Jon Harmon isn’t from around these parts. After completing his undergraduate degree in composition and conducting, he came from California to get a Masters in Arts Administration from CCM with a simultaneous MBA and then decided to stay. Chris Seelbach asked Jon to manage his campaign when he made his first bid for City Council in 2011 and without any previous experience in politics, Jon decided he could do it.
Let’s do the math here:
A business-oriented composer with no political experience
Some young guy from south of the Mason-Dixon line running for City Council as the first openly gay candidate in the history of a very, very conservative city
= success the first time on the ballot (when everybody knows nobody wins the first time out)
How the heck did that happen???????
It’s no accident that both Jon and Chris are immigrants to this city, outsiders. Neither of them know the rules, how you’re supposed to do things here, the way they’ve always been done, the normal steps to curry favor with the big name business leaders (with the same names generation after generation) who back the politicians, arts organizations and charities and are so necessary to civic growth. Like all immigrants they’ve had to watch more carefully, study harder. And ask annoying questions like, “Why do you do things that way?” – questions that those of us born and bred in Cincinnati don’t ask because – well – just because.
But you can’t hide from change forever, especially not in the offices of Council members at City Hall.
Elected representatives don’t get as many phone calls as they used to and almost nobody sends letters these days. But today’s local politician has to be more accessible than ever. Chris prints his cell phone number on his business cards, communicates with constituents directly in 140 character exchanges, and shares opinions on his Facebook page about everything from parking meter rates to transgender issues. And wonder of wonder – allows the people who elected him to disagree and question his positions for everyone to see. Because of social media, we’ve met Chris’ parents and partner, are aware of his insecurities, know he likes cats and where he went on his most recent vacation. The idea of Jon controlling every aspect of a public political brand in this new environment is absurd and demands a comfort level with surprise that only a 28-year-old Milennial could embrace.
Council Members have always been the connection between city administration and the public, but it’s an especially important role during our Cincinnati renaissance as residents move back to the urban core and adjust to big changes in how the world works. 70% of the concerns Seelbach’s office fields are about what Jon calls “quality of life” issues, the same things voters have always cared about: their trash, potholes, somebody playing their music too loud late at night next door. Anybody can text or tweet their problems straight to Chris anytime and get an immediate answer. A big part of Jon’s job is to take those issues to the right department, the one right person in all of City Hall who handles that item. Even though there’s a customer service number (513-591-6000 – the service personnel are top-notch) people prefer to talk to a friend. Chris Seelbach, the Politician and public persona is actually a three-member team and everything they do is dedicated to personal, human interaction, a safe place within the bureaucracy of local government.
The rest of Jon’s time is spent on major constituent issues, changes that can impact our city for decades to come. Of course we’re all aware of the amazing leap forward Cincinnati has made in our ranking in the Human Rights Index, going from 60 to 100 in just a couple of years, in large part due to Chris’ focus. But the Seelbach team has also worked on stream-lining the decision-making process on historic conservation and zoning issues (a win), re-thinking the logic behind the fees charged to pedicabs (a win), and requiring local apprentices in the Responsible Bidder initiative (their biggest disappointment – they lost). When Chris has an idea, it’s Jon’s job to work with the law department to draft legislation, explain it to other council member aides, get buy-in and schedule the item on committee calendars.
The Seelbach/Harmon team is Cincinnati’s harbinger of change and they arrived at the very point we were ready to try to be more. The desire to conduct a symphony orchestra is crazy in and of itself, all those competing voices – the gentle and the strong, both subtle and bold – all of it brought together as one – and Chris understood the value of that self-confidence and willingness to take a chance. If our city is going to capture the imagination of a new generation, it’s going to happen because of people like Jon Harmon who believe in themselves and what’s possible, take up the baton and guide us to a future only fresh eyes can see.