Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Few minorities on suburb ballots

Despite major shifts in population

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BRENTWOOD - In a middle-class neighborhood of New England-style cottages, Springfield Township Trustee Gwen McFarlin knocks on a door on this warm evening.Deborah Dunning, a mother of two, answers.

"My name is Gwen McFarlin, and I'm your elected trustee," she says, hand extended, smile wide.

"Oh, Hi!" is Dunning's excited response. "I've seen your picture so many times. So glad to meet you!"

It's a scene typical in local politics. Dunning leans against the door frame and starts discussing community and family issues.

But this scene is unusual for another reason: McFarlin, the only African-American elected trustee of a large Ohio township, is one of the few racial-minority candidates in this November's local elections in the suburbs of Cincinnati.

That's a big concern for political parties and voters alike. As minorities have moved into Cincinnati's suburbs in droves during the past decade, their political representation - on township boards of trustees, on city councils, on county commissions - hasn't quite kept up.

"I'm here to blaze a trail, and I hope other minority candidates will follow," said McFarlin, also an executive co-chair of Hamilton County's Democratic Party. "We need to have our local governments reflect our diverse communities. Lots of minorities in the suburbs feel disenfranchised. They feel their voice doesn't make a difference."

Often, political analysts say, that's because blacks, Hispanics and Asians in Cincinnati's suburbs look at their local ballot and see few faces that resemble theirs - and few platforms that reflect their concerns.

"It affects people's perceptions of government if nobody who looks like me and appreciates my concerns is on the ballot," said Art Slater, the political action chair for the Ohio Conference of Branches for the NAACP. "Hopelessness sets in about people's place in government. The growth and concentration of the minority populations (in the suburbs) is going to demand the politics of the area change, and soon."

• It's too late to file for the November elections, but there's always another election coming.
• A quick lesson on how to become a Republican- or Democrat-endorsed candidate for local elections:
• Call your local party headquarters (in Hamilton County, it's 513-381-5454 for the Republicans, 513-421-0495 for the Democrats) and tell them which office you want to run for.
• The party will call you in for a short interview to figure if your views are appropriate for the office.
• Parties typically look for name recognition, business savvy, and speaking ability.
• Then they will tell you if they will endorse you.
• "Everyone has that fear of going into a race, but it's not like you need a law degree to run for office," said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "It's as simple as placing a phone call and saying you want to run. That gets the ball rolling."
Hamilton County's non-white population has increased nearly 5 percent during the past decade, now making up more than a quarter of the county, and the most recent census figures show a less-concentrated population of minorities as more African-Americans have moved to suburbs. And minority populations are jumping in suburbs in Butler, Warren and Clermont counties. But minority political representation lags behind that growth.

"Both parties need to work harder to encourage people to be part of the political process," said Tim Burke, the chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "But it's tougher in the suburbs, especially for the Democrats because we don't have much of a base. There's a more diverse minority population in Hamilton County now, and with time, that will change the face of politics here."

Mike McNamara, spokesman for the Butler County GOP, stressed that the party is always open to having minority Republicans on the ballot.

"We're always looking for the opportunity to bring young, new blood into the party, whether female or male, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, white, African-American, Asian or Hispanic," McNamara said. "We're a party of ideology, not of color."

One Republican officeholder, West Chester Township trustee Jose Alvarez, agrees, saying he has no more contact with residents of his ethnicity than any other.

"The way I look at it, race is a non-issue," said Alvarez, who is Hispanic and also a member of the central committee for the Butler County Republican Party.

Burke cites recent progress in political diversity in the county's suburbs. In Forest Park, Lincoln Heights and Woodlawn, the majority African-American governments reflect the majority African-American communities there.

In Springfield Township, which is nearly 30 percent African-American, McFarlin represents an African-American population that has increased more than 7 percent over the past decade.

Some say the struggle isn't finding minorities to run for local political office, it's finding anyone to run for local political office.

"The one thing that strikes me about this year's elections is how few races are contested once you get outside the city," said Gene Beaupre, who teaches political science at Xavier University.

He believes finding minorities to run for local office is especially tough because many are relatively new to their communities.

"Why, as a minority, when I am trying to establish myself in a community, would I barge in and try to change things among people who have lived in the area for a long time?" Beaupre said.

Patience, some say, is the key when looking at the lack of minority candidates.

"We are constantly, constantly, constantly trying to find candidates in the county, but it's really difficult," said Adam Rosenberg, executive director for the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "There are people (in the suburbs) who still see themselves as a minority based on their skin color instead of seeing themselves as part of a majority because they're Americans."

E-mail rforgrave@enquirer.com

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