Connected: The Unique Ties of Cincinnati’s Mayoral Race
Forecasting election outcomes can be tricky business, but here’s one prediction guaranteed to come true: The next mayor of Cincinnati will have strong ties to UC Law.
That’s because among the three leading candidates in 2017’s mayoral race, two are UC Law graduates, and one cofounded a major UC Law initiative.
Incumbent John Cranley, who’s running for a second term as mayor, helped start the Ohio Innocence Project at UC Law in 2003, serving as administrative director until 2006. Candidate Yvette Simpson, currently in her second term as a city councilwoman, received her JD at UC in 2004. Former candidate Rob Richardson Jr., who recently completed a nine-year stint on UC’s Board of Trustees, graduated from UC Law in 2005.
Cranley, Richardson, and Simpson faced off in a primary election on May 2. The top two vote-getters—Cranley and Simpson—will now compete in the Nov. 7 general election.
Besides their UC Law connection, the three mayoral candidates shared many other things in common. They’re all lawyers, Democrats, and natives of Cincinnati. They also hold similar views on core civic issues, such as improving public transit, helping families get out of poverty, and partnering with regional institutions such as the University of Cincinnati. Yet each followed a unique path to UC Law, and eventually to this three-way race for mayor.
Going to UC might have seemed like a no-brainer for Richardson, whose parents, aunt, and sisters all attended the school. But his struggles with learning disabilities as a young student made the path to higher education seem less than certain.
“I wasn't a kid that naturally got school. I struggled pretty early on,” he recalled. “Because of that, and because I was probably bored by school, I didn't do as well taking the tests. That pretty much ruled out college for me.” One conversation with a teacher particularly discouraged Richardson as an eighth-grade student. “I told her I wanted to prepare for college. She told me, ‘Why? You’re not going to do that. You’re going to fail.’ That's a crushing conversation to have.”
Fortunately, Richardson’s mother countered his teacher’s message with these words of encouragement for her son: “People are going to have lower expectations of you. Some because you're an African American man, too. Don't let yourself be defined by anybody's narrow expectations. You define yourself for yourself, by yourself.”
Richardson eventually studied electrical engineering at UC, earning his B.S. degree in 2002. At that point, he knew he didn’t want to pursue a career as an engineer, though he had learned a great deal about solving problems. He decided law school was his next logical step, because “legal training teaches you how to identify problems, how to look at them from multiple sides,” he explained. “If you're going to be in public office, it helps to understand how policy, how the law works, and then you can change it.”
Soon after earning his JD, Richardson was appointed to the UC Board of Trustees, where he recently led the search for the 30th President, Dr. Neville Pinto, and advocated for systemic, top-down reforms to UC police policy following the killing of Samuel Dubose. Currently, he’s a marketing construction representative, and serves as Of Counsel with the law firm Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, specializing in labor and employment and securities litigation
In his first run for political office, Richardson hoped to take a fresh approach to governing the city. “We know that the best ideas often come from the people and places that have been ignored by the power brokers in City Hall,” he said. “It’s our responsibility, as leaders in our city, to be stewards and partners in innovation, inclusion, and creativity.”
Simpson’s journey began at the age of eight, when she pulled a book from the library shelf. Of all the titles in the “when I grow up” series, she chose the one about growing up to be a lawyer. Pictured on the cover, she recalled, was a man arguing his case before a judge. “And I said: ‘That’s gonna be me, except I’ll be wearing a skirt.’”
Simpson’s grandmother and other mentors encouraged her to stick with her dream, even as the young girl’s family struggled to make ends meet and many friends and family members dropped out of school or fell prey to criminal activity. She ended up with a full scholarship to Miami University, where she became the first in her family to graduate from college.
She made her younger self “very proud” by earning her law degree at UC. As a student, Simpson co-chaired the Student Legal Education Committee, was an executive member of the Moot Court board (and was inducted to the Order of the Barristers), served on the honor council, was a senior articles editor for the Human Rights Quarterly, and worked as an associate with both Baker & Hostetler LLP and Frost Brown Todd LLC.
Having gotten “a taste of leadership and involvement” at UC, Simpson said, “I loved it.” Just a few years later, in 2011, she was elected to City Council. Now she hopes to become the first African-American woman mayor in the city's history.
The classic novel that inspired Cranley to become a lawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, centers around an attorney who helps free an innocent man. Years later, while working as a lawyer and serving on Cincinnati City Council, Cranley wanted to bring that kind of legal heroism to Cincinnati.
“I’d seen these Innocence Projects pop up in other states and I saw that there was none in Ohio and it would be great for UC,” Cranley said. He and his friend Professor Mark Godsey founded the Ohio Innocence Project at UC Law. Cranley ran the organization for its first few years. In one case, he successfully argued before the Ohio Court of Appeals, Fifth Appellate District to overturn Christopher Lee Bennett’s conviction of aggravated vehicular homicide.
Today, OIP is known as one of the most active and successful Innocence Projects in the world, and to date has secured the release of 25 individuals on grounds of innocence who together served more than 450 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
“It’s an amazing success story,” Cranley said. “There’s no question that it gets back to the tradition of wanting to see the world better and to deal with injustices and build a more just society.” He took office as mayor of Cincinnati in December 2013, and hopes to be re-elected for a second term this fall.
By: Susan Wenner Jackson
Published: June 1, 2017