Moyers.

After his rousing speech to the journalists – many of whom came to their feet – he stuck around and signed autographs and chatted with the crowd that had encircled him in the hallway outside the convention hall. I approached him to ask a question that had been bugging me ever since I slipped from politician to journalist. He was a person I thought possibly best suited to answer this question.

“Mr. Moyers, I ran for office once. Now I am a journalist. Where do you think I can have the biggest impact on my community? What should I do?,” I asked him.

He actually paused, among the chaos around him and looked right at me.

“Keep being a journalist,” he said. “You can make a much bigger impact there.”

It was the confirmation I needed from a man whose work I truly respected. I was best being a journalist. I can still care about my community, shine light where light needs to be shined and not be in political office. It felt good to hear that.

It was noted to me that a local political reporter was so good at what he does because he just simply didn’t care about who was who in politics – he just loved the fight. I found out later he helped organize unions before he was a journalist. And he doesn’t care? He has to care, I thought, but maybe his writing and his reporting doesn’t show it. That’s more important.

As journalists we pick and choose the stories we tell. Before that, we pick and choose the aspects of the story we share. That is the very nature of what we do. We judge the facts and make a decision about which facts get included. Bias? Sure. But I think the best reporters actually listen, observe, talk to all sides and try to share all aspects of the issue, event or whatever. In the end, the readers are ultimately the ones who decide. This has been my “angle,” if you will, since I have been writing for newspapers. Integrity, I guess. I do it because I care about my community, schmaltzy as it sounds. This is the overriding factor in why I want to create a new, non-partisan, non-ideological news source for Cincinnati. Because we need it.

And even though I get asked from time to time, sometimes seriously and most of the time in passing, I will not be seeking public office. Not now; not ever. But it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I do. And I will keep trying to hold those elected and other community leaders accountable whenever I can through finding the stories that matter and expose the people and the decisions they make.

So, thank you for thinking of me. But I am fine right here where I am. In the end, it’s probably better for me – and maybe better for you.

City Council ballot update: The Return of the Queen and more

A change in Ohio state law made the filing deadline for most elected offices on this November’s ballot 90 days before the election, but not for some cities with different deadlines in their charter, which supersedes state law. Like Cincinnati.

The city’s cut-off remains 75 days prior to the election, on August 25, leaving lots of time for candidates still without enough of the 500 valid signatures or who haven’t paid their $75 filing fee or signed the acceptance letter to get their campaigns in order and, subsequently, their names on the ballot. So far, eight people have made the cut.

Councilman Bortz at an April meeting.

As of this afternoon, several incumbents and former candidates have yet to meet the filing requirements, with 10 days left to go. But, one former mayoral candidate, a woman who brought grimaces and grins to reporters and political watchers across Cincinnati, has not only met all the requirements to be on the City Council ballot this far, she was the second one to do so in early June.

Sandra Queen Noble, who fought for her apparently single-member “She-ro” political party (as opposed to “He-ro” or “Hero” party) got in her 500 valid signatures, paid her fee and signed her acceptance letter – all by June 7. That was just nearly a month behind fund-raising prodigy, first-time candidate and initially-named P.G. Sittenfeld, who got his paperwork done on May 11.

Incumbent Democrat Cecil Thomas, who, much to his own surprise, rode into office in 2005 on a shoestring campaign budget, spending a fraction of what many other non-winning and winning candidates did, finished his pre-election work on July 6.

Lawyer, professor and first-time candidate Yvette Simpson – best known lately in City Hall circles for having her first business forum of her campaign in Silverton (outside of city limits) and sending an email to City Hall staffers inviting them to it (a big no-no) – got her stuff in order on July 28.

Queen Noble, who was known for saying things that were, to put it nicely, a little off-kilter in her bid to become Cincinnati’s first female black mayor, should provide some much-needed levity in a city (and state and country) lately full of cantankerous (or some would say, “petty”) politics and gigantic budget problems. Can we all say, “The rent is too damn high?”

Kevin Flynn, the Charterite and former candidate, filed his paperwork Friday, having garnered 534 valid signatures on his petition. His name will be on the ballot, making him the seventh person to officially make the cut.

Former Hamilton County Prosecutor, city police officer, judge, FOX19 legal analyst, attorney and the guy who had extramarital relations with one of my former co-workers (always wondered why she wouldn’t go out on a date with me), Mike Allen, has crossed the 500-valid signature threshold and will appear on the fall ballot – if he makes it to the Elections board before August 25 and does what he, shall we say, needs to do. Hide your children, hide your wife.

Allen came in at 541 valid signatures in, what I am told, was lightening-fast speed – even without the endorsement of the Hamilton County Republican Party. Congratulations, Mr. Allen!

Charter candidate Chris Bortz sits at 368 valid signatures at this time, though, as with all candidates, is or is planning to bring in more voter petitions. Bortz has followed a similar pattern in recent election years, but has always turned in enough valid signatures to be placed on the ballot fairly close to the deadline.

First-timer Catherine Smith Mills (who, jokingly, I believe is planning to build a fence around our city, which I find to be a little self-serving – who do you think we’d get to build it, huh?), had 411 signatures. But while I was visiting the board Friday, she stopped in with 89 more and asked me to include that in anything I wrote. So, there you go Mrs. Mills. As of this afternoon, she has added 54 more valid names and stands at 465.

Republican mayor-hater Leslie Ghiz sits at 348 valid voter signatures, while Wendell Young, a Democrat appointed to Council, has 461.

First-time candidate Chris Seelbach, a Democrat who helped repeal Cincinnati’s anti-gay Article XII, finished his paperwork on August 2, shortly before NAACP president (or soon-to-be former president) and Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes board member (only in Cincinnati, folks…only in Cincinnati) Christopher Smitherman solidified his candidacy on August 10, 2011.

Cincinnati CityBeat’s former Person of the Year, riding on the coattails of bringing a prominent Latino convention to Cincinnati, Jason Riveiro, sits at just 221 valid signatures. His campaign has been prominent in recent parades, so he appears to be a serious candidate who might need to ratchet things up a notch.

Cincinnati Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, widely considered to be a strong contender for Cincinnati’s mayor when current Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory is term-limited out of office in 2013, has 505 valid signatures, but hasn’t finished filing. Same is true for first-term and former WCPO-TV investigative reporter Laure Quinlivan, who has 508 valid signatures but no paperwork or filing fee.

Democrat Nicholas Hollan, who owns Valley Dental and was endorsed last time by former Congressman Steve Driehaus, has about half of his requirement, with 325 valid signatures.

Republican Council appointee Wayne Lippert – tapped to fill a seat vacated by Cincinnati Bengals employee and once-endorsed Democrat Jeff Berding – has 516 valid signatures, but has yet to complete the process. Same is true for another appointment, Republican Amy Murray. She filled the seat once held by Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel and she has 511 signatures. Preacher and former Democrat-turned-Republican Charlie Winburn (who refers to me as Doctor Wessels… been meaning to ask if that was a PhD. or M.D.), has 526 valid names and finished the process today, making him the eighth person to do so. This doctor says that bodes well for his re-election this fall.

Also on Friday, the first write-in candidate filed. Orlando Welborn will be an official candidate, though his name will not appear on the ballot.

There are also some lesser-known names vying to be on the ballot. These are the people with signatures and how many of them they have so far:

  • Jacqueline Allen – 212 (60 added since Friday)
  • Kathy Atkinson – 426
  • Patricia McCollum – 511

Several others have picked up petitions from the Board of Elections, but haven’t returned any valid signatures. They are:

  • Theo Barnes
  • James Ingram
  • Robert Jacobs
  • George Johnson
  • Roger Marksberry
  • Peterson Mingo
  • Weston Munzel
  • Gary Pierce
  • Eric Thompson
  • Edith Thrower

It’s shaping up to be an interesting election year, as they nearly all are. City politics is entering a particularly interesting era in the next two years, as Council members Bortz, Ghiz and Thomas will be term-limited off in 2013. Speculation that Roxanne Qualls and Charlie Winburn, and possibly others (former Councilman John Cranley), could vie for the mayor’s chair in 2013, and therefore ineligible to remain on Council, means Council’s majority could completely change after the 2013 election – if not before, because of resignations and appointments.

It’s worth noting, too, that former Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell, seen around town in recent weeks meeting with a plethora of political consultants, has decided not to seek election to Council this year, sources have said. This is the first year he’d be eligible after term limits prompted his resignation late in his term in 2007. Qualls was appointed to his seat.

Related articles

School Board Member Parker falls short of being on fall ballot

Cincinnati School Board Member Sean Parker has fallen short of the required petition signatures to appear on this fall’s ballot.

First-time candidate Parker, who was appointed to the school board on April 28, 2010 after former WCPO-TV reporter and comedian Michael Flannery stepped down, fell 43 signatures short of the required 300 needed to appear on the ballot, said Sally J. Krisel, Hamilton County Board of Elections director.

School Board Member Sean Parker (Courtesy of Facebook)

Board officials had originally found Parker was 50 short of the requirement, but further examination, at Parker’s request, revealed an additional seven signatures. That left the figure at 257 valid signatures. The deadline to have all valid signatures into the board was yesterday.

Krisel said she has already informed Parker and Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, and the board will formally inform Parker in a letter sent soon.

Mary Welsh Schlueter, an education activist and founder of Partners for Innovation in Education, or PIE, and a candidate for this fall’s election whose name will appear on the ballot, said she wishes Parker and his wife, who recently had the couple’s first child, the best.

“I sent Sean my condolences, but I know the time spent with his new baby will be treasured by his family,” she said. “Best of luck to him in his endeavors.”

Welsh Schlueter said Parker had helped with recent forums for PIE and she considers him a friend.

“He’s a good guy,” she said.

In addition to Welsh Schlueter, the following candidates have filed to run this fall and their names will appear on the ballot:

  • Current member, Eve Bolton
  • Alexander Poccia Kuhns
  • Current member, A. Chris Nelms

Though candidates often have political party connections, the board race is officially non-partisan. Three seats are up on the seven-member board this year. The remaining members run for re-election in 2013.

UPDATE (12:07 p.m EDT, 8/12/2011): Parker sent an email to his campaign list, thanking them for their support and encouraging them to continue supporting the district because “they need us.”

“There are many factors that contributed to this and I take full responsibility,” Parker said in the email. “If you have contributed your time or financially, I truly appreciate it and will never forget your support.  I will continue to do my part in helping to move the district forward in a positive way.”

A phone call to Parker has not yet been returned.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County Election Night coverage using Qik video

I will be running around downtown Cincinnati – including the Hamilton County Board of Elections and various campaign victory parties – reporting on what I am seeing using Qik video. Check out the video below to see the latest:

http://qik.com/joefoto

Hamilton County poised to go back to “red” this fall?

Ted Strickland, governor of the U.S. state of Ohio
Ted Strickland, governor of the U.S. state of Ohio. Image via Wikipedia

It’s campaign season and candidates all across the region and the state are in full campaign mode. Or are they?

In 2008, Hamilton County tilted toward the Democratic side for the first time since 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson lead that party’s ticket. Now, two years later and some signs point toward a red win, thanks, it appears, to party and supporter apathy.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, in a Sept. 5 Columbus Dispatch poll, trailed former Congressman John Kasich, 10 percentage points, 49-39 in a statewide poll, according to Real Clear Politics.  Strickland bumped up slightly in poll averages in mid-June, but otherwise has trailed Kasich.

But despite this, Tuesday, when he and his Republican opponent square off in their first televised debate, there are no watch parties planned in the county, according to the Organizing for America Web site, my.barackobama.com. Parties are planned in all adjacent counties: the Republican strongholds of Butler, Clermont and Warren. Hamilton County would be considered a critical county for Strickland if he were to win re-election.

Then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama‘s online juggernaut, combining social media with savvy Web marketing, appears to be underutilized in this area. Praised by politicos from all parties, the site and its accompanying iPhone, iPad and plethora of social networking-connected sites can be used to help organize campaign workers and inform voters in ways that were not previously seen in any campaign. The site  and its millions of registered users transitioned from Obama’s campaign Web site  to Organizing for America, designed to keep enthusiasm and momentum going after Obama’s winning the presidency.

Republican supporters do not appear to have scheduled any debate watch parties in this area.

The rhetoric has consequences

“Shockingly unfortunate” is how I see how the fervor over healthcare reform devolved into calls for protests at Congressman Driehaus’s, uh, “haus.” I am happy that conservative leaders, including leaders of whatever the Tea Party is (populist), did the right thing and asked their troops to stand-down.

The consequences of leading protest chants off of the Speaker’s Balcony, as happened in the hours leading up to the historic healthcare reform vote.  That goes along with other less-civil methods of handling disagreement and how they can lead down a road that causes some folks to act in a way that most of us would never act no matter how awful we thought a particular law was or could be for our township, village, city, state or country.

That’s why I like this particular quote by Driehaus, embeded in a particularly good column by the Collegian’s Emily Jacobs:

Politicians need to take some responsibility for this increase in threats and decline in civility. Wilson essentially received a slap on the wrist for his outburst, and Republicans argued that it wasn’t worth the House’s time to address it. Additionally, when Sarah Palin tweeted to followers “… Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD,” regarding the health care bill, she was fanning the flames. As Rep. Steve Driehaus D-Ohio explains, “It doesn’t really matter the way you meant it, nor the way I accept it. It’s how the least sane person in my district accepts it.” Politicians have great influence, which they must exercise with caution. Dangerous rhetoric has got to stop.

via Government cannot function at its best without civilized discussion | The Daily Collegian.

Sarah Palin should be in jail for that Tweet. It is my opinion that she is not smart enough to know that. I’m allowed to say she’s stupid; she can say the same about me.

What is not acceptable – and should be illegal (and is, unquestionably, when it comes to the life of the President) – is to threaten elected leaders, which Palin collectively did with that message, egging on her many angry, upset, seemingly disenfranchised followers.

Lord knows I have hated the decisions some of the politicans that represented me made. But that’s our Republic and how it operates, like it or not. Why don’t people understand that anymore? Don’t like what Driehaus is doing? Vote him out next time. He was only elected to two stinkin’ years. Others that did like how he has served will vote for him. If more people like how he voted than not, he stays. If not, the other guy wins. Pretty simple concept. And pretty damn fair (without getting into the debate about the fairness of a two-party system).

All elected officials have to govern. Some people like what you do some of the time and just the opposite is true, so said Abraham Lincoln. Elections have consequences. Politicians make choices that are unpopular. They also makes ones that are popular. Regardless, violence and unreasonable protests is way over the line and needs to end immediately.

Little Stevie Driehaus puppet has Facebook page

A Marionette puppet that looks like Congressman Steve Driehaus

The NBC News Chief White House Correspondent and Political Director, Chuck Todd, was on Cincinnati NBC affiliate WLWT-TV this evening with local anchor Todd Dykes. During his short interview he said he is watching Ohio’s First Congressional District contest very closely. He said it will be a bellwether for the entire country, not only on yesterday’s health care reform bill, but for many other issues.

The race – between freshman incumbent Steve Driehaus and his former opponent Steve Chabot (who held the seat for 14 years prior) – is going to be hot, no question. And the rhetoric and nastiness has begun and will likely continue to be high throughout the campaign. In fact, it’s gonna get worse.

In that vein, it was just suggested via Facebook’s automatic “friend finder” that I befriend a puppet that bears a resemblance to the Congressman. It is called “Little Stevie Driehaus” and it appears to be a Marionette puppet. The Web page depicts Driehaus has being a puppet of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Facebook | Little Stevie Driehaus

It is worth noting that Chabot had an over 90 percent record of voting on issues supported by former President George W. Bush when he was in Congress.

Ah, politics…

Note: I was Driehaus’s communications director on his Congressional campaign. I no longer work for him and am not affiliated with him in any way, other than thinking he is a nice guy. Same goes for Chabot, who, notably, told me that I betrayed him in the waning weeks of the 2008 campaign. Still not sure what that meant. I assume he still doesn’t like me, though he did shake my hand and say hello at the 2010 Saint Patrick’s Parade. Chabot and I had a nice working relationship when I was a full-time political reporter. Plus, he went to the same high school as my father, which Dad thinks is pretty cool.

Jerry Springer is Satan’s first friend on PC World’s fake Facebook page

Technology publication “PC World” created a “Facebook page they would like to see” for Satan (the devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer). It’s pretty funny – espeically for local Cincinnatians – who see that former Cincinnati mayor and current talk show host Jerry Springer is Satan’s first friend (or last friend, I suppose – but at the top of the page).

\PC Worlds fake Facebook page for Satan
PC World's fake Facebook page for Satan

Still one of my favorite articles from the Driehaus campaign

Just going through my documents folder on my PC (why doesn’t Google Desktop search work on OpenOffice.org documents?), and came across the media clips file I kept while the communications director during Congressman Steve Driehaus‘s 2008 campaign.

I have to say that some days working for the campaign felt like we were trying to slay a dragon with kitchen fork, but when articles like this came out, I remember thinking, “Gee, we really are going to win this campaign.” We did. And I am happy for being a part of it.

Chabot told PolitickerOH.com that Driehaus isn’t as well known as Cincinnati councilman John Carney, whom he ran against two years ago.

via Chabot: Driehaus softer than Carney | Politicker.com.

Not to knock the reporter who wrote this. We all make mistakes. But this one seemed rather poignant in the face of what we were doing. Sort of made Steve Chabot’s point, well, pointless, if even the reporter he was talking to did not even know that “Carney” was actually John “Cranley,” a well-established, well-known and term-limited Cincinnati City Council member.

I printed this article out and taped it to my door. I then called the reporter and had a little chat with him about balance. Next time he called me before he wrote a story.

Tweet Congress: Missing our locally electeds

Out in the community
Driehaus calling TwitterFone?

So, does your Congressional representative or Senator want you to know what’s going on? Well, if you look around the Greater Cincinnati area the answer would be mostly no.

Using TweetCongress, an amazingly great use of the Twitter API, you can follow exactly what is going on with your federally-elected officials. What’s even more amazing is that they publicly harass those Members of Congress who are not on Twitter to join.

Here’s what the intro to their site says:

“We the Tweeple of the United States, in order to form a more perfect government, establish communication, and promote transparency do hereby Tweet the Congress of the United States of America.”

via Tweet Congress.

I love it!

As Steve Driehaus‘s campaign communications director, I worked hard to get Driehaus into as much social networking and new media as possible (much was done before I got there, but there was still plenty to do). He was open to it, but, as I think he openly admits, it isn’t his strong suit. Plus, too many politicians think the mainstream media is their best shot and the other stuff is just “extra.” True, to a large extent. But not for long.

I am proud to say Driehaus got much better at it as the campaign wore on (even agreeing to have a blogger meet-up, which was fantastic). TweetCongress says Driehaus is not on Twitter, which isn’t exactly true. It just hasn’t been updated since I posted the last Tweet the day after election day thanking everyone for their support. Get on it, folks! It’s a great way to keep in touch with your constieuents…

Who else is on Twitter locally? Well, if you ask TweetCongress, House Minority Leader John Boehner of West Chester, Ohio – just on the outskirts of the Cincinnati Metro area – is the only one. Rep. Jean Schmidt of the Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District (and my representative, now that I live in Mount Washington) and Rep. Geoff Davis of Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District do not Twitter.

My work on this political campaign and consulting communications on another this past year made me realize one amazing thing: Politicians are waaay behind the curve on the technology front – with one major exception. President Barack Obama. ‘Nuff said.