Sunday, December 13, 2009

A stubborn question: Will county reform benefit minorities?

You may think this debate is over. Or that it's old news, the complaints of the defeated.

But the question of whether Cuyahoga County's new charter will benefit black residents is not going away. That's clear from the debate about the Call & Post's angry attacks on Nina Turner, and from the public forum this month about opportunities for young black leaders in the new system, which devolved into complaints about Issue 6 instead.

Yes, most political conversation in town has moved on since Issue 6's two-to-one victory Nov. 3. We're turning to new, forward-looking questions, like what kind of leader we want as the first county executive. But the debate about black participation in the new government is going to come back in the September and November 2010 elections and when the new leaders are seated in 2011.

It also came up earlier this month on WCPN's The Sound of Ideas, when several guests were talking about the Call & Post attack on Turner, and former Plain Dealer columnist Afi-Odelia Scruggs called in. She claimed host Dan Moulthrop and the guests were reacting to spot news, not the deeper issue. On the air, Scruggs challenged several specific media outlets and reporters -- including me -- to do stories on why there was such "deep antipathy" in the black community toward Issue 6.

My first reaction was to challenge Scruggs' entire premise. Black voters don't dislike Issue 6.

Voting returns in black communities -- Cleveland's black-majority wards, mostly black cities such as East Cleveland and Warrensville Heights -- almost all show narrow majorities for the new county charter.

Interestingly, those communities also gave narrow majorities to Issue 5, the competing reform measure that lost. So black voters appear to have split evenly between 6 and 5, while a few cast a double-yes vote. Though the few precincts anywhere in the county that went against 6 were in black neighborhoods, the voting returns prove there's no single "black" position on reform and suggest that the new government has majority support in the black community.

But if I rewrite Scruggs' question to ask why there was such deep opposition to the new charter among established black political leaders, then we're getting somewhere. Sen. Turner was almost the only black elected official to support 6. (Earl Williams, a Shaker Heights councilman, is the only other one I know of.) Cleveland's activist black ministers, a powerful political force, opposed 6 as well. Dismissing the opponents as out of touch is easy, but doesn't really answer the question.

On WCPN, Scruggs suggested black antipathy toward 6 had to do with the "struggle for political power African-Americans have gone through," and the fear that African-Americans' "power base is so tenuous that county restructuring would destroy the power [we've] fought for."

However, not all of the black leaders who opposed 6 did so for race-conscious reasons. For instance, county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, who led the argument against 6, offered race-neutral arguments that white and black officials on the pro-5 side embraced.

Gary Norton, East Cleveland's mayor-elect, opposed 6 for reasons similar to Jones': concern that the charter wasn't drafted in public, fear that the county executive would be too powerful and the county council too weak.

"What I never understood about the opposition to Issue 6 was why folks said it would diminish African-American power," Norton said when I posed Scruggs' question to him. Cuyahoga County's old government structure has been around for 200 years, and only four black officials were ever elected under it, he pointed out. Norton says arguments about black political power came up because "folks were trying to spook people." He's not sure why.

Still, Norton tried to summarize others' arguments. "Some of the racial angst might be, African-Americans might never get that seat with tremendous power. They'd get the rubber-stamp seats." (Cuyahoga County is 29 percent black, so black county executive candidates could face an uphill battle.) Cleveland, a black-majority city, now controls many of the region's assets, Norton adds. "Perhaps there's fear of competition between the county executive and mayor."

By contrast, Cleveland city councilman Zack Reed reacted to Scruggs' question this way: "There’s nothing in Issue 6 that benefits black folks. There’s nothing there!"

Reed says he's concerned that the business community's push for the new charter, which names economic development as the new government's top priority, will mean less spending on social services. "If we take those moneys away from social services to do what they call economic development, then the social fabric and the safety net that’s already fragile now will collapse," he says. I could call that a race-neutral argument, except that the need for social services is often strongest in black neighborhoods such as Reed's ward.

Reed is also worried that the new government may not offer minorities as much opportunity as the current one.

"What the county was becoming was a minor-league system for minorities to move up [to become] political, social, and corporate leaders in this city," he says. He points to Norton and new county land bank head Dennis Roberts, who both worked under Jones, as well as deputy county administrator Lee Trotter and former procurement and diversity director Adrian Maldonado, now a construction contractor.

"That whole system just got collapsed," Reed says. The new government may not be as open to minorities, he fears, depending on who the county executive chooses for his or her cabinet. "If those individuals who make up the cabinet have no association with or are unsympathetic to minority community ... then the issues that face the minority community are going to be lost."

That leads Reed to offer a thought that's deeply unfashionable in December 2009: praise for Jones, Jimmy Dimora and Tim Hagan.

"All three were sympathetic to issues that faced the minority community," he says (talking in the past tense about the lame-duck commissioners). "All had a relationship with the minority community." Though they all lived in the suburbs, "they still looked out for the city." He fears the new county council, elected by districts, could engage in parochial and competitive thinking instead.

But Reed's praise for Dimora and Hagan cuts both ways: It turns the focus back to the county executive, who will also be elected countywide, as the commissioners were. So the candidates for the top job will all need to court the support of black voters, a quarter of the electorate.

That's why this issue isn't dead, and why Issue 6 opponents, who seem obstinate and vanquished today, will become relevant again in the new year. How will the new government benefit black residents? is a legitimate question every county executive candidate will have to confront on the campaign trail -- and a question the winner will have to address on the new government's first day.

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