Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Black Political Leadership in Cleveland & Civil Rights, Pt. II
A few weeks after last year’s November elections, a gaggle of black elected officials and political operatives met at the Harvard Community Center in Cleveland’s Ward 1 to assess the aftermath of the statewide Republican sweep and the uncertain landscape of local politics following the election of Cuyahoga County’s first-ever county executive and county council.
The meeting was the bright idea of State Senator Nina Turner and State Representative Sandra Williams, two of the area’s more diligent state legislators. They invited virtually every local black elected official they could identify, including every black Democratic precinct committee they knew about.
The meeting drew plenty of suburban council people, as well as old political heads-without-portfolio like Lang Dunbar, and Bill Crockett; up-and-comers like Ward 11 Dem leader Anthony Hairston and Euclid councilman David Gilliham, and seasoned operatives such as Lynnie Powell, Kenn Dowell, Michael Taylor, and Bob Render.
The stated agenda was to analyze the 2010 election returns, to try and divine the reasons behind low and unenthusiastic voter turnout in black communities, and to craft a forward-looking strategy.
The approach was thoughtful. There was promise in the air when the meeting began with perhaps sixty-five attendees arranged in a semi-circle. People were initially respectful as Turner called the meeting to order, stated the agenda and offered the podium to Arnold Pinkney, dean of local black politics.
That was the high point of the meeting.
Mr. Pinkney’s account of the election was distressingly feeble, astonishingly devoid of insight, and absurdly self-serving in its assessment of the strategic and tactical errors of the Ted Strickland/Ohio Democratic Party-led statewide campaign. The essential takeaway from his presentation was that the state party should have hired him to get out the vote instead of some out-of-state crew.
No one challenged his eminence regarding this assessment so Sen. Turner then attempted to move to the agenda’s next item: abysmal turnout by black voters.
It serves no point to offer a blow-by-blow account of how the meeting quickly degenerated into a verbal free-for-all. Suffice it to say there were destructive efforts to derail if not highjack the agenda. These efforts had been primed if not planned and led to silly and distressing assertions of political primacy and potency. The leading protagonists were eventually restrained and the shouting match ended with desultory attempts to restore a semblance of stability.
This was such a depressing turn of events that I have been reluctant if not unable to write about it.
• • •
There was an elephant in the room that day whose gigantic shadow caused many of the attending elected officials to become discombobulated. They behaved as if they were playing musical chairs on quicksand. The music was cacophonous, and nobody knew which of the too few chairs were safe to sit in.
The cause of this erratic and discomfiting behavior was a radical realignment of political forces on many levels. New networks were being empowered and you couldn’t tell the players even with a scorecard.
On the state level — Democrats had been thoroughly ousted. Republicans were in, led by a combative governor who would soon demonstrate that black people had no rights the GOP was bound to respect.
On the county level, there reigned a new county executive, an Irish former G-man, Ed FitzGerald. He owed much of his electoral victory to support rounded up by newer black political leaders who were not in attendance: East Cleveland mayor Gary Norton Jr., Cleveland councilmen T. J. Dow and Kevin Conwell, and suburban leaders like Joe Fouche of Oakwood Village.
There appeared to be not a single person in the room with an inkling of how FitzGerald would deal with the black community and its established political leadership.
Moreover, the uprooting of the corrupted county government structure had facilitated the emergence of new leadership for the county Democratic Party. New party chairman Stuart Garson had been selected, courted, and ratified by Congresswoman Marcia Fudge as new party chair six months earlier, but his connections to the rank-and-file were even more a mystery than FitzGerald’s.
To cap it off, in two years on the job Fudge had yet to consolidate the mantle of leadership that had flowed so long from the 11th District Congressional seat, first from the dynastic authority and political skill of Lou Stokes, and then from the dynamism and infectious indefatigability of Stephanie Tubbs Jones.
So, with every traditional political lighthouse either adrift or under uncertain or foreign control, there should have been no surprise when the captain-less crew engaged in unseemly jousting for control of the helm, shouted mutual accusations of mutiny, and wanted to throw shipmates overboard.
This sorry state of affairs has continued for much of the last year, as evidenced by infighting among the leaders of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus over state legislative redistricting.
We will look at that on Thursday.