Friday, October 14, 2011

Black Political Leadership in Cleveland and Civil Rights, Part III

What are the characteristics we should be looking for in our leaders?

Imagine how things might have been different if, instead of Messrs. Forbes and Pinkney signing off on reapportionment and redistricting plans for NE Ohio drawn up in Columbus back rooms, these gentlemen had advised House Speaker Batchelder,  “Bill, you really should be discussing this with House and Senate members from this district. They are the currently elected representatives of the areas you propose to affect. We would be delighted to arrange that session for you if you would like.”

What if, instead of a closed circle of elders whose process enervates rather than energizes community action, state senators Shirley Smith and Nina Turner, or state representatives Barbara Boyd, Sandra Williams, Bill Patmon, and John Barnes had pre-empted  Batchelder's end-run and called for community input, or a metropolitan wide teach-in?

What if PolicyBridge or United Pastors in Mission had convened a gathering of community experts or representatives to initiate a discussion about the shape of a new Congressional district or the imminent new state legislative districts?

What if one or more of those legislators or community citizens had stood up and questioned whether the concerns that animated us in 1968 were, or should be, still the most pressing considerations in 2012?

What if our political players focused on fostering a kind of leadership that looks at the big picture instead of scrambling for crumbs, that doesn’t marginalize black representation but recruits and nurtures black candidates who could confidently seek votes across all kinds of ethnic or religious lines?

Italian, Irish, Jewish, Slavic candidates repeatedly come into our communities and ask for our support. And when we find them worthy, we give it to them. These candidates are usually accompanied by elected black officials whose stance and rhetoric and inaction tell us that they are afraid to go into Italian, Irish, Jewish, and Slavic communities and ask for support.

The masses of black people loved Carl Stokes and Stephanie Tubbs Jones and love Barack Obama because they earned our trust to the point that they could campaign in any community and remain authentically themselves.

That is one reason that it was so distressing in 2008 when former Congressman Louis Stokes, put the kibosh on a new county charter because, he said, a black candidate could never win the office of county executive. He said this at the very moment that presidential candidate Barack Obama was eradicating barriers right and left, north and south. [1]

Insofar as we accept that African Americans can only win in jurisdictions that are heavily black, we limit our horizons and our prospects. We handicap our candidates and our best leaders. We marginalize ourselves. And we tell the world that we have no confidence in our leaders or ourselves.

Our political model is seriously outmoded. There was a time not long ago in this community where African Americans simultaneously headed Cleveland City Hall, the Cleveland Foundation, the Growth Association, and a host of other major institutions and agencies. Who can argue that we don’t have the talent to lead this community?

We have a broken political structure in our community based on obsolete tapes of decades gone by. It discourages many of our most potentially able leaders from even considering political office. It casts a pall on our polity and our economy, locally and regionally. It reduces our regional strength and diminishes our statewide impact. And, I believe, it is a major reason why so many black voters stay away from the polls on Election Day.

What do you think?  How can we move forward?

[1] It was the esteemed former Congressman’s solitary and non-community processed veto that resulted in the overwhelming adoption the following year that was inferior to a more reasoned and equitable plan developed by a bi-partisan study group that included community-wide input and a more transparent process.

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