By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Two years ago, the Rev. Damon Lynch III marched into Cincinnati City Council chambers and threatened to block the doors unless he got answers about the police shooting of Timothy Thomas. Today, the 43-year-old Cincinnati Black United Front leader and Baptist preacher is campaigning for his own seat in those same chambers.
And he's doing it with a surprisingly mainstream campaign, hitting hardest on issues of neighborhood development and less on the boycott, police and other divisive issues.
Instead of marches, he campaigns door-to-door and attends dreadfully long neighborhood forums. Instead of bullhorns, he uses press releases, news conferences and a Web site, damonlynchforcouncil.com.
Even Republican Pete Witte, who has cast himself as the "complete opposite" of Lynch, has noticed a difference.
"He's a kinder, gentler Damon Lynch, isn't he?" said Witte, who tried to keep Lynch off the ballot by challenging his residency.
"In his actions, in how he speaks to crowd, he's a politician - and he knows that playing to the lunatic fringe isn't going to get him elected. He's been well coached."
Lynch's supporters and detractors all agree that he sounds much different - in tone, if not in substance - in church basements and community centers than he did on the streets of Over-the-Rhine.
So which is the real Damon Lynch?
"It's the question of the campaign," admits Jene Galvin, senior adviser to the Lynch campaign.
"When he is asked the hardest questions - about the police, about the riots, about the boycott - he is completely candid, which is refreshing. And he is right where he was in 2001," Galvin said.
"There are times in history, and April 2001 was one of them in Cincinnati, when things are going on and people need a voice, and they need someone who will express their anger and their frustration and their hopes. But if you listened to him then, he said the same stuff he's saying in the campaign."
But to many, that voice also became the villain. Lynch was blamed for inflaming racial tensions at that Law & Public Safety Committee when he threatened to hold City Council hostage. When the meeting did end, the crowd spilled out into the streets of downtown and Over-the-Rhine. Four days of rioting followed.
Today, Lynch sees a different role for himself.
"I don't have to be a pontificating black male. We have other people doing that. I don't have to be angry. We have Republicans doing that."
Lynch acknowledges the city has made progress on police relations since 2001, through a court-supervised process called the Collaborative Agreement which he helped negotiate.
"When you touch on the police issues - those are the firestorm issues. But underneath those issues are economic issues," he said. At a press conference Thursday, he emphasized his economic platform, which includes proposals on job training and neighborhood development.
But he said his underlying principles haven't changed at all. If white Cincinnatians perceive him differently, he said, it might be because they're hearing him directly for the first time "without the filter of the media and talk radio."
His Aug. 19 announcement that he would enter the race - two days before the filing deadline - reinvigorated a sleepy off-year election. At candidate forums around the city, black and white voters often come to hear him speak and leave when he's done.
One woman in Mount Washington approached him after his speech at a candidates' night. "I didn't think I would like you," she said. She left with a yard sign.
Whether that interest translates into votes remains to be seen. In a field race, the conventional wisdom goes, name recognition is king.
Still, his reputation as a polarizing figure is hard to overcome. One College Hill voter asked how he could accomplish anything on a City Council he's spent two years denouncing.
"I'm not interested in spending two years on the losing end of 8-1 votes," he says. He promises to work with Republicans, Democrats and Charterites to focus their attention on issues of poverty and racial disparities.
After Lynch got a warm reception at a mostly white gathering of the New Urbanists Wednesday, co-founder Jeffrey L. Stec said Lynch "could be the one person who has the potential to bridge black and white Cincinnati."
Indeed, Lynch has amassed a number of key endorsements - especially from labor unions - and has picked up some $1,000 campaign contributions from the likes of class-action lawyer Stan Chesley and downtown planner Stan Eichelbaum.
Still, some of his positions are controversial. A major part of his campaign strategy is to get convicted felons - who often mistakenly believe they're not eligible to vote - to the polls. He has not renounced the boycott. He supports the Collaborative Agreement on police reform, though his Black United Front has walked away from the agreement.
Mayor Charlie Luken met Lynch at Taft High School's homecoming game last week. It was their first face-to-face meeting since Luken fired Lynch as co-chairman of his race-relations commission in 2001 because Lynch signed his name to a letter accusing police of "killing, raping (and) planting false evidence."
Asked about that meeting, Luken hesitated.
"What I've read and heard him saying on the trail is not unlike what other candidates are saying, including the incumbents," Luken said, measuring his words.
Luken said his differences with Lynch in 2001 were entirely political. There was never any personal grudge, he said. "He's actually a very approachable guy."
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