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View on stadium deal separates Pillich, Reece

Enquirer editorial board
Published 1:37 p.m. ET March 13, 2020

From left: Hamilton County commission candidates Alicia Reece, Connie Pillich and Kelli Prather debate, Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Kresge Auditorium at the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati. (Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)

Three candidates are seeking to succeed long-time Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, who died in January. The person who wins this seat has substantial shoes to fill. Portune always seemed to be more prepared than anyone else and had encyclopedic knowledge of policies and procedures. The winner of this race will take on Republican Andy Black of Indian Hill in the November general election.

The next commissioner will inherit a litany of immediate issues to address, in addition to pushing agendas important to them. This includes the renegotiation of the Bengals lease, handling the construction of a new music venue at The Banks, and ensuring the operation and management of the Metropolitan Sewer District. The latter has been a point of contention for years in Cincinnati, because it is managed by the city and owned by the county.

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The Enquirer’s editorial board spent time with all three candidates to discuss what their policies and approach to governing would be if elected. We also sponsored a debate at the University of Cincinnati, giving us a look at how the three candidates articulate their viewpoints in front of potential voters. Here are some of our insights:

Alicia Reece (Photo: Provided)

Alicia Reece, 48

Strengths: Alicia Reece has a lot of political experience, having served on Cincinnati City Council and in the state Legislature representing District 33. She served three terms on council and four terms in the Statehouse. The Bond Hill native has said she will seek to reduce acrimony between the city and the county. She has pledged to audit the county budget and ensure operational efficiencies. Reece also said she did not approve of the new Bengals stadium deal, renegotiated in 2019. Reece would be a tough negotiator with the Bengals and won’t roll over without a fight. Her commitment to putting any new deal with the team before taxpayers for approval is a plus. Voters can be confident in Reece’s deal-making ability. She worked with former Gov. John Kasich on helping to deliver the MLK exchange on Interstate 71. Reece also worked with Kasich on improving police-community relations in the wake of the deaths of Tamir Rice and John Crawford, two African Americans shot and killed by police in 2014. She participated in a listening tour across, which led to the creation of a Community and Police Collaborative Commission that resulted in the first-ever statewide police use of force standards. After the civil unrest in 2001, Reece had a hand in negotiating Cincinnati’s historic Collaborative Agreement, which led to sweeping reforms in the city’s police department.

Big question: Reece’s political acumen is not in question, and she might have the most name recognition in the race. But will that be enough to overcome her opponent Connie Pillich’s $500,000 campaign warchest? Reece’s ground game and ability to mobilize her voters will be paramount. She also has to be a little concerned that opponent Kelli Prather could peel off just enough African American votes to cost her a close election.

Hamilton County commission candidate Connie Pillich answers a question during a debate hosted by The Enquirer and the University of Cincinnati, Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Kresge Auditorium at the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati. (Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)

Connie Pillich, 59

Strengths: Connie Pillich, of Montgomery, has been endorsed by Portune. Pillich served four terms in the state Legislature representing District 28. She said she would focus on county infrastructure, including supporting the replacement of the crumbling Western Hills Viaduct. Pillich is an Air Force veteran and the former chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. She said she supports the renegotiated Bengals lease, which paved the way to build a music venue beside Paul Brown Stadium, a point of distinction between her and Reece. Pillich’s knowledge and skills as a lawyer could be useful as the county negotiates future deals with the team. Having someone on Hamilton County Commission fluent in legalese would be a bonus. Pillich has touted her support among party veterans as an advantage. But her biggest advantage might well be her campaign coffers, which are filled with over $500,000. That money buys a lot of ads, mailers and commercials to help define her and her opponents. Pillich’s passion for addressing the county’s abysmal infant mortality rate and focus on addressing budget challenges and improving relations with the city of Cincinnati will play well with many voters.

Big question: Pillich should do well with voters in Hamilton County suburbs, but can she win enough votes in the city of Cincinnati to slow down Reece? Pillich has the money advantage, and while it doesn’t guarantee her the win, it’s better to have lots of cash than not. How voters view the most recent deal hammered out between the county and Bengals in 2019, which paved the way for a new music venue, could make a difference for Pillich. If they don’t agree with her that it was a good deal, it could mean trouble on Election Day.

From left: Hamilton County commission candidate Kelli Prather answers a question during a debate hosted by The Enquirer and the University of Cincinnati, Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Kresge Auditorium at the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati. (Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer)

Kelli Prather, 47

Strengths: Kelli Prather’s greatest strength might also be her biggest challenge. Prather represents a fresh face and an alternative to her more establishment opponents in this race. Prather, a local community activist who owns a home health care business, has never held public office, but is very much in touch with every-day, grassroots people throughout the county. Prather wants to bring greater transparency to county government, break down cronyism and open up job opportunities to diverse people. When it comes to the Bengals and their lease with the county, Prather agrees its a bad deal and wants any new deal to come before voters. She has expressed a willingness to put forth tax dollars to help renovate Heritage Bank Arena on the riverfront.

Big questions: Prather has no previous experience in public office, but that’s not necessarily the deterrent for voters that it used to be. But can Hamilton County voters afford to trust the big decisions ahead – MSD, the Bengals lease, The Banks – to a political novice? Prather is known in Cincinnati and throughout the county, primarily for her activism and previous bids for public office. But can she convince voters she is a better choice than her more experienced opponents? That remains to be seen.

Final analysis: Essentially, this primary contest has boiled down to a race between Reece and Pillich, and it looks like it will be close. Voters frustrated with the recent negotiations with the Bengals will see a clear choice for Reece. Likewise, people who think the commission needs a voice representing residents outside the city limits have that in Pillich. On experience, Reece has the edge but Pillich is no novice. It won’t be an easy choice for voters, and that’s a credit to the candidates.

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