JIM DeBROSSE
Email: jimdebrosse@gmail.com

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 have volunteered locally and overseas to teach English as a second language.

 

 

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MY LATEST STORIES

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Win, Lose, Draw: Inside Ohio's Redistricting Battle

Ohio Republican lawmakers submitted unconstitutional election maps five different times in order to run out the clock on fair redistricting, and they prevailed. A second primary this month cost taxpayers $20 million.

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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?

What if they held an election and no one showed up? That was going to be the outcome of Ohio’s unprecedented second primary on August 2, warned Republican State Rep. Bill Seitz, whose safely gerrymandered district in conservative western Hamilton County looks like a giant Pac-Man about to devour English Woods.

In addition to the $20 million in taxpayer money being spent for the added primary, Seitz had wanted another $1 million for vote-by-mail request forms to be sent to all registered voters across the state. Without it, he told his fellow legislators in early June, voter turnout during one of Ohio’s most popular vacation periods will be pathetic. “My friends, you are looking at a primary in which you will be lucky to get 2 to 5 percent of the voters coming out.” For their unwillingness to spend the extra dollars to boost turnout, Seitz had nothing but scorn. [Turnout in Hamilton County on August 2 was 8 percent.]

His outrage is hard to justify given that the August primary’s price tag was a direct result of his own party’s delays in adopting a new state legislative map. Or that the new maps approved for both Congressional and General Assembly seats by Ohio’s GOP-dominated redistricting commission were found to be unconstitutionally partisan by the Ohio Supreme Court. Or, perhaps most egregious of all, that the new GOP-imposed maps defy 2015 and 2018 anti-gerrymandering amendments approved by more than 70 percent of Ohio voters.

Despite redistricting reforms that were decades in the making, Ohio Republicans once again succeeded in drawing the legislative maps to their advantage, thanks to months of strategic delays and bad faith negotiations and a timely assist by two Trump-appointed federal judges that enabled the tactics to work.

“We win again,” Seitz replied to a Tweet decrying the federal court ruling posted by David Pepper, former head of the Ohio Democratic Party and his favorite political sparring partner. Seitz went on: “Now I know it’s been a tough night for all you libs. Pour yourself a glass of warm milk and you will sleep better. The game is over and you lost.”

To most Ohioans, fair elections are more than a game, a fact those tasked with redrawing the state’s legislative districts seemed to recognize early in the process. Back in March, the Ohio Redistricting Commission—state House and Senate leaders from both parties, plus Gov. Mike DeWine, Auditor Keith Faber, and Secretary of State Frank LaRose—met for six consecutive days with independent experts to discuss maps that could be approved by the Ohio Supreme Court. The commission’s five Republicans and two Democrats appeared to be focused on compromise, and the process was livestreamed to the public in the name of transparency.

By the end of the meeting on the sixth day, the commission was just hours away from finalizing a map in line with the bipartisan fairness embodied in Ohio’s 2015 constitutional amendment. It had created the seven-person commission as a way to replace the previous system of having state legislators draw maps every 10 years that carved Ohio into a hellish jigsaw puzzle to keep the majority party in power for the next decade, often by slicing through counties, cities, and sometimes even neighborhoods to guarantee safe seats for the party in power.

Fair election activists, some of whom had fought for decades to end Ohio’s increasingly odious gerrymandered representation, were encouraged. The first drafts of Congressional and General Assembly maps had already been struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court as unconstitutional at that point, but the hope was that Republicans were finally absorbing the will of the voters. Could it mean an end to GOP secret meetings with their own data experts? An end to the GOP maps presented to the commission’s Democratic minority as a last-minute fait accompli, then rubber stamped with little discussion by the GOP majority in Columbus?

On March 28, the last day of the court’s deadline for a new map, the charade ended. The Republicans showed up at the commission meeting with a third revised state legislative map not much different from their second revision, again to be shoved down the Democratic members’ throats. In throwing out this map as well in an April 14 ruling, a 4–3 majority of the Ohio Supreme Court found “intent of partisan favoritism from the timeline that led to the commission’s decision to scrap the work of the independent map drawers in favor of a plan that included minimal changes to one already invalidated as unconstitutional.”

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.