June 4, 2009
Tuesday night''s results in the Columbus city election raised a few eyebrows. Most thought Republican Jay Jordan would lose his Ward 5 council seat to Democrat Kabir Karriem. But more than a few were surprised that Republican Susan Mackay was unseated by Democrat Joseph Mickens in Ward 2.
Mickens and Karriem deserve credit; they put together good campaigns, had dedicated volunteers and supporters who got out their votes, used the political machines that operate in their wards, and they won.
But the results really shouldn''t have been that big a surprise. October 2006 offered a crystal ball to Tuesday''s results.
That''s when Robert Smith won the city''s special mayoral election over Jordan. In that campaign, Smith and District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, two - if not THE two - big power brokers in the city''s African-American community partnered to ensure Smith became the city''s first African-American mayor.
The partnership -- busing people to the polls, logging huge numbers of absentee votes and getting traditionally apathetic voters to believe their vote mattered -- produced a record turnout in the African-American community.
When the numbers were in, Smith had a comfortable margin of victory over Jordan, who ran a well-funded, spirited campaign that included backing from Gov. Haley Barbour. But inside the numbers, Wards 2 and 5 stood out. While the Ward 2 seat traditionally has been held by a white, the district actually is majority African-American. Smith showed what can happen when a candidate puts the effort into getting those voters to actually go to the polls.
And while Ward 5 is African-American by a wide majority, that majority also traditionally doesn''t vote, as evidenced by Jordan''s win in 2005. But when Smith ran for mayor, he got them out in huge numbers.
At the time, I noted that if the same effort was put into campaigns this year, both wards easily could elect African-American candidates, giving the city its first-ever majority minority council. Some doubted it after Susan Mackay easily won a special election over Troy Miller, an African-American, in Ward 2 early last year.
The difference was the power brokers who could make a difference didn''t get behind Miller.
Smith provided impetus
It all came together this year. Although he didn''t have to against his opponent, Thom Geiger, who deserves credit for his willingness to run and raise substantive issues, Smith held nothing back in his reelection bid. He raised money, campaigned hard, rallied his supporters and cranked up the machine. That meant a high African-American turnout again.
Karriem and Mickens did their part. Brooks, the venerable supervisor, put his connections behind Karriem. District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith, who is developing his own grassroots political strengths, and Judy Lewis, a long-time activist who knows where the votes are, helped Mickens in Ward 2.
Either Karriem or Mickens could have won individually with their strong campaigns, hard work and spirited volunteers, but throw in Smith''s broad effort and it made the results almost inevitable.
Smith, unknowingly and unintentionally, probably didn''t help Mackay by having city public works crews focus on finishing a skate park in Propst Park before turning their attention to a retention pond that would provide a temporary fix to some of the drainage problems along Maple and surrounding streets in East Columbus.
"That''s been our problem, we start things and never finish them," Smith told me a month ago in a conversation about the skate park. "We''re not going to do that anymore."
Unfortunately for Mackay, the delay was a gift-wrapped campaign issue for Mickens during a spring that brought some of the most-concentrated heavy rains in recent history. In fact, the week election qualifying opened in January, Mackay helped city crews sandbag Mickens'' house to keep rising waters out.
Starting on the retention pond in March or April would have indicated the city in general, and Mackay in particular, finally was doing something about the neighborhood''s long-standing drainage issues. Instead, the residents endured flooding several more times during the spring.
While the racial makeup of the two districts makes it easy to define who will win and lose, the results point to a more subtle challenge of long-term leadership.
In hindsight, Jordan and to a lesser degree, Mackay, didn''t do enough to reach across racial lines. Yes, sometimes that''s difficult, even in our so-called enlightened culture. Neither were regularly invited into African-American neighborhoods or to largely African-American events, activities and church services.
They also didn''t force the issue.
While neither pays attention to skin color, it''s easy to fall back into a comfort zone, listening to, interacting with and reaching out to people in our everyday circle. Given the choice of hanging out at the Market Street Festival or the Seventh Avenue Heritage Street Festival, Market Street is the easier choice for Jordan and Mackay.
The circumstance, subconsciously, widens the psychological racial divide.
The ability and willingness to take that step are the crux of public service, politics - and leadership. To win over - and better serve - supporters on all sides, elected - and appointed - officials must make the effort, however difficult it might be.
Those steps, in turn, will help erase the lingering sense of isolation and separation one community feels from the other.
While Jordan and Mackay faced an uphill battle on the one hand, the tables are only slightly different for Mickens and Karriem.
They, too, subconsciously will be tempted to stay in their comfort zone. Initially they may be able to hide behind the disclaimer that "their" neighborhoods have been neglected and need the hands-on attention. That''ll only fly so long.
Eventually they will become just as disconnected from other parts of the district. Their supporters will become just as complacent and disaffected making it easier for someone to unseat them the next time.
Even worse, they will only be promulgating the racial divide, falling victim to the few who cry "it''s our turn" or "we deserve it" and fueling the small - but shrill - voices on the other side who already are whispering about the disaster that lies ahead with a majority African-American council.
Mickens and Karriem should learn from the mistakes of others; their willingness to step across that invisible line will demonstrate their political savvy and prove the naysayers on both sides wrong. It''ll also make them better public servants.
Most of all, by demonstrating a blind eye to the racial makeup of their districts, they''ll help us all focus on the city''s future, not its past. That''ll make us all better.
Steve Rogers is assignments editor for WCBI TV. His e-mail address is [email protected]; other Rogers'' columns can be found at www.wcbi.com.