Thomas A. Luken, one of the most powerful Cincinnati politicians of the past half century, died on Wednesday. He was 92 years old.
Luken has served as a councilor, mayor, congressman, and chairman of the local Democratic Party in a decades-long career that touched the lives of thousands of people across the country.
He also mentored young politicians, including Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, and raised a son, Charlie Luken, who followed in his footsteps as Cincinnati Mayor and Congressman.
Luken was known for his intelligence, keen political skills, and fiery temper, which could make helpers scurry and colleagues shake their heads. He knew how to make a point and influence the world around him.
“My father was unique,” said Charlie Luken of his father on Wednesday. “He was a fighter. He would argue about the color of the sky, and he knew people in their guts because he was one of them.”
Luken began building his political resume after retiring from the Marine Corps and becoming Deer Park Legal Director in 1956, his first elected position. Once he got a taste of politics, he never looked back.
After serving as a US attorney in the early 1960s, Luken won a seat on the Cincinnati City Council. Within a few years he settled in the mayor’s seat as the council’s top voter.
In his early years on the council, Luken became an advocate of transportation for working people, pushing for an income tax to pay for a publicly run bus system.
He then moved to Congress and won a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1974. He served there for 15 years before returning to a “retirement” that was busier than the careers of most politicians.
He ran again for the council and won. A few years later, he assumed the post of chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and worked hard to cement the party’s dominance in the city offices.
“He served us well,” said councilor David Mann, who has known hatches for decades. “He was the grandfather to so many people in politics.”
Luken was such a force for so long that politicians from both parties got to know him well. Like a heavyweight fighter staying in the ring longer than expected, he crossed paths with generations of politicians – and swords.
During the Congress, Luken defeated staunch Republicans like Norm Murdock and Stan Aronoff, as well as young talent like current GOP MP Steve Chabot. On the city council he served alongside politicians from the old guard like himself and those half his age.
Wherever he went, Luken made an impression. He knew how to sweetly talk voters and negotiate with coworkers to get things done, but he was also known for hammering a table and raising his voice to get a point across.
He attracted attention as he struggled for transportation, budget, and civil rights, not only because he often spoke aloud, but also because he spoke with authority. For example, he rode the Freedom Riders in the early 1960s and was federal prosecutor under the Kennedy administration.
“He’s a star, the great player, the Larry Bird of Council,” said former councilor Tyrone Yates in 1995 about hatches. “He may not always be the most conspicuous, but he always wins.”
Although it often looked like politics was Luke’s life, he was also a family man. He and his wife, Shirley, were married for 70 years and raised eight children together. They have 15 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
His granddaughter Molly Brendamour said Luken and Shirley went on their first date on Wednesday 75 years ago. He took her to the Purcell Marian High School dance.
“He was very warm and loving,” said Brendamour. “His great-grandchildren thought he was a big teddy bear.”
After he officially retired in the late 1990s and vowed to spend more time with “my grandchildren and my suffering wife,” Luken stayed close to the political game and was not afraid to express his opinion.
He was a longtime critic of the city’s tram project, and drew on other hot button topics from time to time. Even though he was out of office, people still listened to him, especially young politicians, trying to learn the ropes.
Mayor Cranley was one of them. He remembered Luken accompanying him to church festivals and bowling alleys during Cranley’s unsuccessful convention run in 2000.
“Nobody knew who I was at the time, but they knew who he was,” said Cranley. “That was very helpful.”
Cranley said Luken was seen by some as a politician and then a policy maker, but he said this is not the man he knows. He said Luken is passionate about helping poor, working people by making sure they can work on a city bus and have access to programs like Head Start and food subsidies.
When some told Cranley to talk to the Conservatives, Luken warned him to do what he believed in.
Walking wasn’t enough, said Luken. He had to run for a reason.
And few ran harder than hatches. Luken has been an almost constant feature of Cincinnati politics for decades.
“He’s forgotten more about politics than most people know,” said Dusty Rhodes, Hamilton County auditor, who lost in a 1976 primary for the House to Hatches. “He was an incredible activist. He knew everyone and everyone knew him.”
Rhodes said Luken earned the respect of friends and foes alike, whether they argued with him or voted for him.
“I don’t think anyone can criticize his service,” he said. “He threw himself in, heart and soul.”
Jason Williams and Monroe Trombly contributed to this report