Thursday, March 30, 2017

Black Politics in Cleveland, Part III

New Black Political Action Committee sets up shop in Cleveland
The Collective PAC has local roots, superb credentials, national ambitions

Twenty-first Century African American politics came to Cleveland on Tuesday night and introduced itself with a substantive self-description, a cordial style, and a direct message for all with ears to hear: There are hundreds of progressive black candidates all across the country, likely including a few right here, who have the capacity to change the politics of this nation. To get elected, they need financial support, training, financial support, relationships and financial support.

The messengers were an appealing married couple, Cleveland-area native Stefanie Brown-James and her husband, Quentin James. They arrived on a vehicle, The Collective PACand announced the opening of a Cleveland office on Van Aken Boulevard, just off Shaker Square.

The James team has brought plenty of savvy to lead the effort to create relationships, build infrastructure, host candidate training and do fundraising, all in support of select progressive candidates at the local, state and federal levels. They certainly appear have the training to pull it off: Stefanie headed a nationwide segment of the Obama campaign in 2012. Quentin played a similar role for Clinton in 2012 and also has nationwide organizing experience with the environmental movement.

In their maiden effort, the PAC endorsed five candidates across the country in the last [two-year] cycle, and four won. Tellingly, none of the five legislative candidates ran in a majority minority district. Lisa Blunt Rochester, for instance, was elected to Congress from Delaware, the first African American from that state to serve in Congress. As Stefanie Brown-James put it, “we are everywhere.”

Citing a 2014 study, the James said that 90% of elected officials in the US are white, including 95% of prosecutors. Moreover, 94% of GOP candidates are white as are 82% of Democratic candidates.

Quentin, after noting that The Collective PAC is already the nation’s largest black PAC, described the organization’s methodology. They are looking for 45 candidates across the country to support in the current 2017-2018 cycle. To earn Collective support, a candidate will have to demonstrate viability [are they competitive with respect to polls and ability to raise money], values [they must complete a 45 part questionnaire] and internal support [PAC donors get to weigh in on who the Collective supports].

In the Q and A that followed their presentation, the couple was asked how success would be measured. Their answer was threefold: 1. By the increase in the number of progressive African Americans serving in office nationwide; 2. By the degree to which African American donors become engaged and active in politics; and 3. By the increase in turnout among African American voters nationwide.

Typically when black people exercise agency and initiative along the lines indicated in this report, criticism comes in the form of comments that imply there is something untoward if not downright un-American about the effort. That critique did not arise at the launch but the James are clearly ready for it. When asked if the PAC would financially support only black candidates, Quentin James gave an uncompromising yes, comparing the Collective to Emily’s List , which provides financial support only to women candidates. He also referenced AIPAC, [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] a special interest group that unabashedly supports its own brand of group interest.

Stefanie Brown-James
Co-Founder/CEO, The Collective PAC
At another point Stefanie stepped in and said she wanted to address “the elephant in the room”.

“I see there are there some white people in the room tonight.” Pausing for just an instant to allow just the right amount of tension to surface, she boomed out a hearty “WELCOME! We’re glad you are here” and offered thanks for their support.

Elected officials were spare in attendance. It is likely that few were invited. The list of sponsors who assembled the guest list seemed to be comprised of young progressive types, along with a few elders. But a physician who said that she and her husband, a retired executive, would contribute $5,000.00 during the current election cycle supplied the most electrifying moment of the evening.

The event had an organic quality to it, and the novelty of this effort probably bypassed normal channels. There were of course some folks there whose names have appeared on ballots, and it is probable there was an even greater number of attendees whose names will appear on future ballots.

But this evening was given not to candidates and stump speeches but to the nuts and bolts of campaigning. The PAC’s website says that over 250 candidates have signed up seeking support.

Their political sophistication showed in their inaugural local event, held at the The Lofts, 1677 East 40 Street, in an elegant and gracious space managed by Improve Consulting, a local minority business enterprise owned by Ellen Burts-Cooper. There was an open, help-yourself bar, and lots of delicious hors-d’oeuvres.

Justin Bibb of the host committee, teeing up the crowd for
Quentin James, Founder and Executive Director of The
Collective PAC [standing, rear] and Stefanie Brown-James,
co-founder [hidden behind Bibb]
Excitement over the duo’s message was palpable. Their practical sense is reflected in the initial office locations they have chosen. The main office is Washington DC, but the Collective has satellite offices in both Greenville, South Carolina and Cleveland, their respective hometowns.

After the event, we checked in with Lynnie Powell, regional political director of the Ohio Democratic Party and someone whose acute political instincts, rich political history, and vast ear-to-the-ground network uniquely equip her to assess the newcomers and their efforts.

“Exhilarating!” she exclaimed. “They give me hope! I didn’t know more than five people in the room,” a remarkable declaration, and likely hyperbolic, coming from someone whose job it is to know who’s who. Nonetheless, it suggests that The Collective PAC co-founders and their local cohort have the potential to dramatically affect the political landscape — certainly in Cuyahoga County and quite possibly across the country wherever they choose to play — by bringing new people and new resources into the equation.

Powell went on to say that she had been smiling almost continuously at the energy and intelligence of these new players. She reminisced about the glory days when Lou Stokes ran the Caucus and its affiliated BEDCO [Black Elected Democrats of Cuyahoga County].

Lou, she said, assessed every member of the Caucus $2500 annually, an amount that supported the ground game so critical to electoral success in black communities. She said he accepted no excuses and held each member accountable for either raising the money or paying it out of their own pocket.

After those Caucus successes, the accountability diminished, and a new regimen emerged that no longer required politicians to do any heavy lifting. Powell clearly disdains this development.

“This,” she said, referring to The Collective PAC, “is the first break old style politics. Count her as one vet clearly ready to shake hands across the generational divide and stand shoulder to shoulder in the struggle.

As another, even more senior person, recalled later, “remember when we were the young Turks, trying to bring change and shake things up? As her listener nodded at the shared memory being evoked, the elder said, “we owe it to our parents and we owe it to today’s young Turks to give them the support they need.”

# # #

Black Politics in Cleveland, Part II

Roundabout musings on black power, black potency, black excellence
The Souls of Black Folk in the Twenty-First Century

In today’s first post we tried to distill 140 years of black political activity in Greater Cleveland to provide some context for the current deplorable state of our political affairs, where we have more representation than ever, but seemingly less power, and most certainly less public service. Already we have heard directly from several of our readers, mostly in a positive vein, although one — Cleveland NAACP president Mike Nelson — called up to dispute our characterization of his organization as “stirring”.

The prompt for that first post was the euphoria we felt from attending two events the day before yesterday. The first was a program at Case Western Reserve University, hosted by its Weatherhead School of Management. It was a high caliber discussion of macro economic trends delivered by Michael Jeans with such clarity that even nonfinancial initiates could assimilate, followed by a discussion of opportunity structures for businesses and the traps for the unwary that surround those opportunities. What made it special in addition to its first rate quality were two things: a) knowing that two African American bankers — Michael Jeans of JumpStart’s Growth Opportunity Partners subsidiary, and Ndeda Letson of Citizens Bank — were involved in every detail of the event, and that it was carried out to perfection, even to the catering, and b) it was inclusive.

May I digress for a moment? Roger Wilkins earlier this week. He was an unassuming black man of great intellect and integrity, a civil rights champion of national repute, and a path-breaker in many ways. From obituaries [Washington Post[1]; New York Times[2]] I learned, unsurprisingly, that he was in some ways tortured by the pressures he was forced to bear as a black man who came of age in mid-century America. The pressures were by no means unique to him. While they have dissipated to a great degree for many black people, especially those with some economic means, they are nonetheless known to virtually every adult African American of a certain age. President Obama alluded to this fact more than once, although he tended to do so obliquely — precisely because those pressures remain so feral in American society and polity.  (If you doubt that, glance at the White House.)

For Wilkins, who worked at the highest “blue chip” levels of American government and society, the pressure cooker was often too much; he had difficulty reconciling the privileged arenas in which he worked and socialized with his notion of blackness and his understanding and empathy for the less fortunate for whom he was a fierce and relentless advocate.

There are moments in life where the twoness of being African in America, so peerlessly expressed by DuBois[3], disappears because you find yourself in a place where even the micro-aggressions have faded away. That’s what true inclusion can feel like. And I thought how Wilkins would have loved to have been where I was both Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening, in settings where excellence and ethnicity combined in a way that could make grown men cry for joy. Black folk, and the woke part of our nation, got a taste of that during the Obama years, and we ain’t never gonna forget or quit trying to reproduce it wherever we can.

So Tuesday night I had two events to cover, and apologies to the Black Professionals Association Charitable Foundation [BPACF] which was having its annual meeting and announcing to the world that Erskine Cade [“Ernie”] was its 2017 Black Professional of the Year [an inspired choice, we think], I never got there, which means I also missed the tribute BPACF was scheduled to give honoring the life of Charleyse Pratt, a very accomplished sister who died earlier this month.

Truth is, I had barely walked in the door of The Lofts suite at 40th St. and Payne Ave. for the local launch of a political action committee when I knew something special was going down.

To begin with, the room was full and the vibe was warm, natural. Healthy [that no micro-aggression thing again. You can feel its presence or absence in the atmosphere, like extreme humidity.] I saw people whose presence surprised me; they weren’t they types who usually attend political affairs. The crowd skewed millennial but all generations were there, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers and whatever fills the gaps. And significantly, there was a total absence of that segment of the political crowd whose hands are always out, looking for the hustle.

[By way of contrast, I remember when Gov. Kasich came to town a few years ago to tout his administration’s success in achieving the state’s set-aside goals for the first time in history. It was indeed a signal achievement in which he took justifiable pride — “just do it”, I think he said. That accomplishment was an example of what it takes when the intent to be inclusive is real: leadership and commitment from the top, and the willingness to hold subordinates accountable for performance.

There was a huge crowd of folk at that Kasich photo op, but even apart from the hoopty-do of a gubernatorial road show, the vibe that day was different. That particular mostly black crowd had a different flavor than either of Tuesday’s events. The people who hustled over to see and meet the Governor or his posse, to get in the pictures, to secure the right contact, put a chill in the air for this reporter. You could sense they were there, figuratively, with hands out, palms up, grins at the ready.

(That sounds harsh, but then this site is called The Real Deal.)

I think I just broke my promise that this was going to be a 100% positive report, and I know I have buried the lead, which is that

[1] From a young age, he once wrote, he was compelled to spend his life “blasting through doors that white people didn’t want to open.” Mr. Wilkins said he lived at times with a painful duality as an African American who had risen to positions of leverage in white-controlled halls of power.
He felt an obligation to serve the black community, but he also desired an identity independent from it — “my own personal exemption,” he said. … He spent periods of his life at the Ford Foundation, where he awarded grants from its luxurious New York offices, and on the riot-ravaged streets of Detroit, where he was confronted by gun-wielding state troopers unaccustomed to encountering a black federal authority. … Intense and sensitive, Mr. Wilkins … saw himself as a microcosm of high-achieving black America at a time of limited new opportunity amid still-festering historical bigotry.

[2] Mr. Wilkins had little personal experience with discrimination. He waged war against racism from above the barricades — with political influence, jawboning, court injunctions, philanthropic grants, legislative proposals, and commentaries on radio and television and in newspapers, magazines and books.
Outwardly, he was a successful, popular black man with more white acquaintances than black friends. … As he rose to prominence, he came to regard himself as a token black in institutions and social circles that were overwhelmingly white and privileged. It troubled him deeply. In [a] memoir, he acknowledged years of unease with his blackness, of trying to live up to the expectations of whites.
[3] “One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” — W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks, [1903]

BREAKING NEWS: former Maple Hts. mayor Jeff Lansky has passed

Maple Heights Mayor Annette Blackwell has announced this afternoon that her predecessor, Jeffrey A. Lansky, died this morning.

Mr. Lansky was first elected to City Council from District 7 in 1987. He won re-election in 1989 before winning election as Council President in 1991. He stayed in that role until 2003 when he was elected mayor, a position he held until he retired from politics in 2015. He was born in 1960.

A press released issued from City Hall says the former mayor is survived by his wife, Mary, son Jeffrey Jr., and three stepdaughters.

Arrangements are pending.

Black Politics in Cleveland: From Apex to Nadir

Black politics in Cleveland has a long and rich history, dating to the 19th century and the activism of men like Harry C. Smith and George A. Myers. And of course there is a long line of firsts that perhaps reached its apotheosis between 1967 and 1972. Those pivotal years saw Carl Stokes elected mayor [1967], elder brother Louis Stokes elected to Congress [1968], and the formation of the Twenty-first District Caucus [1970], perhaps as potent and sophisticated a political organization as black people have ever created in this country.

Comprised mostly but not exclusively of Democrats, the Caucus — its very name became a household word — at its zenith had the power to elect its friends and defeat its political foes, irrespective of party affiliation. It forced open doors and claimed seats at the table.

That short but sweet epoch of black political power began to recede when Carl Stokes left Cleveland in 1971 for New York and a new line of work. And while there are likely close to 100 black elected officials in Cuyahoga County today, including Congresswoman Marcia Fudge and Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, no one with a memory of those days would tolerate the notion that the entire lot of them wields more than a fraction of the power the black community exercised through the Caucus.

Those halcyon days are long gone, thanks to a number of factors, including population sprawl, demographic changes, the complex and unforeseen effects of a civil rights revolution that knocked down the walls that kept black people segregated in this northern mecca, and the unwillingness or inability of black leadership to groom and grow the next generation of leaders.

Moreover, the outsized role that money now plays in political and public affairs means that even when blacks are elected to public office, they are not necessarily responsive to their constituencies. Politicians of all hues respond first, fastest, and most often to those interests that speak green.

My intent when starting this post was to report on an event of great promise that occurred in town the night before last. But the foregoing attempt to provide context for that report has resulted in painting such a dismal outline of the current state of black political affairs that I don’t want to join the two in one piece. Instead, if you will permit me to extend this preamble a bit, I promise some breaking news in the context of further comment on the failure of black leadership and the prospect of better days ahead.

Our community’s failure to develop long range plans has retarded our progress immeasurably. The lack of leadership development is but the most visible evidence. Our key institutions — political, civil rights, commercial, and cultural — have all suffered from this failure. Fortunately, as we have reported over time, several have begun to emerge from the depths. The Urban League of Greater Cleveland, for example, after being driven to near-insolvency by an ossified board of trustees, has rebounded under the focused leadership of Marsha Mockabee and a reconstituted board to become more relevant and engaged. The United Black Fund, after recycling the same old same old leadership for what seems like a quarter century, is likewise beginning to make major strides under new professional and lay leadership. And the Cleveland NAACP, static for near a half-century, is at least stirring again.

Black Cleveland once had many strong black voices, perhaps none more resolute and louder than W. O. Walker, former publisher of the Call and Post. Of course, he owned a printing press. But he was also a national spokesperson on issues of civil rights, an elected official, and the first African American to serve in an Ohio Governor’s cabinet. My reading of several books in the past few years about aspects of national black politics and culture has enlightened me to many of Mr. Walker’s accomplishments, and my respect for him has only grown over the years. Thus it is all the sadder and more depressing to see what has become of his pride and joy under the ownership of Don King. The last issue I picked up had a severe portion of its news hole devoted to drivel about the virtues of our current president, much of it disguised as paid advertising.

Politically, we have hit rock bottom, best epitomized by the fact that 83-year old Una H. R. Keenon pulled petitions this week to run for mayor of East Cleveland. It seems she is no longer content to pull the strings on the city’s governance from her various perches [retired judge, current school board president, imperial wizard of the Black Women’s Political Action Committee].

There are countless other examples, a few of which can be found on Cleveland’s city council, where Ken Johnson Sr. still presides over the Ward 4 seat from which he retired.

Age of course is not an indicator of competence or lack thereof. We have inadequate leadership across all chronological dimensions. Yesterday morning I called a Cleveland city councilperson about 8am to discuss a few issues. I of course inquired about the prospects of the multi-million dollar Quicken Loans expansion project legislation that is simply the biggest local issue of this decade. The member literally declared total unfamiliarity with the issue, notwithstanding having participated in the 17-0 vote to refer it to committee just last week.

The good news? All Cleveland city council members are up for re-election this fall and most face brisk opposition and an increasingly attentive and engaged electorate.

Better news? Come back tonight and read the report we intended to publish in this space. We promise it will be 100% positive!