When Hughes High School was caught busing students to the polls and giving them ice cream to vote for Democrats, Principal Virginia Rhodes protested too much.

Her written response said she gave "enthusiastic permission" for the field trip during school hours, and admitted that a former Hughes principal handed out sample ballots that listed only Democrats. But Rhodes blamed Republicans "” and played the race card.

"I do think our students were marginalized and disrespected by the Republicans' decision to ignore this group of new, young, African-American voters," said the former school board member and Democratic Party candidate.

What happened next was remarkable: Nothing.

As Sherlock Holmes would say, it was "the dog that didn't bark." There was no outcry, no pickets, no press conference or attack on "racist" conservatives for "disenfranchising" the Hughes students. Her incendiary comment fizzled like a wet match. The race card was not trump.

Odd Couple

The reason is an unlikely alliance of the NAACP and COAST (Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes) that has handcuffed a jail tax, stopped red-light cameras, trashed garbage taxes and might even derail streetcars. It could be Cincinnati's most powerful combination punch since Ezzard Charles won the heavyweight championship in 1954.

The Odd Couple is COAST leader Chris Finney and Cincinnati NAACP President Christopher Smitherman. Like Oscar, Finney is big and bold, loathed by the left for calling B.S. on government waste and spending.

It was COAST that blew the whistle on the Hughes "vote for ice cream" field trip in November. CPS was forced to suspend Rhodes for two weeks and discipline the teacher who led the trip on class time.

The Felix is Smitherman "” "almost painfully polite," according to Finney, who says Smitherman's reputation as a rhetorical rock-thrower on City Council is unfair.

On newsprint, they should be farther apart than the Bengals and a Super Bowl "” a worse mix than Jack Daniels and MADD. But in reality, they share more than the name Chris.

More in Common

"We are both outsiders with both of our natural groups," Smitherman says.

"We have a lot more in common than the things that separate us," Finney says.

When asked to describe each other, they use words such as "passionate," "honesty" and "integrity."

"We had misconceptions about each other from reading the newspapers," Smitherman says. "I'm guilty of that myself."

Finney says of Smitherman, "A lot of people would be surprised that he is extremely conservative in his personal life. It's so contrary to the public perception."

Smitherman agrees. "It's a big misconception that I am liberal and the African-American community is liberal," he says, citing shared philosophy on prayer in school, abortion and family issues.

They don't just talk the kumbaya talk. Smitherman has attended meetings of COAST, and Finney is the NAACP's Chairman of Legal Redress "” the most successful consigliere the NAACP has had, Smitherman says. Adding a conservative to his board was overdue, he says. "The NAACP was an arm of the Democratic Party, controlled by the Democratic Party and unions," Smitherman says.

The alliance called Smitherfinney was stitched together to defeat Hamilton County's jail tax in 2006. After that, they blocked red-light cameras and the sale of city waterworks. Their ballot proposal to stop streetcars failed. But they've joined the Fraternal Order of Police, firefighters and conservative Westwood Concern to target council members next fall who voted to spend $130 million on streetcars while the city is laying off police and firefighters.

Along the way, they found out one plus one equals a lot more than two. Individually, they and their organizations can be bullied or ignored. Together, they are like two guys fighting back-to-back in a saloon brawl, giving opponents no gaps to wedge them apart.

Plenty have tried. Both have been slandered by bloggers and partisans.

Yes, But Scary?

"We don't care what people think of our friendship," says Smitherman, who describes once getting the death stare from a local politician when he and Finney went out to lunch. "We socialize. We go out with our wives. We're friends."

Finney says, "Some people decide to hate each other over an issue and won't work together. That's not us."

That scares some people. "That's it," Smitherman says. "The people who have the money and the power want all of us fighting each other. The fat cats take all the power while we're busy fighting over money and race."

"If I were on my deathbed and had to name the most important relationships in my life, he would be among the top five," Smitherman says. "It has changed me. I'm not a perfect person. Chris has helped me deal with my stereotypes."

Finney seconds that: "It has opened my eyes to seeing things from a different perspective." He began to notice racial attacks on Smitherman. And he remembers a woman he met while passing petitions. "She had tears in her eyes, and she said, "¢I just can't afford any more taxes.' I realized who pays for the red-light cameras and trash taxes. It's the people who can't afford their mortgages and their prescriptions. Black people don't want big, oppressive government any more than the rest of us."

Careful to listen

Finney says he has become less hasty to dismiss accusations of racism or discrimination; Smitherman says he has become more careful to listen before he reacts. Once known as the biggest cop-basher on council, he's now fighting alongside the police to oppose layoffs. "Who suffers most from bad public safety?" he asks. "The people in the inner city."

So when COAST sued Cincinnati Public Schools for the Hughes High School field day for Democrats, Finney talked to Smitherman before he talked to the press. "We had a back-channel way to deal with something that could have exploded," he says.

Smitherman says, "We have excellent communication. As he was about to file the suit, I told him, "¢Whatever you put in writing, deal with the process, and don't make it sound like the students can't vote. We don't want young African-Americans to get the message that their votes aren't wanted.'"

So in public statements, COAST emphasized that students who are over 18 should be encouraged to vote "” without partisan manipulation. A few years ago, that first part would have been left out, Finney says. "We went out of our way to emphasize the values we share with the NAACP," Finney says.

They don't agree on everything. But their mutual support/non-aggression treaty could be huge in the next city election in November. Especially if Smitherman runs for office again. "I'm not done with my political career," he says. "It could be mayor, council or both."

Finney says, "It's neat to see my board members say, "¢Let's take a closer look at our relationship with the NAACP.' Together we have more impact."

Adds Smitherman, "Our relationship makes so many people uncomfortable."

And when those frustrated opponents spit and sputter and call them names, they also share a smile.