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

US journalist and commentator Bill Moyers
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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.

A conversation with Enquirer editor Carolyn Washburn

I will be live-Tweeting and/or covering the “Meet the Editor” with Cincinnati Enquirer editor Carolyn Washburn, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at Northern Kentucky University.

It will be live on uStream and I will be using Cover It Live to report on the event. Both streams can be found below.

 

Streaming Video by Ustream.TV
 

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

Taming the mighty Mill Creek

DSC_7871

Tomorrow I embark on an adventure few in this area would ever consider doing – canoeing down the Mill Creek.

It won’t be my first time. The last time was May 1, 2007 when we left from Spring Grove Avenue and got out near the Ohio River – in utter filth. What I learned on that trip is that the Mill Creek is in much better shape than it has been since the introduction of industry along its banks. Though it can change from day-to-day, the water for 90 percent of its length is safe for humans to be in and around, which was never the case years ago. That’s why you – if you’re from the Greater Cincinnati area – are probably aghast at what I have done and plan to do again tomorrow.

I was also surprised to find an abundance of life living in and around the creek, including spawning fish, snakes and turtles. I saw rushing rapids flowing over resistant rocks, creating a gorgeous display of one of nature’s enduring beauties – a moving stream. Above us and around us were highways with trucks and cars, plus railroad tracks with giant locomotives moving in and out of town. Along side us were closed factories, a wheat mill, a rail yard and a sewage treatment plant. There were also beautiful tall, green grasses and other vegetation that did not seem to know that common knowledge says they should not be there. All that touches the Mill Creek dies. Not so anymore, apparently.

Trash in the Mill Creek near the Ohio River
Trash in the Mill Creek near the Ohio Rover

Tomorrow, I will be hosted again by Commodore Bruce Koehler, a member of the “Mill Creek Yacht Club,” a tongue-in-cheek “organization” of people who are passionate about our local environment, study it and can teach us about what we are seeing. Dr. Mike Miller, a University of Cincinnati professor of aquatic ecology, will also be on the trip again. His insights are instrumental in educating the trip’s partipants on the transformation of the Mill Creek watershed and what it once was before that much-needed makeover.

We are taking a different trip than last time. This time we are starting farther north, in Sharonville, and ending up in Reading. The whole trip is about 6 1/4 miles and is expected to take about five hours. I plan to bring a notebook, my Tevos, a video camera and a still camera. For now, though, check out the beautiful – and some disturbing – photos from the 2007 trip. Click on the above photo to be taken to the Flickr set.

Pete Rose has given us back what he took away

Pete Rose in his rookie year at Picture Day in...
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I’m not a sports guy.

Let’s make that clear from the get-go. Any sport I tried to play as a kid ended up embarrassingly bad – including my career-ending smack-in-the-face at one of my very first pitch baseball games. I was in the second grade.

Growing up in Cincinnati meant loving, at minimum, two teams. One was the Cincinnati Bengals. The other was most certainly the Cincinnati Reds. So, on September 11, 1985 I was at home, a new sixth-grader. In the kitchen was a small 12-inch black and white TV and that’s where I remember standing each and every time Pete Rose would come to bat. We were waiting for his 4,192nd hit – the one that would break Ty Cobb‘s all-time hit record. It was an incredible time to be a Reds’ fan – especially because I was born in 1974 and those amazing  Big Red Machine days happened when I was too young to experience them fully.

Then the hit happened and it was amazing to see. Even on that little TV.

A few years later we would come to find out Rose bet on baseball. Rose would continue to deny this for years, despite mountains of evidence against him. Because Pete was one of us – he was born and raised here, grew up and learned to play baseball on the West Side – many of us were much more likely to believe Pete. We wanted to believe Pete.

Rose was banned from baseball and remained cocky and defiant. The pat line in Cincinnati was Pete needed to be in the Hall of Fame – no matter what he had done or how cocky he got or how bad the evidence was against him. I think some of us knew he probably didn’t deserve to be allowed back into baseball, but it just didn’t matter. He’s one of us and was a fantastic baseball player. One of the best to ever play the game. Few anywhere would dispute that.

This past Saturday, though, something amazing happened. On the 25th anniversary of that most memorable night and that historic hit, Rose was back on a baseball field, this time at the new Great American Ball Park and in front of many of those same fans. They were cheering him like they had done so many times and years before. Later that night he, ironically, went to a casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind., about a 30-minute drive from downtown Cincinnati, where he would do a paid appearance at a roast in his honor. The first part of the night, as described by Cincinnati Enquirer writer John Erardi, was light-hearted and funny. But when Rose was done being roasted by former teammates, he took the podium and gave a sobbing apology for betting on baseball. Here’s what he said, excerpted from the Enquirer article:

“I guarantee everybody in this room, I will never disrespect you again,” Rose said.

“You can talk about hits and runs and championship games . . . (But) I want my legacy to be (that of) somebody who came forward. If anybody has a problem here today, come forward. Don’t hide it . . . You can run, but you can’t hide. If I can help a young kid to know what I went through, maybe I can prevent them from going through the same thing.

“I got suspended 21 years ago. For 10-12 years, I kept it inside . . . That’s changed. I’m a different guy . . . I love the fans, I love the game of baseball, and I love Cincinnati baseball.”

Pete sounds like a guy who has gotten some help. Or he has figured it out on his own. Whatever it is (and I hope it’s the former), the apology I’m sure means a lot to his family, his friends and his teammates. It has to mean a lot to him. To let that go, admit to himself that the problem is bigger than this giant, legend-of-a-man – this is no little thing. Men like him don’t have to be humble much and when they should, well, I imagine it’s like being at your first t-ball practice.

Pete is 69 years old now. He gave us back something Saturday. The night of his magical hit can rise up again and be that special moment, untainted by what we found out a few years later. We got unstuck. Pete freed us from those chains he put on us, that burden we carried with him. Thank you, Pete. We needed it probably as much as you did. Baseball got something back Saturday night. Pete got something back. The fans got something back.

It’s time to give him the honor he deserves, what the fans deserve, what baseball deserves. It’s time to turn the page and let the next chapter of Pete’s life be written. I can’t wait to be there for it. And I’m not even a sports guy.

Sunday morning tune

Caught Lorna Parson of Sharonville this morning as she tapped the keys on a “Play me, I’m Yours” piano on the lawn of the Wyoming Arts Center in Wyoming.

She was playing “Yankee Doodle” from a beginner’s piano lesson book and said she was attempting to hit all 35 pianos before the program officially ends on September 17. She has got her work cut out for her – she only has made it to 10 so far.

“I got a late start,” she said.

Parson said she is not an accomplished player, but enjoyed the experience of playing at the public pianos. Learn more about the program, including the plan to donate the pianos to local schools and needy students needing a piano, at their Web site by clicking this link: http://oncincy.com/ahIlGd

Lorna Parson of Sharonville plays at a "Play Me, I'm Yours" piano outside the Wyoming Fine Arts Center in Wyoming.

Queen City Discovery: The Clifton Friars Club

As my previous post said, I have an interest in discovering unknown parts of Cincinnati.

So, this morning I was happy to see Queen City Discovery’s post exploring the demolition site of The Cincinnati Friar’s Club in Clifton Clifton Heights.

“…the Cincinnati Friars club dated back to 1860 and serves as an organization that provides outreach to disadvantaged children through physical activity. The club relocated and abandoned this structure in 2006. Demolition had just begun earlier that week as “Cincinnati’s 8th Precinct” began climbing over the rubble into what remained of the Friars Club.

via Queen City Discovery: The Clifton Friars Club.

There are some great photos on their site. Click over and check it out.

(NOTE: There are a couple references in the blog post that make no sense to me. “Cincinnati’s 8th Precinct” would one. Is this an inside joke? A reference to themselves or the Friar’s Club as a place for troubled children? I have no idea. Would be nice if the author(s) cleared that and a few other things up.)

Track-walker children in Mariemont

Track-walker kids

I got this shot in Mariemont over the weekend. Liked it, so wanted to share.

I was checking out an old, what appeared to be, foundry near the tracks which I discovered just driving around checking out parts of our town that I have never known before. It’s a hobby and feeds my insatiable curiosity.

Abandoned and laden with graffiti, the building is about half covered in green-leaved vines. The kids I ran into said they had no idea what it used to be, suggesting either a water tower (which seemed unlikely because of all the windows) or a train station (which also seemed unlikely because it is probably 50-feet high from the foundation – which is elevated about 20 feet from the tracks – with no easy in and out points).

Anyone have an idea or actually know the building’s former or intended use?