By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Cincinnati Democratic Committee refused to endorse school board member Rick Williams for re-election Saturday, revealing a deep split in Democratic ranks just 17 days before an important school bond levy vote.
On one side: union interests who want the school board to write in language favoring them in awarding contracts for the $1 billion school building program.
On the other: minority business owners who say that language would hurt the ability of smaller, African-American-owned contractors to get a piece of the action.
Williams voted against pro-union contract language - a move that may have cost him the party seal of approval, his supporters said.
Three school board seats are up for election this November. The committee endorsed former Gov. Jack Gilligan and Florence Newell, but passed on Williams - who had gotten the Democratic endorsement when he first ran in 1999. The party has already endorsed passage of the May 6 levy.
In a raucous one-hour party meeting in Northside Saturday, trade union leaders shouted down Cincinnati Councilman David Pepper when he rose to submit Williams' name for endorsement.
"I believe it's a critical time for our city and for this party. We have racial divisions in the city, and we have a very important election on May 6," Pepper told party leaders. "I'm troubled to say the least about the message we'll be sending if we don't endorse Rick Williams."
Democratic leaders gave varying reasons for the snub of Williams, who is African-American.
"The bigger issue is the relationship between the school board and the precinct committee members," said Jenny O'Donnell, co-chairwoman of the Cincinnati Democratic Committee. "It was hard to find people who really knew Rick well and could speak to his strengths on the school board."
But Pat Erb, who headed the school board nominating committee, said she thought Democrats knew Williams all too well.
"All the candidates got asked the same questions, and we didn't like his answers. And then we looked at his list of financial supporters, and they were all Republicans," she said.
Pepper said the debate was about racial politics, pure and simple.
"It was a nasty fight," he said. "The worst message we can send as a party is that someone who stands up for more minority inclusion should not be in the Democratic Party."
Gilligan, who won the endorsement despite having an almost identical voting record to Williams's, said he was "astonished" at the party's position and worried it could affect the bond levy.
He said he was sympathetic to the unions, which want to make sure the contractors pay good wages and benefits and use union apprentices. If the bond levy passes, the school board will rebuild or renovate every school in the district over the next decade.
"In what has to be one of the biggest public works projects in the history of this community, we wanted everybody to get a piece of the action," he said. "What we need, to use an overabused term here, is a little affirmative action, to ensure that minority-owned firms aren't elbowed aside."
The school board will take that issue up this week, when it receives a diversity study that could form the legal basis for a stronger race-based contracting program.
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