So how did Cincinnati end up with the council-manager form of government, where a professional city manager runs the day-to-day operations and a nine-member council sets policy?
It was a case of political bossism gone haywire in the 1920s that pushed Cincinnati into this relatively new, clean and efficient form of government – one that had little hint of scandal or corruption until 2020, when no less than three council members were indicted on federal corruption charges.
There was a period for over 40 years in the late 19th century and early 20th century when many of Cincinnati’s citizens seemed willing to close their eyes and pretend they didn’t see the corruption of the city’s Republican political bosses.
As long as the bosses – be it the original, George B. “Boss” Cox or his successor, Rudolph Hynicka – delivered the city services they expected, they could, and did, live with politicians lining their own pockets.
It was when the boss system fell apart and was revealed to be not only corrupt but incompetent that Cincinnatians were ready for change.
Here’s how it played out:
George B. Cox was the son of British immigrants and was born in Cincinnati in 1853.
His father died when he was a young child. In order to support his widowed mother and his younger siblings, he had to go to work at the tender age of 8.
It was an experience that meant young George didn’t remain tender for long.
Throughout the Civil War years, the boy worked a variety of jobs – butcher, bootblack, delivery boy and in a gambling parlor.
Eventually, the young man had saved up enough money to buy a saloon in the West End, a rowdy joint in an area known as “Dead Man’s Corner.” It was a neighborhood so full of murder and mayhem that even the police and firefighters rarely went into it, fearing for their lives.
Cox ran a bookmaking operation out of the saloon. His joint was repeatedly raided by the local authorities. It wasn’t because he was running an illegal operation. It was because Cincinnati, at that time, was a city controlled by Democrats and Cox was well-known to be a Republican.
People were getting tired of corrupt Democrats running the city and, in 1877, at the age of 24, Cox ran for and won the West End ward’s council seat.
Cox became well-known and well-liked by the common folk of Cincinnati, particularly to the city’s German and Irish immigrants. His fame and power grew quickly, and by the 1880s, he was clearly the most powerful person in Cincinnati, despite stepping down from council after only two terms.
“There were a lot of the city’s elites, including many Republicans, who had no use for Cox because he catered to what they considered the lower classes of Cincinnati,” said David Stradling, the Zane L. Miller Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati.
Stradling’s chair in the history department is named after his mentor, the late Zane Miller, considered the preeminent authority on the Boss Cox era.
“In a lot of ways, those elites were jealous of Cox’s power,” Stradling said. “They wished they had that kind of influence.”
As popular as he was, Cox didn’t accumulate the power he had in Cincinnati by being a choir boy.
He would pay off government leaders and he recruited people he thought could help him with gifts and bribes. There was also talk of voter fraud orchestrated by Cox.
Cox amassed a fortune and began buying up more saloons and theaters, some of which were turned into burlesque houses. That did nothing to endear him to the city’s elites. Neither did the fact that he bought a mansion in Clifton – which still exists – and ended up living among them.
He answered his critics in a letter to the Cincinnati Post:
I am the boss of Cincinnati. I never dodged that statement in my life. I’ve got the best system of government in the country. If I didn’t think the system was the best, I would consider that I was a failure in life.
By the early 20th century, though, with newspapers around the country calling Cincinnati “the most corrupt city in the country” (a major exaggeration), there were signs that Cox was losing his grip on the city.
Later, in 1911, Cox was charged with perjury. Knowing how much damage that could do to the Republican Party, he gave up the chairmanship of the party’s central committee and retired from politics.
Five years later, Boss Cox died of a stroke.
The political machine lived on though. It was left in the hands of one of Cox’s chief lieutenants, Rudolph “Rud” Hynicka, whose incompetence and corruption drove it into the ground in the 1920s, and brought about the creation of the council-manager form of government.
Cincinnati’s Absentee Political Boss
For a political boss, being corrupt is one thing. It comes with the territory. Being corrupt and incompetent – well, that is a very bad combination and it describes Hynicka’s “leadership” of Cincinnati’s Republican machine to a tee.
Rudolph Kelker Hynicka – known to all as “Rud” – was born in July 1859 in the Amish Country of Pennsylvania.
He moved to Cincinnati in the 1880s and became a cub reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer. In those days, journalists from all of the city’s many newspapers were involved in politics in one way or another, and Hynicka was no exception. In the 1890s, he was elected police clerk and became the Republican captain of Cincinnati’s 9th ward.
Hynicka switched his allegiance from George Moerlein, the brewer and rival to Boss Cox, and went to work for Cox maintaining his voter card file.
This was an important job in the Cox machine. The cards listed records on every voter in Cincinnati – every last one – with information on where they worked, what church they attended and any dirt on the voters the Cox people had dug up that could be used to “persuade” them to support the machine.
It made Hynicka a very powerful man in the Cox era.
He ended up heading the party’s Central Committee and controlled the awarding of about 2,000 patronage jobs – to loyal Cox supporters, of course.
In the 1890s, things were rolling along quite smoothly for Cox and his two chief lieutenants – Hynicka and Garry Hermann, a gregarious, larger-than-life political operative who ended up as president of the Cincinnati Reds and, for a while, the de facto commissioner of baseball, at a time before there was such a position.
But the first hint of trouble to come for the Cox machine was in 1897, when they lost the mayoral race to Democrat Gustav Tafel, who had vowed to clean up the city. One thing that came out after Tafel was elected was that Hynicka had used his office as clerk of police court to take an enormous amount of money in bribes.
By 1911, with Cox facing a perjury trial (he beat the rap), the machine was in disarray. Cox announced his was retiring from politics and died of a stroke in 1916 – eight years before Cincinnatians voted to adopt the council-manager form of government.
Hynicka said in 1912 he was retiring from politics, although it was not true. He inherited the leadership of the Hamilton County Republican Party’s executive and central committees and held on to power until 1926, after the city had adopted its current form of government.
But if Hynicka was Cincinnati’s political boss, he was a very distracted one indeed.
In 1910, he became involved in the theater business, and ended up owning a chain of burlesque theaters. After Cox’s death, he bought his late boss’s interest in theaters in New York.
He spent as much time, if not more, in New York as he did in Cincinnati.
As the world rolled into the “Roaring Twenties,” Hynicka’s political machine had begun dying on the vine.
He and his lieutenants back in Cincinnati began passing out contracts for city services to political cronies like candy. And, in many cases, instead of providing the services they were contracted to perform, the cronies pocketed the money and laughed all the way to the bank.
City services were falling apart, the city was nearly bankrupt, and it was becoming clear that more and more Cincinnatians believed that “absentee bossism” was not the way to go into the future.
Corrupt and incompetent is a very bad formula for running a city.
Enter the Charter reform movement.
The Charter Committee And The Coming Of The Council-Manager Government
Cincinnati voters for generations now have become used to a nine-member city council, elected on a non-partisan ballot.
But imagine this:
In the 12 years prior to the adoption of the council-manager form of government, Cincinnati had a 32-member city council – one elected from each of the city’s 26 wards and six elected at-large. All but one of them were Republicans.
They were an assemblage made of mostly of saloon keepers and political hacks.
The real power in the city was in the hands of Hynicka and his Republican Central Committee.
Reform-minded Republicans, mostly members of the party’s executive and advisory committee, formed the Cincinnatus Association. In 1923, a young Republican lawyer named Murray Seasongood became its leader.
The Cincinnatus Association gave birth to the “Birdless Ballot League.” That may sound like a silly name for a political organization today, but, in the 1920s it had an instantly recognizable meaning. It referred to the use of a Republican eagle and a Democratic rooster on the ballot as party symbols, for the aid of the illiterate or immigrants who could not read English.
In 1924, the Birdless Ballot League joined with other reformers, including Democrats, to create the Charter Committee, which was successful in convincing Cincinnati voters that it was time for a radical change and a break with the Boss system.
The new municipal charter adopted in 1925 abolished the mayor-council system and replaced it with a council-manger form of government, along with a civil service system to replace political patronage.
Cincinnati was one of the first cities to adopt this new form of government, but not the first. Up the road, Dayton went to a city manager form of government shortly after the 1913 flood. It was felt in Dayton that the job of rebuilding a city devasted by the flood needed professional management and shouldn’t be left to politicians.
So what did the new form of government mean?
First of all, it meant the size of city council shrunk from 32 to nine members. Those nine would be chosen every two years in a non-partisan election. No party designations would appear on the ballot – although the political parties, including the Charter Committee, have been informally endorsing slates of candidates ever since.
Council was elected in a proportional representation (PR) system, where voters ranked their nine choices for council in order of preference. A threshold of first-place votes was set for election to council and voters were distributed over and over again until nine candidates reached the threshold.
It was a rather complicated system and sometimes took days to complete the counting, but it worked.
It worked that way until 1957 when the Republican Party, fearing that PR would lead to the election of a Black mayor, Charterite Theodore M. Berry convinced Cincinnati voters to get rid of PR for a “9-X” system, where voters simply picked up to nine candidates and the top nine finishers won council seats.
Marian Spencer, a Charterite who became Cincinnati’s first Black woman to serve on council in 1983, argued strongly for a return to PR until her death in July 2019.
“Yes, it is complicated and it can be hard to understand,” Spencer said often. “But it is like your TV set. You don’t know how it works, but it does.”
Democrats and Republicans ran on the Charter ticket in the first election under the new system, and Charter-backed candidates were elected to six of the nine seats on council. And, under the new system, council chose the mayor and Seasongood became the first Charterite mayor. The way Cincinnati’s mayor was chosen changed in the late ’80s: the top vote-getter in the council election became mayor. Then in 1999, voters approved a charter amendment for the direct election of a mayor, the system we have now. Regardless, it is still a council-manager form of government.
Unlike many reform movements, the Charter Committee did not fade away once it had accomplished its goal.
Charter’s influence in city politics has had many peaks and valleys in the decades since 1925 but it has remained on the scene in Cincinnati politics as a self-described watchdog of “good government.”
In a little over a year, no less than four city council members – Democrats Tamaya Dennard, P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young and Republican Jeff Pastor have been charged with public corruption charges.
That’s four more than were indicted in the prior 95-year history of council-manager government.
In 2021, a city council election year, the Charter Committee sees the perception of a “culture of corruption” at City Hall as an opportunity to elect more of its “good government” candidates to council.
Matt Woods, the current Charter president, says the time is ripe for a resurgence of Charter.
“The city has awoken,” Woods told WVXU. “We want to be the answer. We want to get back to good governance.”
The “Trust In Local Government: WVXU’s Public Integrity Project” examines Cincinnati politics and the individuals who shaped it. Read more here. Support for this project comes from The Murray and Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation.