Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Times They Are a-Changin’

Lost among all the political tumult of the last eight or nine months is the re-shaping of the political landscape in the black community. Taking place largely behind the scenes, with only occasional flares to mark the battles and transitions, the torches of black political leadership are being passed to a new generation of leaders coming of age.

A major factor is geriatric. Time has simply taken a toll on the old guard of Lou Stokes, George Forbes, and Arnold Pinkney. While these old lions can still roar, their ability to dominate the field is history. As recently as 2008, in the wake of Obama’s march first to the nomination of a major political party and thence to the presidency, Lou Stokes was able to squash county reform by saying it was bad for black folks. The old trio barked feebly in opposition to Issue 6 but had no bite as black political leadership was rebuffed by black voters in every Cleveland ward.

A second key factor is demographic. Black people are no longer as concentrated in just a few neighborhoods. Greater affluence among the middle class led to choice and mobility. As white people have become gradually more acclimated to having diverse neighbors, black people have begun to populate every municipality in the county, achieving a critical mass in several, and significant political influence in more than a few. The scope of this dispersal is such that several black newcomers to politics were elected this year to Democratic precinct posts from Cleveland’s Westside, an idea that takes some getting used to for black folks born before 1970.

But Cuyahoga County is by no means post-racial in its politics or attitudes but new winds are blowing. But bloc voting by black people has actually been more hype than fact, especially when compared to bloc voting among white people. But, like so much else in America, when people of color exercise power in a fashion similar to how the dominant majority has behaved, it becomes a phenomenon for examination.

Key to the current decline in bloc voting is the absence of a commanding African American candidate at the top of the ticket. With the exception of presidential races or primaries involving Barack Obama or Jesse Jackson, the absence of a strong black candidate running as such has been pretty much the norm since racial pioneer Carl Stokes was re-elected in 1969.

Two black men – Mike White and George Forbes -- faced off in the 1991 mayoral election. Forbes’ campaign tried in vain to diminish White’s racial bona fides, ridiculing him as “white Mike”, but Forbes’s own image was so embedded in raw racial politics that he lacked the credibility and standing to pull off the effort. White ran as the incumbent in subsequent years. And current mayor Frank Jackson has a knack for making race almost disappear as an issue.

These days, racial contentiousness in Cuyahoga almost seems more of an intra-group issue politically. State Senator Nina Turner bucked what passed for the entire black political establishment last year when she became a spokesperson for Issue 6. Stepping up now as significant black voices in the political arena are, among others, East Cleveland mayor Gary Norton and Cleveland ward 7 councilman T. J. Dow. Schooled in retail politics, secure in their respective political bases, and astute at making alliances beyond their own turf, they were instrumental in helping win the Democratic Party county executive endorsement for Ed FitzGerald against a field that included Terri Hamilton Brown, an accomplished black woman but a novice politician.

Norton’s stem-winder of a speech before the party’s executive committee last month followed and totally overshadowed the plea of Congresswoman Marcia Fudge that the party not make an early endorsement. Fudge called Norton out as they exited after the endorsement vote, and in front of many observers, accused him of betraying the interests of the black community.

We will have more to say on this soon but right now we are on our way to interview one of Cleveland’s savviest politicos for her intriguing take on Cuyahoga politics.

NOTE TO OUR READERS: An earlier version of this piece appears in The County Reporter, a new monthly publication that hit the streets this month with a focus on public affairs and the new county government. 25,000 free copies were published and distributed all over the eastern portion of the county, from Euclid south to Oakwood west to Garfield Heights, up and over to Lakewood and east through downtown to Hough, Glenville, and back to Euclid. Check your local Walgreen's or convenience store. TCR can also be found in hundreds of other locations.