When Ken Jobe, the news director at WLWT-TV in Cincinnati, Ohio, interviews prospective newscasters, the first thing he hears is, "I promise not to run for mayor." Anywhere else, that would be a lame joke; at Channel 5, it's a necessary disclaimer. Talk-show host Jerry Springer was an anchor at the station after serving as mayor from 1977 to 1978; current officeholder Charlie Luken quit his job as a WLWT anchor to run for the post. And one day last June, anchor Courtis Fuller read the news at noon, handed Jobe his resignation and jumped into the race against Luken.
The battle of the anchors may seem to be little more than a source of jokes for Jon Stewart, but it is Cincinnati's most important mayoral contest in decades. The city is still trying to recover from the riots that broke out last April after an unarmed African-American man named Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a white police officer. Now Luken, who is white, is trying to fend off Fuller, an African American, who sees the race as a referendum on Luken's handling of the unrest. (Cincinnati, pop. 331,000, is 43% black.)
For the first time since the 1920s, residents will vote directly for mayor, the result of a new city charter adopted in 1999. The next mayor will enjoy a legislative veto, a term of four years instead of two and appointment power over committee chairmen. "People are looking forward to having someone take charge," says George Bishop, a political-science professor at the University of Cincinnati. "But there's ambivalence about whether Luken should be that person."
So far, no polls have handicapped the race. Four candidates are running in a Sept. 11 open primary. The candidates who will square off in a Nov. 6 election are expected to be Luken, 50, a Democrat with a $240,000 war chest and backing among the city's Republican business elite (the G.O.P. didn't even field a candidate), and Fuller, 44, the novice choice of the Charter Committee, a local third party.
Both candidates are doing their best to appear gentlemanly. As colleagues at WLWT, they occasionally anchored together. But when they shared the stage last week at a forum sponsored by the AFL-CIO, they sat at opposite ends of a 15-ft.-long table. The amenities of the TV station were gone. The candidates had to speak above the whine of the air conditioner; the microphones squealed.
"I have great respect for Charlie," Fuller said, after gently attacking Luken for mishandling race relations. Fuller recalled the riots' final spark: a city-council meeting on April 9, at which residents shouted for an explanation of the Thomas shooting. Luken walked out as the meeting degenerated into a screaming match. "I would not have walked out," Fuller told the audience of 300. "To walk out, I think, took the lid off the pot." Luken responded that he had left because he had appointments to keep. Within hours, crowds had started rioting.