A quiet mayor's race grew louder Tuesday night.
The two Democrats running for mayor, Cincinnati Councilman David Mann and Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, went after each other in the debate held at Xavier University and sponsored by the university, The Enquirer and WVXU-FM (91.7).
It was their first debate and first time in an otherwise low-key race the public saw Pureval and Mann spar with each other.
Mann went on the offensive first.
Early in the hourlong debate, Mann belittled Pureval's job as Hamilton County clerk of courts. With a budget of $13 million, Mann described the office as just keeping track of papers and "not terribly important," compared with the job of mayor and city councilman of Cincinnati, overseeing a budget of $1.5 billion and 6,000 employees.
"So sometimes it seems to me like the clerk is over here saying, 'Look, I've flown a kite and now it's time for me to take the controls of a 747,' except we're all passengers," Mann said. "I don't think that's the direction we should end up."
Pureval earlier in the debate said he thinks he knows why Mann is going negative.
"I know your Republican supporters have convinced you in order to make this race competitive you have to tear me down," Pureval said. "But that’s what people are tired of."
Mann, 81, is a former mayor pitching his experience and steady hand for why he should lead the city in the wake of corruption scandals at City Hall, which have not implicated him, but have landed several of his colleagues in legal trouble.
Pureval, 39, is campaigning as a newcomer who can clean up city government.
Mann tried to hammer home his experience and his opponent's lack thereof.
Mann criticized Pureval for firing 15 people in the clerk of courts office after he won election in 2016. Mann said he fired them because they were Republican.
Pureval said got he rid of corruption in the office and put an "end to the good ol’ boys club in that courthouse, and I have nothing to apologize for."
Candidates address what foes may say
The candidates early in the debate cleared the air on questions that have dogged their campaigns.
The first question directed at Mann was his age. Is 81 too old?
No, he said. First, Mann said he's healthy. And he has genetics on his side. His mother lived to 103 and his father to 95, he said. Second, due to term limits, the next council will have youth and inexperience, Mann said.
"We need someone who understands how City Hall operates," Mann said. "And I do. I'm proud of my service."
For Pureval, this is his fourth campaign in five years and third office he's sought since 2016. He ran for Congress in 2018, losing to Rep. Steve Chabot. Is the mayor's office just a stepping stone?
"If I’m lucky enough to be elected the next mayor of Cincinnati, it will be the most important thing I ever do, period," Pureval said.
Police issues cause tension
Both candidates agreed on many issues, such as corruption being a problem at City Hall and climate change as being a serious issue. But when the subject of police came up, the candidates didn't see eye-to-eye.
Mann accused Pureval of insulting the police. The Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police, the police union, has endorsed Mann.
"We do not serve our community well by saying our officers are the problem," Mann said. "And Mr. Aftab's campaign materials are filled with the proposition something has to be done to make Cincinnati safe from the police for its citizen."
Pureval said his plans do nothing of the sort. He called Mann "confused."
"I think what is irresponsible is lying," Pureval told Mann.
The testy exchange was in response to Pureval's answer to the question of how he'd fund the Collaborative Agreement, which governs police and community relations in the city. The agreement was reached in the wake of the police shooting of Timothy Thomas and the 2001 civil unrest that followed.
Pureval said he'd fund it by making the police department more efficient. That efficiency would come by not sending police on runs better served by mental health professionals, Pureval said.
"I think it's more about using our resources to address the violent crime in our community and not using police officers for services they are not needed for," Pureval said.
Mann said that's not realistic. Expecting a 911 operator to discern which situations require mental health experts and which require police response could create further problems.
"Based on that 911 operator, we're going to make a determination that an armed officer is not needed?" Mann said. "I don't think that makes sense."
Then the subject of a combative budget meeting last summer came up. Mann, chair of the City Council Budget Committee, adjourned a meeting in June 2020 during the protests in the wake of the death by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Mann ended the meeting when the crowd started booing and shouting at a person speaking on behalf of police.
Mann said the meeting got out of control and there was a concern for safety.
"Folks were throwing things," Mann said. "Someone came into the room with a bullhorn. People stopped listening to each other. As chair of the committee, I thought there was a real concern for safety."
Pureval wasn't swayed. He said Mann turned his back on a Black Lives Matter rally. Then he referenced how Mann's two staffers quit in the wake of that meeting.
"The very next day your two staffers decided to quit in disgust," Pureval said. "I don’t know how you expect to lead the city when you can’t lead your two staffers."
Candidates differ on city manager, earnings tax
The subject of the city manager also separated the two candidates. Mann would keep the current city manager, Paula Boggs Muething. Pureval wouldn't commit to that either way.
"She’s doing a great job," Mann said. “If I’m fortunate enough to be elected, she’ll continue as city manager as long as she performs properly.”
Pureval said he would conduct a nationwide search for a city manager. Maybe Boggs Muething would remain. But that would be decided after the search.
"I’m looking for a city manager that buys into the bold vision we’ve laid out in our various plans," Pureval said.
Pureval and Mann also disagreed on whether to raise the city's earning's tax, which taxes anyone who lives or works in the city limits 1.8% of their earnings.
Mann opposes raising the tax. Pureval said he is undecided. He’s concerned the number of remote workers in the pandemic and the possibility they could ask for a refund could decimate city services. He called it an existential threat.
“Any kind of commitment on the earnings tax before we have a better sense of what the economy looks like, what our budget looks like post-pandemic, is completely irresponsible,” Pureval said.
“Coming off a pandemic is not the time to talk about raising the earnings tax,” he said.
Enquirer Opinion Editor Kevin Aldridge moderated the debate, and the candidates were questioned by a panel consisting of representatives from The Enquirer, WVXU and Xavier University.