You think you know the traits that constitute a politician: a good old Washington politician, secretly selfish and superbly sly, crushing everyone in his or her way. But ask what Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann is like and you’ll get answers like “personable, quiet” and “mild-mannered,” as described by his fellow Commissioners Todd Portune and Chris Monzel, respectively.

Hartmann was thrust into Cincinnati’s media spotlight during the “icon tax” controversy, when he voted Aug. 6 to remove Music Hall from the November ballot, leaving only Union Terminal to reap the benefits. As the swing vote—with Portune favoring the quarter-cent, 10-year sales tax increase for both historic buildings and with Monzel pushing Union Terminal only—Hartmann didn’t make the decision without much thought.

“I ultimately decided that was not in the best interests for county taxpayers to take on a new liability right now,” says Hartmann. “The county had not had any experience with Music Hall before. We’ve had a long relationship with the Museum Center. It was a decision that was made difficult by all the great work that the [cultural facilities] task force did, but when an issue comes before us, it has to be something in the right interest of Hamilton County. I was convinced it would fail, and be worse for both.”

The Republican commissioner’s decision came as a shock to both Tea Party favorite Monzel and Democrat Portune.

“I didn’t know he was even doing that,” says Monzel. “I had nothing to do with trying to persuade him. I thought he was going along with the proposal as is until I saw it in the paper.”

“I didn’t know where Greg was on any of that before we broke for recess. Before the vote, I thought Greg was going to support the position I was advocating. It was 180 degrees from where I understood Greg had been,” says Portune.

Part of their surprise might be due to the fact that under Ohio law the three commissioners can’t talk about work during work.

Because of Ohio’s Open Records and Open Meetings laws, which give Ohioans access to government meetings and records, they have to use their staff to correspond about issues until they hold a public meeting. Hartmann hadn’t declared a position until the last minute. Portune isn’t holding a grudge against Hartmann.

“As we were going in to the meeting, Greg asked if I was upset with him. It was to the effect of, ‘I don’t agree with it, but we have a thousand other things we have to do together so on we go,’” says Portune.

The commissioners had to vote on other important issues that day in addition to the “icon tax.” Cradle Cincinnati, a county initiative Portune supports that will help reduce Cincinnati’s infant mortality rate, was also in the hopper and needed funding, but neither Hartmann nor Monzel supported it. But Hartmann handed an olive branch to Portune.

“He took a step toward what I wanted that day,” Portune says. “If there were surplus funds that weren’t otherwise needed, [he] would be open to revisiting the issue and providing funding out of those surplus funds. It was a supportive gesture.”

Hartmann, vice president of the Board of Commissioners, has been a county commissioner since 2008. In 2009, he was re-elected, and since then, he has voted to cut roughly $40 million from the Hamilton County budget. He’s also been recognized nationally for making the office more accountable to taxpayers, but there’s more to Hartmann than budget slashing and the “icon tax.”

One day, he wants to write a book about the Battle of Midway, a game-changing battle for the United States over Japan during World War II in which his grandfather fought. Hartmann is passionate about veterans because both his father and grandfather were in the military.

Although Hartmann flirted with joining the military twice, he ended up majoring in journalism, and, partly influenced by his father’s law career, he went on to Pepperdine University School of Law. He grew up in Dallas where his father still practices law.

In 1999, Hartmann began work as an assistant prosecutor for Hamilton County and loved it. He ran the Clerk of Courts office for five years and ran the Republican Party in Cincinnati. He even chaired the past few presidential campaigns here as well. In 2006, Hartmann ran for Ohio Secretary of State and lost.

“It was a tough year. I spent an incredible amount of time in my car,” he says about traveling to 88 counties throughout the state. “That race just wasn’t winnable in that political environment. But I enjoyed the experience, [and] I met a lot of great people.”

The husband and father of five children—four boys and one girl ranging from ages 8 to 17—thinks he would run for a state office again if the opportunity was right.

“I think that there’s a lot of action locally. We have a significant say in the work that we do, a significant impact on affecting policies—the same can’t really be said of other jobs in government. Obviously, Washington has its problems. I’m here with only two other colleagues: I enjoy it,” he says.

“I have a saying about Greg that causes him to be completely embarrassed publicly,” says Portune. “Who would have ever thought that a former assistant county prosecutor, Republican from Texas, is going to leave, as his legacy, a bleeding heart liberal? He’s been outgoing, progressive and strong on the care of foster kids.”

Hartmann himself had foster siblings while growing up. In 2009, he created the Higher Education Mentoring Initiative (HEMI) along with the University of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Job & Family Services. HEMI pairs academic mentors with Hamilton County foster children in order to encourage them to pursue a college education or a career after high school graduation.

“Kids in foster care come from some of the worst conditions you could ever imagine. If you’re in a home environment that you have to be taken out of, it’s an incredibly difficult situation. They’re just trying to survive, not making long-term plans,” Hartmann says.

HEMI has been growing every year, and 100 percent of the mentored students have graduated high school and 80 percent are enrolled in a post-secondary institution.

“It’s awesome to see the mentoring relationship,” adds Hartmann.

Hartmann’s added his voice to help break the cycle of homelessness in the city. He’s working with Stephen Leeper, president and CEO of 3CDC, on a homeless initiative in Queensgate for City Gospel Mission, as well as with the YMCA on another.

“If you ask a number of citizens who don’t know him well, or who apply just a traditional partisan description, [they] would not think he is as heavily involved or supportive of those issues. But he does it. I’m proud of him. He’s doing great work,” says Portune.

And regarding the “icon tax,” Hartmann’s comments typically don’t come out of a Republican’s mouth.

“Powerful business interests in the community don’t get to make all of the decisions. As a local elected official, we have to use our own instinct to do what’s best for the taxpayers,” he says. “That was a lot of the rub. Some people aren’t used to being told no.”

With the passing of Issue 8, which improves Union Terminal only, Hartmann is still optimistic about Music Hall.

“I’m still committed to the survival of both. Music Hall is going to get fixed. That will happen,” he says.