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Black History Month and Columbus At-Large Political History

In 1965, the civil rights movement such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Council decided to make Selma, Alabama a focus of a Black voter registration campaign. 

On February 18th, a group of White segregationists attacked a group of peaceful protestors, and an Alabama State Trooper killed Jimmy Lee Jackson, a 26 year old Baptist minister from Marion, Alabama, who was one of the demonstrators, as Jackson attempted to shield his grandfather and mother.  Jackson had attempted to register to vote five times, before he was murdered.   In response to this killing the SNCC planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, and on March 7th, a group of about 600 marchers led by organizer Amelia Boynton and SNCC Chair (now congressman) John Lewis, met in Selma to begin the march.

The protestors got to the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, when they were confronted by Alabama State Troopers and other White who had been deputized just for the occasion.  On horseback, and with billyclubs, dogs, and tear gas, the troopers attacked the marchers.  Famously, Lewis and Boynton were knocked unconscious on the bridge.  The event, later termed “Bloody Sunday”,  was broadcast around the world and shocked the conscience of the nation.

Two days later, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other clergy from across the country started another march, although a court had forbiddden the march.  They were again confronted at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This time, troopers stepped aside, but King, fearing a trap, after a moment of silence, turned the march around and went back to Selma.  

This second march became known as “Turnaround Tuesday.” That night, a young White Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, James Reeb, who came south to stand in solidarity with King and the voting rights activists, was beaten to death by a White segregationist.  King preached Reeb’s eulogy, and President Johnson mentioned the violence in Selma and referenced Reeb, while submitting his Voting Rights Act to Congress on March 15th ,  addressing a Joint Session of Congress, saying “Many were brutally assaulted; one good man, a man of God, was killed.”  Johnson continued, “There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem…Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negros, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Governor Wallace tried to prevent another march, but a U.S. District Court Judge sanctioned it, and on March 20th, King and about 2,000 marchers again took off from Selma, but this time under federal protection.  Five days and fifty four miles later, on March 25th the marchers arrived at the Montgomery Courthouse.

The impact of the Selma to Montgomery march was significant.  In August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The act banned literacy tests as a requirement for voting, mandated federal oversight of voter registration in areas where tests had previously been used and gave the U.S. attorney general the duty of challenging the use of poll taxes and other discriminatory measures in state and local elections.

One of the local election practices the act address, is at-large elections, such as those used for Columbus City Council since 1914.  At-large elections are elections where every councilmember runs in a citywide election, rather than running in a smaller council district.  The Voting Rights Act opposed this practice, which is designed to dilute minority votes, making geographically concentrated minorities unable to elect candidates of their own choosing when Whites vote as a block.  According to the Department of Justice, “Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits 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. Most of the cases arising under Section 2 since its enactment involved challenges to at-large election schemes.”

In Columbus history, four Black councilmembers, starting with Rev. James Preston Poindexter in 1882, were elected in the district-based elections in place prior to the city’s 1914 charter which created the at-large election scheme.  This is not because Columbus was a bastion of racial harmony. In describing ward boundaries, the 1883 Columbus City Code  said the southern boundary of ward 7 was “Marion Road (commonly referred to as Nigger Lane”).

However, once the 1914 at-large charter was adopted, no Blacks were elected to city council until 1969 (Dr. James Rosemond).  The Voting Rights Act was having an effect on Columbus public officials, though. In March 1968, led by Mayor Sensenbrenner, every one of the five Democrats was joined by one of the two Republican councilmembers, voted to put a 13 member council led by districts on the ballot for adoption by voters (changes to council format must be voted by Columbus residents as an amendment to the city charter).  the Dispatch said “one of the goals of the measure was to provide representation for Negros which =ch currently have no voice on the city council” (Ward Representation Proposed for Council, Dispath, January 13, 1968).  Opponents said elections by district, instead of at-large, “could cause a loss of control over the council by the administration.”

The measure was voted down at the polls. (Backers of Enlarged Council Vow to Try Again: Biggest Disappointment Goes to Baumann and City Hall Democrats, Columbus Dispatch, May 8, 1968). After the loss, the chief proponent, Democrat James Baumann said “Every citizen deserves representation on council and Columbus will find a way to achieve this goal,” and fellow Democrats M.D. Portman and Jerry O’Shaughnessy immediately agreed.  City Hall Democrat Utilities Director William Brooks said “The Republicans are a well disciplined organization. They follow their party chairman—like sheep.” 

According to the Dispatch, “the amendment was generally successful in Negro precincts, but not by the margin hoped for.  O’Shaugnessey 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.” 

However, the Republican Party Chair Schneider said his party would pledge “ to present a Negro candidate for council next year when three at-large seats will be up for grabs ‘…if we can find the right man.’” (Dispatch, Backers of Enlarged council…).  And indeed, in 1969 Democrat Dr. James Rosemond was elected to council – the first Black in 55 years since the charter was adopted. Rosemond remains the only Black Democrat initially elected to council in 105 years.  Every other Black council person has initially been appointed to office to fill a vacancy, then runs as an incumbent with full support of the political party and money from big business interests and wealthy White individuals; votes from the Black community are irrelevant to the initial appointment, party endorsement, and big donations.

This deliberate selection of Blacks to represent the Black community by Whites in power, and the troubling supplanting of the latent voting power of the Black community by political insiders and big money. Writing about the 1981 election campaign between Ben Espy and Earl Bradley,  “When Rosemond announced he would not be seeking a third term … it was a foregone conclusion that both political parties would seek election of a black councilman to take his place…what is surprising is that both parties chose candidates who have no discernable base of support in the traditional black political community” (“Seeking a ‘Black Seat’ on City Council,” Dave Garrick, Columbus Monthly , January 1981).  The article continues, saying “and thus far, neither candidate has managed to generate a groundswell of support in the black community.”

 Khari Enaharo, a Driving Park community leader said “it’s almost like a hopelessness that sets in once somebody continuously picks for you who will represent you” (p. 114). “The problem, as Espy sees it, is that the present city government is not structured in a way that makes it easy to identify needs on a neighborhood basis. ‘there is no way that a councilman elected at-large can be attuned to all areas of the city without some vehicle designed to assist him” (p. 120). “Normally, a Black Democrat can count on piling up a lot of votes in the black wards. Espy, no doubt, will do well there. But how well will depend on how much enthusiasm he can generate among fellow blacks. That enthusiasm has been slow developing.”(p. 121)

“The hottest issue in the black community in recent years has been alleged police brutality against blacks, and some blacks question how responsive Espy will be to their concerns since he has in the past served as legal  counsel to the  Fraternal Order of Police. Espy realizes that the fact that he h as not been seen in black leadership circles in the bity causes h im a problem in the black community. But he feels he can overcome that.  ‘In some parts of the black community, I think it is a fair comment to say that they don’t know me in term of their particular interest and need. I intend to make them know me.’” (p. 122)  Espy went on to an illustrious political career. The question for Columbus is, why is it appropriate to select Black leadership for the Black community, rather than letting the Blac community elect for itself?

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has expressed concerns about Columbus’s at-large election, writing a series of letters to Columbus officials in 2017 and 2018.  The storied civil rights law firm visted Columbus on two occasions, meeting with dozens of people and organizations. However, not a single councilmember, of the city attorney,  would meet with the group or attend its public forum at the African and African American Studies Community Extension Center.

Democratic Party Insiders Call for Change to Columbus City Council Elections

Four Columbus residents who are members of the Franklin County Democratic Central Committee (residents elected to the party’s governing body by residents of their ward). The four, representing voting wards in Olde Towne East/Franklin Park, East Columbus/Krumm Park, the Near Southside, and the King-Lincoln District support the Everyday People for Positive Change citizen ballot proposals, and urged the other 83 Columbus members of the Central Committee to learn more about the proposal and join in support. [Read the Letter Here]

This letter will help make it much more difficult for opponents of the measure to falsely brand it as a Republican initiative, as opponents of August 2016’s Issue One did in a $1.1M campaign of deception. The four central committeemembers represent residents in wards in the Franklin Park/Olde Towne East, Near Southside, Bronzeville, and Krumm Park/East Columbus neighborhoods.

The letter educates Democratic Party insiders about the way the Columbus’s at-large elections violate the intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by requiring Columbus’s geographically-concentrated minority (Black) population to always vote in a majority White electorate. It reminds party insiders that voting rights have traditionally been a bedrock Democratic Party principle. (The letter does not go through the local party’s historical support for district-based elections, starting with the party opposition to the 1914 at-large charter change, as well as Democrat city councilmember-led district proposals in 1967 and 1975.

The letter further exposes the disconnect between the party’s professed disdain for the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and the local practice of allowing virtually unlimited contributions by the wealthy and corporate PACs in council elections.

Lastly, the letter posits that City Councill’s embrace of tax abatements, parallels the “tax cuts for the rich” mantra of Democrats nationally, and says that our election format is the cause of such conflicts between expressed values and actual practice, and that strengthening the relationship between citizens and elected officials is a structural issue that only voters can change.

Background


In 1912 the Ohio General Assembly passed a law allowing local communities to establish charters and operate by local, rather than state law.  In 1914, the City of  Columbus adopted a charter, with the campaign headed by Hugh Huntington, out of the Chamber of Commerce offices.  The charter established a 7 member council, which the Franklin County Democratic Club opposed, saying such a council would be opposed to the common interest and dominated by business men.

The effect of the at-large system was summarized by CJ Lentz in Columbus : America’s Croossroads.  Although four African Americans had been elected to the 18 ward council in effect prior to the 1914 charter, Lentz says “It (the at-large election format) eliminated entire classes of persons from the opportunity to hold office, many of the poorer and ethnic minority neighborhoods candidates from one of the segments of the  population simply can not get elected.” In fact, no African American was elected to the at large city council until 1969.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made such at-large elections problematic.  Section 2 of the VRA prohibits “unusually large electoral districts” which cause “minority vote dilution.” In response, first term Democrat council member James Baughman and James E. Jones a political director for Mayor Sensenbrenner led a May 196 8 effort and persuaded the council (controlled 5-2 by Democrats) to put a 13 member council with 13 members, 7 elected by District and 6 elected at large. Mayor Sensenbrenner supported it, the Democratic Party remained neutral, Republicans opposed. The arguments would sound very familiar today.  The issue was defeated at the ballot box, and in 1969 Dr. John Rosemond became the first Black electedto council since the 1914 charter amendment.

In 1975 the district issue appeared on the ballot again, put there by a vote of council. This proposal called for an 11 member council with 6 by ward and 5 at large. John H. Rosemond, the first African American major party to run for mayor, championed the issue which was supported by the Democratic Party, Incumbent Republican Mayor Moody opposed it as did the Republican Party. Both Rosemond and the issue were defeated.  There was a strong racial divide about the issue.

Since 1969, every Black councilmember except Republican Jeanette Bradley (in 1991) has been appointed to office, not elected. Most recently, every Black councilmember’s job prior to being appointed has been as a city government employee. Courts have held that “special circumstances, such as incumbency” do not alleviate a need for electoral reform. Columbus power brokers have excelled in skirting the law: appointing electorally and financially weak African Americans to office, while disenfranchising the latent voting power of the African American community.

While the issue was studied several times since, it was not acted upon until in 2014 Columbus Citizens for Responsible Government introduced a citizen initiative to reform city council. That proposed issue did not make the ballot.

In 2016, a citizen initiative led by ballot issue committee Represent Columbus sought to put a 13 member council on the ballot (3 at large and 10 from districts).  After a $1.1M campaign in opposition known by insiders for its false narratives, the issue failed badly at the ballot. That issue (Issue 1, in August 2016) was the only citizen initiated charter amendment to ever qualify for the ballot in the charter’s 100 year history). 

As part of its opposition to the issue, the city proposed to later form a Charter Review Commission to review and update the city’s charter,  using “best practices.”  In 2017, instead of using “best practices,” the commission came forward with a strange recommendation to increase the size of council to 9 members, each of whom must reside in one of nine districts — but bizarrely each of whom would be voted on by the entire city (at-large).

Far from being a “best practice,” this form of government is found in only three other American cities, Tuscon, AZ, and Sparks and Reno, NV – all much smaller than Columbus.  And in fact, at the time of the recommendation, the Tuscon system had been sued, because 33  times since 1950, the citywide vote overwhelmed district vote preferences.  (The lawsuit was unsuccessful, because political parties are not a “protected class” under the federal law, although racial minorities are. In Columbus, the only racial minority large and geographically cohesive enough to be a protected class under Section 2 is Black/African American). Based on that lawsuit, the Nevada state legislature was re-writing the charters for Reno and Sparks at the time the CRC was studying the issue and making that “best practice” recommendation.

In 2017, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which had twice visited Columbus at the invitation of Everyday People for Positive Change and met with over 30 people and also presented at a public workshop hosted by the OSU African and African American Community Extension Service (although no city official would meet with the storied civil rights law firm) became aware of the Charter Review Committee recommendation, and in a November 17, 2017 letter the LDF said about it “while this proposed voting structure may create the perception that voters will have a representative chosen by a neighborhood community, the maintenance of the underlying at-large voting scheme for all members of the city council will continue to unfailingly diminish the voices of  Black voters in Columbus.”

Given the city’s refusal to discuss the issue, Everyday People began gathering petition signatures for the same 10 districts/3 at large format of the 2016 Represent Columbus ballot issue. and with 42,500 petitoin signature gathered secured sufficient valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. The council refused to put the issue on the ballot, saying it violated the single-subject provision the city had put in the charter pursuant to the 2014 initiative petitions, and EDP sued in the Ohio Supreme Court, ultimately losing in a 4-5 split decision.  On the same day EDP sued, the Council — with brand new member Emmanuel Remy providing the final needed vote on his first day on council – voted to put the Issue 4, the strange 9 members district/at-large issue, on the ballot.  That issue passed handily with neither a campaign for, nor a campaign against, the issue, to take effect in 2024.

Note: Columbus is the largest American city to retain all at-large council format after Austin voters moved to districts in 2016.  While Columbus is the 15th largest city, Cincinnati is America’s 35th largest city at about 40% of the population of Columbus.  Cincinnati residents are now pursuing a ballot initiative to move from their all at-large format to a mixed form that includes districts along with at-large seats.

Democrat Insiders Call for Change to City Council Elections

Four Coljumbus residents who are members of the Franklin County Democratic Central Committee (residents elected to the party’s governing body by residents of their ward). The four, representing voting wards in Olde Towne East/Franklin Park, East Columbus/Krumm Park, the Near Southside, and the King-Lincoln District support the Everyday People for Positive Change citizen ballot proposals, and urged the other 83 Columbus members of the Central Committee to learn more about the proposal and join in support.

This letter will help make it much more difficult for opponents of the measure to falsely brand it as a Republican initiative, as opponents of August 2016’s Issue One did in a $1.1M campaign of deception. The four central committeemembers represent residents in wards in the Franklin Park/Olde Towne East, Near Southside, Bronzeville, and Krumm Park/East Columbus neighborhoods.

The letter educates Democratic Party insiders about the way the Columbus’s at-large elections violate the intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by requiring Columbus’s geographically-concentrated minority (Black) population to always vote in a majority White electorate. It reminds party insiders that voting rights have traditionally been a bedrock Democratic Party principle.

It futher exposes the disconnect between the party’s professed disdain for the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and the local practice of allowing virtually unlimited contributions by the wealthy and corporate PACs in council elections.

The letter posits that City Councill’s embrace of tax abatements, parallels the “tax cuts for the rich” mantra of Democrats nationally, and says that our election format is the cause of such conflicts between expressed values and actual practice, and that strengthening the relationship between citizens and elected officials is a structural issue that only voters can change.