Cincinnati — Grass Roots Effort Saves Streetcar
USA Today published a full analysis by a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter of the citizens' effort that saved the Cincinnati streetcar project after newly elected Mayor John Cranley tried to kill it. The following is the article:
The Cincinnati Enquirer
December 26, 2013
Activists had 6 weeks before a deadline to restart the project or lose federal money
CINCINNATI — A groundswell of citizen support rose from nowhere in just six weeks to fight City Hall and save this city's streetcar project. The grass-roots group Believe in Cincinnati was born Nov. 9 in the living room of sales executive Ryan Messer, the Saturday after voters elected an anti-streetcar mayor and City Council.
Its campaign ended Dec. 19 at City Hall with a veto-proof 6-3 council vote, hours before a federal deadline, to restart construction on the $133 million project. "It was so well organized, well executed and well populated," said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier University professor who has tracked local politics for 35 years.
"I've never seen (a movement) that effective in terms of every aspect."
Two new council members who won by campaigning against the 3.6-mile, $133 million streetcar project, Kevin Flynn and David Mann, changed their votes following a written commitment from the Haile Foundation early that afternoon.
The guarantee: Unnamed private sources would cover up to $900,000 of an estimated $3.5 million in annual operating costs for the first 10 years.
In between Nov. 9 and Dec. 19, Messer, a political unknown who had never set foot in City Council chambers before, put together a loose-knit leadership team that harnessed the energy of more than 1,000 Cincinnati residents upset about the possibility of canceling the 21st century incarnation of what had been a commonplace mode of transportation here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The original streetcar system was dismantled in 1951. "We decided we had two choices — spend the rest of our lives frustrated that the streetcar went the way of the subway or organize what we believed to be a large group of Cincinnatians who were sympathetic to our passion for the streetcar," Messer said via e-mail.
After being halted Dec. 4, streetcar construction will restart Friday, following two loads of rail that were delivered Thursday.
Numbers surpassed all expectations
Mayor John Cranley, who opposed the streetcar, declined to comment.
But Chris Finney, lawyer for the anti-streetcar group COAST, applauded Believe in Cincinnati's effort. "They used many of the same techniques we used very effectively," Finney said. "What concerns us is when people get despondent and stay home and don't engage. There's nothing better than citizen activists rising up."
The save-the-streetcar movement caught fire quickly.
As word spread on social media, people had to be turned away from the group's first meeting in a space that holds more than 400 people. "It was really the power of all the citizens that came together. We just gave them the platform," said Sean Lee, a Believe in Cincinnati leader.
The group kept the heat on Cincinnati City Council in three key ways:
- Speaking up in large numbers at council meetings, in calls, through e-mails, and especially at a Dec. 1 rally of about 1,000 people along the streetcar route in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine just north of downtown.
- Gathering 11,300 signatures in eight days for a charter amendment to restart the streetcar.
- Assisting behind the scenes in securing private commitments to help pay for streetcar operations.
The plan wasn't laid out on Day 1, though; it developed organically in response to fast-moving events.
That was also true of the movement itself.
After the initial meeting at Messer's house, leadership meetings continued daily at different homes.
"The core team was formed by the people who showed up every night," Lee said.
Messer, a sales manager with Johnson & Johnson, was the natural leader. "Ryan really has a gift with being able to simply and quickly deliver the message track with a smile on his face and answer questions on the fly," Lee said.
The aim was to make the message apolitical, focusing on the cost to cancel vs. the cost to complete — the primary question the council members who wanted to cancel the project had raised.
Putting all the right people in key roles
The effort didn't lack political savvy.
One key to that was lawyer Paul De Marco, Messer's former neighbor.
De Marco joined the movement out of personal interest, but with experience in law and politics he soon became the official Believe in Cincinnati lawyer.
De Marco also brought aboard the Strategy Network, a Columbus-based company that helps organize ballot initiatives.
With donations pouring in, Believe was able to hire the Strategy Network to organize a petition drive.
Believe in Cincinnati initially hoped for a referendum on the ordinance to stop streetcar construction, which could have kept the project going until the November 2014 election.
City Council removed that option by including appropriations on the 11 ordinances passed, a technicality that meant construction stopped immediately.
Plan B was the petition drive for a charter amendment.
It was an iffy option because the Federal Transit Administration said it would pull its $45 million if it didn't have a commitment to restart construction by Dec. 19, and a vote on a charter amendment likely would take several months.
Still, Messer said it was the only option available while continuing to lobby swing votes Flynn and Mann.
Strategy Network CEO Ian James advised the group to tap into its supporters to collect the signatures, and they delivered.
Some 500 attended petition training Dec. 10, and a total of 1,400 collected 11,300 signatures in a little more than a week.
"We've never seen that outpouring of civic participation from volunteers," said James, whose company has helped collect more than 4 million signatures for local and statewide efforts. "It was miraculous, especially given the time of year." The petition drive and the Dec. 1 rally put some numbers to the mainly pro-streetcar voices that politicians were hearing in council meetings, via phone and e-mail.
Four days before the final vote, supporters were clearly moving one of the anti-streetcar councilmen. "I am very impressed by the intensity of the support and the number of people," Mann told The Enquirer. "That gives me some optimism that, one way or another, the streetcar will work."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, De Marco connected fellow lawyer Flynn — a longtime acquaintance — with the Haile Foundation and assisted in negotiations to help cover operating costs.
Those costs became the main sticking point for Flynn, and pressure mounted when the new mayor said he wouldn't stop the streetcar if supporters could get $80 million committed for operations.
Haile couldn't come up with $80 million, but the morning of Dec. 19, the foundation offered Flynn $9 million, and he accepted.
Fresh off the streetcar victory, those involved with the movement are talking about where Believe in Cincinnati and its leader might go next.
Some have called on Messer to run for an office higher than his current role as vice president of the Over-the-Rhine Community Council.
Before joining Johnson & Johnson in 1998, he worked for former Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh, and he isn't ruling out a future political run.
As for the group, it will reconvene in January and also meet with business and community leaders to discuss next steps. "There's a reason we called ourselves 'Believe in Cincinnati' versus 'Believe in the Streetcar,'" Messer said.
"A group with such diverse backgrounds and experiences — we must capture this and begin to address other pressing needs in the community."