My Soapbox: P.G. Sittenfeld, Cincinnati City Council

It’s a new year, always a good time to take stock of the previous 12 months and look ahead to the future. If there’s one individual in Cincinnati right now who embodies this transition from past success to future potential, it has to be City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.

For those in need of a brief refresher, Sittenfeld was born and raised in Cincinnati, graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University and was awarded a Marshall Scholarship for graduate study at Oxford University. Returning to Cincinnati as Assistant Director of the Community Learning Center Institute, he ran for Council in 2011 and, at age 27, became the youngest person elected to the body to date. Two years later he won re-election as Council’s top vote-getter. Serving as chair of the city’s Education and Entrepreneurship Committee as well as on Budget & Finance Committee and Major Transportation & Regional Cooperation Committee, he has his finger on the pulse of the defining trends in Cincinnati today.

Who better than Sittenfeld, then, to discuss Cincinnati’s past, present and future as the calendar turns to 2015? Our discussion touched on the big issues facing Cincinnati, expectations for the new year and his political aspirations and personal goals.

During a recent press conference announcing the $13 million in venture capital and investor funding received by Everything But The House, you were quoted saying, “We are no longer dreaming about the city we want to be, we are becoming that city.” Can you discuss what has transpired in 2014 to get Cincinnati to that point?

Cincinnati's momentum right now is undeniable and very exciting. Consider the proof of progress: attracting a couple thousand GE jobs Downtown; building a new office tower for Dunnhumby as they continue to grow; balancing the city's budget; making strategic investments in many of our neighborhoods; partnering with our burgeoning start-up community; putting more cops on our streets; earning the Human Rights Campaign's highest rating as an LGBT-friendly city; putting on another electric Lumenocity; and so much more. We should feel proud of the community that we're building together.

As a follow up, what does the city need to do to build on that momentum in 2015?

I think we need to make sure we keep going in the direction that we're going. I'm the chair of the council committee that oversees education, entrepreneurship and environmental sustainability, so I'm certainly eager for progress in those specific areas. My own efforts and energy will continue to go toward things like partnering with our school system to provide pathways of opportunity for every child in our community; facilitating investment in a modern, clean-energy economy that supports sustainability; and partnering with our start-up community so that Cincinnati continues to launch and grow great businesses.
Can you discuss your view that the paradigm for job attraction is shifting from people going to jobs to jobs going to where people want to live? Certainly was a big theme in the city’s story in 2014.

The ability to attract talent is critical for job creation. If you create job openings but there aren't the right people there to fill them, then not much has been accomplished. The shifting paradigm is that people want to live in a particular place because it offers a vibrant, diverse, inclusive, forward-looking culture, so job creators take notice and make the conscious decision to locate close to the talent. In that way, urban vibrancy, quality of life and inclusiveness play a major role in growing jobs.

I think Cincinnati has absorbed this lesson well, and we continue to take intentional steps to build a city that people want to call home. We also have an educational pipeline with our local high schools and colleges that is only getting stronger, more dynamic and more nimble as a feeder of talent.

Are you excited for Cincinnati’s gig as host of the MLB All-Star Game in 2015? What do events like this do for the city?

I'm very excited that the All-Star Game is just around the corner. We're the birthplace of professional baseball, so I think it's great for such a marquee event to come back to the place where it all began. I give the Castellini family and the Williams family and other members of the ownership group a lot of credit for getting the All-Star game to come here and for leading the Reds organization in the right way. Having the country turn its attention to Cincinnati for a couple days, I think, allows us to bask in the glow of the progress we've made. It will also bring a significant economic impact for the city in addition to boosting morale and serving as another reminder that we really are a big-time, prime-time city. 

Your thoughts regarding voter suppression became a high-profile topic in 2014. What do you think needs to be done in the future to ensure everyone can exercise his or her right to vote?

I support rules that make voting convenient and accessible for everyone. Where things currently are is a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: When citizens choose not to vote, too often we get bad apples in elected office who then rig the rules in ways that cause voter turn-out to decrease even further.

In Hamilton County, for example, we saw a crass attempt to move the sole site of early voting to a place that is much more difficult to reach for folks who rely on public transportation. I support a Constitutional amendment that prevents the worst kind of lawmakers from interfering with people's right to the ballot box, and I also believe that the best way to protect the vote is to participate in the process.

You began hosting the weekly current affairs broadcast/podcast Talk of Ohio in 2014; how did that come to fruition?

I started out hosting a weekly local show called Talk of the Town as an on-air forum to have a community conversation on topics important to people's lives and also as another way to make myself accessible to every constituent. My co-host, Tamaya Dennard, and I got a lot of great feedback on Talk of the Town and we've also had the opportunity to welcome some tremendous guests on the show, including Jason Alexander from Seinfeld, Gail Collins from The New York Times, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz from the Democratic National Committee and many others.

Since we were covering so many state and national topics and hosting so many state and national guests, I decided to expand the show so that it now airs in both Southwest Ohio and Northeast Ohio. 

How do you convince 18- to 33-year-olds, i.e. Millennials, that running for office is an honorable endeavor? 

I believe in the adage, "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?" The biggest challenges facing our country today — wage stagnation, income inequality, college affordability, climate change and many others — demand that a new generation of leadership with a new style of leadership and bold, new ideas step up to meet the moment.

I think our generation offers a set of qualities that there is a broader appetite for: We're not fighting yesterday's ideological battles; we are accepting in our social attitudes; we're natively embracing of technology and innovation to solve problems; and we're laser-focused on the most pressing issues of the day because of how directly they impact us. We can solve the challenges that face our city, our state and our country, but it's going to take new leaders stepping up. 

You won the Developing Exceptional American Leaders New Ideas Challenge for your involvement with the Town Square Schools project. Could you explain what Town Square Schools are and the impact you hope to make through the program?

My role has been to deepen the city's commitment to Town Square Schools and to be a champion for this model. Town Square Schools are also known locally as Community Learning Centers and elsewhere in the county are called Community Schools. By making schools round-the-clock hubs of partnerships for the surrounding community, we bring after-school programming, adult education, health resources and cultural and recreational opportunities to students, parents and neighbors alike. 

I think this model allows us to address a lot of the obstacles that come with living in poverty and also helps spark broader community revitalization. The big picture for me is that this is about creating pathways of opportunity, because no matter your zip code or your socio-economic status, everyone deserves a great school and schools can be real focal points for the whole community.

What are you resolutions and goals for 2015?

I don't want to sound cheesy about it, but I try to actively and regularly ask myself: "How can I be most useful to my city?" I want to make sure I'm continuing to do so. On a more personal note, I met my girlfriend Sarah toward the end of 2013, so the bulk of our relationship has been in 2014. Among my goals moving forward is to convince her to keep me around for a while! Two final resolutions are to try to eat more healthily since my metabolism definitely isn't getting any faster and to be better at having certain times when I really set my phone aside and unplug. Easier said than done! 

You have said you're looking for ways to make the biggest positive impact. It's no secret you're being touted as a potential statewide candidate, possibly for U.S Senate in 2016. What are your political plans for 2015?

I think the question that progressive-minded people need to be asking ourselves is: Who can get people motivated by and excited about the ideas and ideals we believe in? Who can rally people around a vision that offers people meaningful hope in their lives? I want to continue to work to be a person who can do that.

I think people are hungry for a dynamic, idea-driven candidate to run for the U.S. Senate and one who can also build the organization and raise the resources to be competitive. I'm thinking seriously about that race and have been genuinely overwhelmed at the level of encouragement people have offered. 

What are your thoughts on David Pepper's selection as new Chair of Ohio Democratic Party?

David Pepper is a problem-solver and a consensus-builder, which will serve the Ohio Democratic Party well and even more importantly will serve the citizens of our state well. I'm looking forward to working with David to champion meaningful ideas — like building an economy that works for everybody, creating educational opportunities for all and ensuring that people can get sick or grow old with dignity and in comfort. Those values and those policies are the ones that can win elections, because they're the ones that actually improve people's lives.

Lastly, as someone born and raised in the city, how would you describe the Cincinnati today compared to where we've been or where we were before you went off to school?

Cincinnati has always had a proud, rich history, which has also included its ups and downs. When I was growing up, I think we were unsure of ourselves as a city, and, especially relative to issues like race relations and educational equity, we had reason to question whether we were really the city that we wanted to be.

Today, I think Cincinnati is like an athlete who went to practice every day, hit the gym hard, set goals and is emerging as a star. We now have vision, and we even have swagger. As I've said before, through hard work and focus, we're becoming the city we want to be. I'm excited about what the future holds.  
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Benjamin Plattner is a freelance writer, University of Cincinnati graduate (B.A. in Political Science) and an uber-votary of coffee, food, drink, music, travel and Cincinnati’s newfound momentum (feel free to contact him to discuss any of these things). He lives in Columbia-Tusculum with his luminous wife Ieva and their canine cohorts Violet and Clover.