I'm the author of five books, a contributing writer for Cincinnati Magazine, and an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist who retired in 2018 from teaching journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I'm the former Project Editor of Ohio Civics Essential, a monthly series of stories aimed at educating voters in civics knowledge and engagement. As part of my commitment to social justice, I co-founded a news website devoted to workplace fairness and equal opportunity, "Cincinnatians for the American Dream." I live in Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and volunteer as an English teacher for immigrants through Catholic Charities.
MY LATEST STORIES
The GOP Strategy Behind Ohio's Redistricting Fiasco
Republican lawmakers purposefully submitted gerrymandered election maps four different times in order to run out the clock on fair elections in 2022. Now we’ll have to pay up to $25 million to hold two primaries.
Cincinnatians rarely pay attention to what happens 100 miles up I-71 in Columbus unless, of course, it involves a Buckeyes football game or a matchup between the cities’ professional soccer teams for the “Hell Is Real” trophy. But local residents who haven’t kept an eye on what’s been happening with the Ohio Redistricting Commission in Columbus are missing a “hell is real” battle of historic proportions—a political and legal donnybrook over drawing the state’s new legislative and congressional district maps that could leave its constitution in tatters.
The stakes are far more serious than sports bar bragging rights. The outcome will determine whether Ohio voters have a real say in deciding who represents them in the Statehouse and in Congress or whether they’ll continue to waste their votes in heavily-gerrymandered “safe” partisan districts.
For the last 10 years, gerrymandering in Ohio has guaranteed seats for a super majority of Republican legislators under pressure to please the more extreme party members who vote in primaries, rather than serve the broader interest of all Ohioans if they had to run in competitive general elections, says David Pepper, former head of the Ohio Democratic Party. Pepper recently published The Laboratories of Autocracy (St. Helena Press), a book on the dangers of gerrymandering and voter suppression in statehouses across the nation. “In a robust democracy of competitive districts, when you face re-election, you want to push forward ideas that are generally popular and to work with the other side to pass legislation,” he says. “And you don’t want to be corrupt, or you won’t be re-elected. All of those incentives in Ohio have been turned upside down.”
The result of a decade of slam-dunk wins for Ohio’s Republican legislators, Pepper says, has been a downgrading of Ohio’s education system and infrastructure and an upsurge in statehouse corruption. Recent examples include the 2018 resignation of House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger for accepting overseas vacations from payday lending lobbyists, the 2021 expulsion of House Speaker Larry Householder on racketeering charges, and the ongoing investigation into the $61-million FirstEnergy bribery scandal, the largest in the state’s history.
Gerrymandering also has led to a flurry of state legislative actions once considered too extreme for Ohioans. In recent years, those include a ban on abortion after six weeks and criminal penalties for doctors who perform them, an override of Gov. Mike DeWine’s mask mandate during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an ollie-ollie-oxen-free call for anyone in Ohio who wants to carry a concealed gun—no permit or training required. At the Congressional level, five of Ohio’s Republican U.S. Representatives, including Steve Chabot of Cincinnati and Warren Davidson of West Chester, voted last year to overturn the results of a free and fair election for president.
Phil Heimlich, a moderate Republican challenging Davidson in Ohio’s 8th Congressional District, agrees in principle with Pepper. “The situation we have now, where over 90 percent of congressional districts are non-competitive in the general election, is a terrible thing for democracy,” says Heimlich. “It produces extremism on both sides, because the only competition that either side faces is in the primary. And it’s not just a Republican thing. It depends on the state. In New York, the Democrats are doing the same thing.”
Monument to Shame
The Brent Spence Bridge’s traffic chokehold has taken a back seat to political cowardice and misplaced priorities for decades. Will the federal infrastructure bill finally bail out regional leaders who fiddled while the bridge burned?
The skies over Northern Kentucky were unleashing a chilly downpour on November 11, 2020, as Mansour Thiam drove his International semi north on Interstate 71/75 toward downtown Cincinnati and the Brent Spence Bridge. Traffic was mercifully light at 2:30 in the morning, though it backed up short of the Radisson Hotel in Covington.
Another semi had jackknifed on the slippery road and was disabled in the breakdown lane. Diesel fuel from the truck had sloshed across the highway. Thiam was careful crossing the oily slick, then joined the renewed flow of traffic as he continued north in the middle lane.
As he entered the lower deck of the bridge and its notoriously dark and narrow lanes, Thiam could feel his trailer begin to fishtail behind him into the far left lane. That’s where truck driver Raul Herrera happened to be rolling by in his Freightliner with a load of potassium hydroxide, a highly corrosive chemical. Even if Herrera had seen Thiam coming, he couldn’t have avoided the swerving trailer. A foot to his rig’s left was a concrete barrier and then an 80-foot plunge into the Ohio River below.
The first of Herrera’s double trailers collided with the back of Thiam’s load, and the two semis careened into a massive, tangled heap that ignited one or both of their fuel tanks and blocked all four lanes of the northbound deck. Miraculously, both truck drivers exited their cabs without serious injuries, but Herrera was in such shock he didn’t see that his rig was on fire. Thiam had to tell him to get clear as the blaze worked its way back toward his load of potassium hydroxide.
Other drivers entering the bridge, including a truck hauling a load of fuel, came to a stop as Herrera’s load caught fire and fed the blaze into a brilliant inferno. The flames spread out over the roofline of the bridge’s southbound upper deck, 15 feet above, burning at temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to compromise the strength of steel beams.
Covington police arrived five minutes later but couldn’t get close enough to see if anyone was trapped or injured. The heat was so intense it set their uniforms ablaze, says Covington Police Specialist Joseph Gier, who reviewed the accident report.
Covington fire crews arrived soon after but held off taking any action after spotting the HAZMAT label on Herrera’s trailer. Speeding over the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, Cincinnati firefighters joined the Covington crews already stationed on the Kentucky shore. When the chemical in Herrera’s load was identified, water boats were called to the scene with fire-suppressing foam. But their hoses weren’t powerful enough to reach the fire.
While the blaze continued unabated, motorists stuck on the lower deck of the bridge were directed to back up and turn around to the Fourth Street exit in Covington. Truck drivers were told to abandon their rigs so police could drive them to the nearest exits. Eventually, firefighters were able to reach the blaze by lugging hundreds of feet of hosing up an aerial ladder from the shore. The fire took almost two hours to extinguish.
The early morning nightmare could have been far worse. What if the accident had occurred at 2:45 p.m. rather than 2:45 a.m.? What if the truck drivers hadn’t been able to exit their cabs? What if the fire had reached the trapped semi with its load of fuel? And what if the earlier truck accident hadn’t slowed traffic as it entered the bridge?
The lesson from that near-tragedy a year ago is this: The Brent Spence Bridge is unsafe at any speed and has been for decades while local, state, and national leaders have done little to remedy the problem. From the moment the bridge opened a few days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, the three-lane, double-decker design was already on its way to being “structurally obsolete”—engineer-speak for inadequate to handle the flow of traffic, then 80,000 vehicles per day. Traffic from Interstate 71 was added to the bridge in both directions in 1970 with no additional lanes to handle the flow.
By 1985, congestion on what area residents were now calling the “Car-Strangled Spanner” had become such a bottleneck that traffic engineers were forced to eliminate its breakdown lanes and squeeze out a foot of width from each lane in order to create a fourth in both directions. With an average of 172,000 vehicles per day now crossing the bridge, more than twice what it was designed for, the results have been calamitous. The bridge corridor has an accident rate three to five times higher than the rest of the Ohio and Kentucky interstate systems. Each year, 650 calls for help are made by motorists stranded there, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.