harriet tubman

Columbus Oligarchy and Franklin County Democratic Politicians Defend Our Racially Biased System – Embracing Racial Superiority as “The Columbus Way”

In recognition of Black History Month, as Board Chair of The Columbus Free Press, I explore the racist origins and dubious legality of Columbus’s at-large system of electing its city council, in hopes of educating Columbus citizens about the current environment.

In August 2016, Columbus residents placed on a Special Election ballot a citizen-initiated proposal to change the form of our government from an at-large city council, where all council members are elected in citywide elections, to a form with a mix of council members elected at-large (three) and by district/ward (10). While the Columbus city charter has been amended over 70 times, each time the amendments have been requested by Columbus City Council. This marked the first time citizens had ever successfully placed a charter initiative of our own making on the ballot. And the vitriol of the ruling class to this display of citizen disobedience and imprudence came out immediately.

The Issue 1 campaign was co-chaired by a Democrat (me) and a Republican (Whitney Smith). One Black (me), one white (Smith), one man (me), one woman (Smith) – but rather than being a model for a Columbus where different people can agree and work together, in a performance that would make even Donald Trump and his alternative fact advocates take notes, Issue 1 was lambasted in a $1.2 million dollar negative ad campaign depicting it as a dangerous proposal to create a 25 member city council that was funded by the Koch Brothers to create permanent Republican wards.

This was grossly false – this writer was the initiator of, and primary fundraiser for the proposal, and I am a duly elected member of the Franklin County Democratic Party’s Central Committee elected by my neighbors to serve the interest of Ward 55 Democrats (Franklin Park and Olde Towne East), which hardly qualify as bastions of the miniscule and shrinking local Columbus partisan Republican “empire.” 

Democrats posited that Columbus Democrats and Republicans are not supposed to work together, and the tactic of divide and conquer was employed with a Machiavellian brilliance against a sheep-like Democratic electorate.

The Oligarchs Spend Big Bucks to Exert Their Control in Defense of a Racist Political System

Issue 1 was defeated handily at the polls – due largely to the successful mischaracterization of the issue by opponents, whose PAC, “One Columbus,” spent $724,842.32 in a false, negative advertising blitz during the last two and a half weeks of the campaign to turn around citizen support. Some of the one-percenters working to overturn citizen’s attempt to change the way we come together to form the people’s government included: American Electric Power ($75,000), Nationwide Mutual Insurance ($50,000), Wolfe Enterprises ($50,000), Huntington National Bank ($25,000), Shelley Material and Holding companies ($50,000), Ohio Health ($25,000), and the Daimler Group (through six different corporate entities totaling $15,000).

In contrast to the nearly ¾ million dollars spent over that last two weeks and a half of the campaign by the oligarchs, the citizen’s PAC “Represent Columbus,” had just $12,706 to spend. All told, over the two month Special Election period, the oligarchs spent $1,226,108.08 to beat back ordinary citizens seeking the most normal and common form of local big city governance – elections that include some members elected by council district/ward.

As a Black Democrat, I grew particularly curious about the partisan vitriol, given the Franklin County Democratic Party’s historic support for district based elections and the work of the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the group that litigated Brown v. the Board of Education desegregating public schools), who tended to fight at-large forms of government. What happened to my party?

The Oligarchs and Franklin County Democrats Joined to Support a Nationalistic and Racist System of Government

At-large forms of government are typically associated with southern racism, although that association is far from complete. More accurately, though, at large forms of government are associated with political control by a small group of business and social elites. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R.,” historian Richard Hofstadter notes that some of the motivation for at-large forms of city government came during the Progressive Reform era in the late 1800’s-early 1900’s as a result of Anglo and Irish business and political elites efforts to stop newly arriving immigrants from south and central Europe (Italians and Germans) from developing ward based political power (note German Village and Italian Village) and thus usurping their previously existing attendant political perks such as political patronage jobs. Contemporary historians point to the traditionally heavy Irish makeup of city police and fire forces as being a remnant of the ethnic ward based political patronage described by Hofstadter that reformers sought to end with at-large governance.

But what had its roots in European nationalism – as Irish and English sought to exclude Germans and Italians from political life in America – took on different tones through the Civil Rights era. Specifically, when the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in one of the language minority groups identified in Section 4(f)(2) of the Act.

And in response to the Voting Rights Act which opened up elections polls to Blacks, many communities across the Deep South changed from their traditional ward-based political formats as Blacks began to get elected in wards to at-large forms of government, which had the effect of diluting Black voting strength by subsuming it within a larger pool of White voters.

As published by the U.S. Department of Justice, in 1982, “Congress examined the history of litigation under Section 2 since 1965 and concluded that Section 2 should be amended to provide that a plaintiff could establish a violation of the section if the evidence established that, in the context of the ‘totality of the circumstance of the local electoral process,’ the standard, practice, or procedure being challenged had the result of denying a racial or language minority an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.” Thus, an invidious purpose was no longer a requirement for a finding of a Voting Rights Act violation.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, most litigation under the Voting Rights Act has been against at-large forms of government for their discriminatory impact on the basis of race. It should be noted that the Voting Rights Act is race-neutral, and has been found to protect the civil electoral rights of minority Whites in majority Black communities as well.

Voting Rights Act violations for at-large systems have been found with the Euclid, Ohio city school board and Euclid city council. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice filed Section 2 violation charges against Eastpointe, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, showing clearly that the federal lawyers believe that unlawful racially discriminatory effects of at-large voting are not limited to the south. And the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has successfully litigated against at-large electoral systems across the country, issued a Frequent Asked Questions memo to Columbus after the Issue 1 vote – indicating its concern about Columbus’s curious racially discriminatory system of electing its council.

“The Columbus Way”: How Columbus Has Retained a Patently Racist At-Large Electoral System

American White privilege shows its persistence: while most big cities abandoned at-large governance, the few remaining cities to retain at-large voting invented ways to circumvent the law, while retaining the power and control characteristic of at-large elections. For instance, Austin, Texas developed the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” – an informal agreement between the political parties and the business community whereby the business community would not finance a White candidate running for one seat informally reserved for a Black and one seat reserved for a Latino. In this way, Austin elites sought to preserve their power and control, while contriving an illusion of racial openness – though control never slipped from their hands.

Historically (until last August when the roles reversed), Columbus Democrats tried to reform this relic of our nation’s racist past, but were thwarted by Republican opposition. On January 12, 1968 The Columbus Dispatch wrote “a proposal to reorganize the Columbus City Council under the old-fashioned ward political plan may be placed on the ballot by the (Democratic) Sensenbrenner administration next May. One of the aims of the proposal will be to provide representation to the Negro minority which now has no voice on the City Council.”

On March 3, 1968 the Dispatch reported that a 13 member council with a majority elected by district was proposed for the ballot, with all six council Democrats voting in favor and the lone Republican voting in opposition. The proposal failed at the ballot, gathering just 43 percent of the vote, with the Dispatch reporting “however, many observers were surprised the controversial issue received 43 percent of the vote in its maiden voyage to the ballot in spite of the formidable opposition offered by the Franklin County Republican organization.”

As reported in the May 8, 1968 Dispatch, Democratic Utilities Director William Brooks explained the defeat saying “the Republicans have a well disciplined organization. They follow their party chairman – like sheep.” Democrat Council member Jerry O’Shaughnessey believed a portion of the negative vote may have been due to “a certain amount of white backlash … a fear of some whites that Negroes would be on council.” The Franklin County Democratic Party had stayed out of the charter amendment debate at the request of city hall politicians who wanted to keep the issue nonpartisan. After its defeat, Chairman George Twyford announced the party would be involved the next time around.

In 1969, Columbus elected Dr. John Rosemond as its first African American member of council since the charter change to at-large in 1914 – ending a 55 year drought. And in 1975, Rosemond and council Democrats developed a plan for an 11 member council with a majority elected by district. Council voted 5-2 to place the issue on the ballot, with all Democrats voting in favor and both Republicans voting in opposition. The measure was defeated at the polls. According to news reports, it was believed to have failed because its chief sponsor, African American Democratic city council member John Rosemond, was defeated soundly by White Republican Mayor Tom Moody in the same election.

This was the last time Democrats tried to change. After these failures, Columbus Democrats meekly developed a practice of appointing Blacks to city council, so they can run in their first election as incumbents with full party and business community support – a benevolence which in fact denies Black residents the opportunity to elect candidates of their own choosing – a circumvention of the purpose of the Voting Rights Act. (Note: Beyond Rosemond, Republican Jeanette Bradley stands as the only Black member of council to have gained office initially by election since the 1914 charter change – all the others have initially been appointed. It should be noted that Columbus elected its first African American to council in 1880, Rev. James Preston Poindexter, under the ward system.)

One can only wonder whether Black Democrats – indeed whether most within the party – know they are being handed their positions to be pawns in a legal chess match designed to maintain a system of White electoral supremacy – where every candidate must be ratified by White citizens and the White business community in order to be elected, or whether they believe they are chosen on their merits alone.

Black history is made every day: one wonders how Columbus Democrats – particularly its faithful Black Democrats – will be judged tomorrow for their lack of outrage and action over “The Columbus Way” of subsuming their latent political power as guaranteed under federal law. Harriett Tubman once said “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

Power to the (White) People – it is “The Columbus Way.”

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