Sunday, May 05, 2002

Thousands of black voices almost muted




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        It almost slipped by us. Ohio's Apportionment Board almost got away with shrinking the African-American vote in a Hamilton County House district, with almost no public notice or community outcry.

        Until last week, when a taped phone conversation by a top Republican operative was aired on WCPO-TV (Channel 9). In it, Brett Buerck, chief of staff of House Speaker Larry Householder, boasts that reapportionment, effective this year, has cut out thousands of black voters from Hamilton County House District 28.

        “Because of the changes that we've made in redistricting to help Jim (Raussen), we essentially took 13,000 African-Americans out of the Raussen district and put 14,000 Republicans in,” Mr. Buerck said.

        Mr. Buerck was talking to Doug Mink, a Sharonville school teacher challenging Mr. Raussen, of Springdale, in the Republican primary for District 28. The vote is Tuesday.

Tipping the balance

        Mr. Buerck claims now that he misspoke; his numbers were off.

        Not really. An Enquirer analysis shows that white voters in the district grew after reapportionment by 7,000, while black voters fell by 3,100. The voting-age populace went from a 25.6-percent minority two years ago to 20.5-percent, with the stroke of a pen.

        The state's Democratic Party has sued, calling the process biased. But only now is the NAACP, historic watchdog for voters' rights, awakening from its nap.

        “This is an area where all of Cincinnati should be up in arms,” NAACP president Norma Holt Davis said Friday. “There is clearly a dilution of the black vote ... a deliberate effort to take away the black vote.”

        But the NAACP's local chapter isn't ready to join the legal battle yet, Ms. Davis said. It needs more research, more community education.

        Here's the background.

        Reapportionment comes every 10 years with the Census. Population shifts make it necessary to redraw voter boundaries so individuals' voting power is neither increased nor decreased and racial balance is maintained.

        This year's revamp comes at the hands of an apportionment board stocked 4-to-1 with Republicans.

        Board members had a little help, surprisingly, from a friend at the state NAACP.

        Floyd Johnson, the NAACP's state coordinator for redistricting, represented the group at an apportionment board meeting in September. He presented the NAACP's recommendations, and then he backed the Republican plan.

        He did not disclose, however, that the Republicans paid him $44,000 over the summer to represent black voters and to act as “liaison” to the board. He says there was no conflict in speaking for the NAACP while working for Republicans.

        That conflict is evident now, in Hamilton County District 28.

        Reapportionment carved away part of Cincinnati, all of Mount Healthy and parts of Springfield Township — heavily African-American and heavily Democratic areas — from the district. It carved in Montgomery, Evendale, Reading, Lincoln Heights and other parts of Springfield Township.

        Other communities remain: Forest Park, Springdale, Glendale, Woodlawn, Wyoming, Lockland, Reading, Arlington Heights and a smidgeon of Fairfield.

        The black community gets distracted with so many battles to fight, Ms. Davis says. It's easy for us to let slip something as fundamental as our right to vote.

        But now we've got to move quickly to protect ourselves and send a message to Columbus: Don't even try to count us out by redrawing voter districts.

        We won't be made invisible.

        E-mail damos@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/amos.

       



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