Saturday, June 02, 2001

Turnout key to blacks' political clout

African-American caucus to promote voting, activism

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        An effort to galvanize African-American voters into a more powerful bloc in Cincinnati will have to overcome declining voter turnout in the city's predominantly black political wards.

        An analysis of eight mostly black wards shows that fewer people are voting in city elections, even as the city's African-American population is growing.

        Between 1991 and 1999, the number of registered voters in those wards increased 6 percent, from 45,341 to 48,290. But the number of votes cast decreased 28 percent, from 22,120 to 16,026.

        Because of that, experts say, the city's biggest minority group — making up 43 percent of Cincinnati's 331,000 residents — has failed to consistently shape the outcome of elections.

        A coalition of activists today hopes to turn that around with the kickoff of the African-American Political Caucus.

        “Voting is not only a civic responsibility, it's an act of power,” said caucus leader Dwight Tillery, who became the first popularly elected black mayor in 1991. “African-Americans can decide who is mayor and who isn't. We can decide who sits on City Council, who sits on the school board, and we can pass levies.”

        The 22-member steering committee of the caucus is made up of ministers, political activists and community leaders. Its objective is to screen and endorse candidates for office who will be sympathetic to African-American issues.

        Mr. Tillery and others say the shooting of Timothy Thomas on April 7 and the resultant protests and rioting will pump up turnout in the fall when city voters will elect a mayor, City Council and school board.

        “Let's go out in November in record numbers,” Mr. Tillery said. “Let our anger and frustration be heard.”

        The decline in voter participation isn't limited to African Americans. In 1991, 53 percent of all registered voters cast ballots. In 1999, the last city election, 33 percent voted. But the turnout among African-Americans is all the more important in light of the growth of the black population.

        Census numbers show that 45,000 fewer whites call Cincinnati home today than in 1990. But while tens of thousands of residents have fled the city, the black population has increased by 4,044 in the past decade.

        The Rev. J.W. Jones of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Church in Carthage said that since the April riots more and more young people want to become politically active.

        “Our kids are saying it now. They are asking, "How do we get hooked up to vote? How do we effect change? How do we do something about it?'” he said.

        What's been missing, according to residents, activists and ministers, was an issue of enough importance to overcome the sense of disenfranchisement experienced by many black voters.

        “I hope with riots and unrest two things happen: New leadership emerges and young people see how important it is to vote,” said Ken Lawson, a lawyer for Mr. Thomas' family. “I believe it will happen.”

        With the first direct election of Cincinnati's mayor in 70 years just five months away, many black organizations are pushing voter awareness and education campaigns.

        Mr. Tillery said the goal of the new black caucus won't be to oust or replace Mayor Charlie Luken, the endorsed Democrat and odds-on favorite to win the election. The emphasis is going to be on the entire City Council.

        “If you get six members of council, you can override the veto of the mayor,” he said.

        Norma Holt Davis, president of the Cincinnati branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the NAACP's national office is promising to help mobilize local black voters.

        “Our feeling is that African-Americans have not traditionally gotten a piece of the pie, with jobs and with equity for the neighborhoods,” she said. “We have focused in the last few years on stadiums and other (development) issues the city has been involved in. We want economic parity.”

        Mr. Thomas' death can be a catalyst for change, Ms. Davis said. But voters still need to be reached through churches, community groups “and other organizations that care if the African-American community shows up to vote.”

        “You've got a group of people who were historically denied a right to vote,” she said. “They feel their turnout won't make a difference, that the issues don't relate to them.”

        The Baptist Ministers Conference of Cincinnati and Vicinity regularly endorses a slate of candidates.

        “It's our attempt to get direct voting in our interest,” the Rev. Mr. Jones said. “All we have to do is what other groups do, what downtown does.”

        Black United Front leader the Rev. Damon Lynch III said the importance of voting is overplayed in the black community.

        “Because we don't have a strong ethnic community, we get trapped into thinking the vote is our salvation,” he said. “The real battle now is on the economic front.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch, who has led protest marches and after the riots was appointed to co-chair the mayor's panel on racial equality, said African-Americans need to concentrate on building thriving black neighborhoods.

        “I understand the argument for voting. I just think what is important is economic parity,” he said. “You can't vote on the percentage of how many blacks get contracts to work on the stadium.”

        Political consultant Brewster Rhoads said the black vote is essential to passing any type of tax increase.

        Director of last year's successful campaign for a 6-mill levy that will generate $35.8 million for Cincinnati Public Schools, Mr. Rhoads said the effort would have failed if blacks had voted against it.

        He also said there are several African-American wards where the turnout is higher than in mostly white wards.

        In 1999, Ward 3, which includes Evanston, had a larger percentage of voter turnout than other wards with the same number of precincts, such as Hyde Park. Roselawn and Bond Hill had a 42 percent voter turnout, while mostly white Mount Washington had 37 percent.

        But the predominantly black wards also included the one with the lowest percentage of voter turnout: the West End with 15 percent. In Over-the-Rhine, scene of most of the April violence, the turnout was 18 percent.

        Mr. Rhoads said black voters will undoubtedly have an impact on the next election, and candidates had better not ignore it.

        That impact was being felt before the riots.

        Republicans for the first time are backing a majority of black candidates for City Council. Party officials endorsed three candidates who will run alongside the two white incumbents for city seats.

        They are up against a contingent of Democratic candidates that includes three black incumbents and one black challenger. At least three black candidates will run as independents.

        Of nine black candidates who ran in 1999, four were elected. Although black candidates consistently finished high in the eight predominantly black wards, former Councilman Charles Winburn was the only African-American to finish in the top three overall.

        In 1997, two of five black candidates were elected, with Mr. Tillery earning the second-highest number of votes.

        When four of six black candidates were elected to office in 1995, turnout among registered voters in the eight black wards was about 50 percent.

        But the top two vote-getters citywide — Roxanne Qualls and Phil Heimlich — didn't do well in the eight wards. Ms. Qualls placed no higher than fourth and Mr. Heimlich never got past seventh.

        The top three choices in the black wards — Mr. Tillery, Tyrone Yates and Minette Cooper — placed third, ninth and sixth.

        “Accountability is an across-the-board-issue,” Mr. Tillery said, stressing that now African-Americans can translate their anger into action and see the results. “There is indeed something we can do.”


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