Thursday, May 8, 2003

Black vote called key for issue win

Turnout much more in Cincinnati schools election than at fall defeat

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If there was ever any doubt that there is strength in numbers - particularly in Cincinnati's predominantly black neighborhoods - Tuesday's passage of the Cincinnati Public Schools' $480 million bond issue should dispel it.

Last November, when the measure was narrowly defeated, voter turnout in most African-American neighborhoods was below the districtwide turnout of 40.7 percent.

Tuesday, in most of those same neighborhoods, turnout was significantly higher than the 21.5 percent turnout districtwide.

It is as simple as that - the higher the vote total from African-American voters, whose children make up 71 percent of the district's students, the better the chances of passing a money issue.

"The support in the African-American community was strong before, but it grew in this election," said Brewster Rhoads, the veteran Cincinnati political strategist who helped run the bond issue campaign.

An analysis of the voting Tuesday showed that voter turnout was 26 percent in Ward 3 (Evanston), 24 percent in Ward 7 (Bond Hill/Roselawn), 24 percent in Ward 13 (Avondale) - all large, predominantly black wards - and shot up to 30 percent in Ward 14 (Pleasant Ridge), a racially mixed neighborhood where support for public schools has always been strong.

It was not just the voter turnout that spiked in the largely black neighborhoods - it was the margin by which voters passed the bond issue as well.

In Evanston, the support was up by 8 percentage points over the numbers from the November election. The numbers jumped by 9 percentage points in Bond Hill/Roselawn and 10 percentage points in Walnut Hills, another African-American community.

Rhoads said his analysis showed that in the city's predominantly black wards, support for the school bond issue ranged from 65 percent to 85 percent - an 8-percentage-point increase over the substantial support voters gave the same issue when it failed in November.

If the Cincinnati Public Schools included only the city of Cincinnati, school officials might never have a problem getting a bond issue or operating levy passed.

But the district is more than that - about 14 percent of the district's registered voters live outside in the city, in high home-ownership areas like Cheviot and parts of Green Township, where elderly voters on fixed incomes are plentiful and where many voters send their children to parochial schools.

Last fall, when the bond issue was defeated by a scant 611 votes out of about 90,000 cast, voters in precincts of Cheviot and Green Township voted by ratios of 3-1 and 4-1 against the ballot issue.

This time around, though, the margin of defeat shrank somewhat in those areas.

In some areas on Cincinnati's west side, and in Silverton, where a substantial number of black voters own their own homes, the school bond issue campaign was able to flip the numbers from defeat in the fall to victory in the spring.

In November, Silverton rejected the measure, 824-696. Tuesday, the ballot issue passed in Silverton by one vote - 368-367.

The turnaround from defeat in November to passage in May was even more dramatic in Ward 23 (College Hill/Mount Airy). In November, the issue was defeated in Ward 23 by 281 votes. This time, it passed by 231. The same thing happened in Ward 24 (Hartwell/Carthage): a 92-vote defeat in November followed by an 87-vote victory in May.

"We changed some minds," Rhoads said. "We convinced people who may have had reservations that this was a vote to make things better in Cincinnati. This town has had a long streak of downer dynamics. A lot of people who might have opposed us otherwise saw this as a positive."

The issue was voted down in much of the city's west side, but the margins were much smaller than in November.

Rhoads credits some of that to a mailer that went out to 20,000 west-side voters featuring endorsements, photos and a "special message'' from three popular politicians - state Reps. William Seitz and Steve Driehaus, and Mike Laumann, the mayor of Cheviot.

West-side voters weren't the only ones targeted. In the last week of the campaign, mail pieces by the tens of thousands went out to specially targeted voter groups - Democrats, blacks, labor, parents of CPS students and others.

"There are some people who got as many as eight pieces of mail," Rhoads said. "We made sure our likely voters knew there was an election going on." Bill Dobson, campaign director, said the campaign cost about $500,000.

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