Saturday, November 29, 2003

Smitherman blunt, bold and ambitious

Charterite criticizes police - and sympathizes

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NORTH AVONDALE - Christopher Smitherman grew up wanting to be an FBI agent and was a criminal justice major at Ohio State University.

Christopher Smitherman celebrated after hearing that he was elected to city council.
(Jeff Swinger/file photo)
But growing up in Cincinnati, he said, he's been the victim of racial profiling more times than he can count.

In a city where politicians are quickly labeled "pro-police" or "anti-police," the councilman-elect won't be getting any invitations to the Fraternal Order of Police picnic. He's been critical of the culture of the Cincinnati Police Department and has questioned the police chief's leadership.

A radio commercial for his successful City Council campaign started with the sound of a siren followed by Smitherman's voice: "There's a reason our children run when they hear that sound."

"The police force - they are truly at the core of the African-American community's frustration," he said in an interview days before his swearing-in Monday as a Cincinnati City Council member. "You have a 21-year-old white officer who's never had an African-American friend in his life, and you dump him off in Over-the-Rhine at 3 a.m. and say, 'Police it.' We don't prepare our officers."

During the campaign he spoke often about his worries about what might happen to his four young sons when they grow up.

After one incident in which he said an officer treated his wife rudely, they went down to the police district and complained to a supervisor. "The mediation process was horrible. He told Pamela, 'I always support my officers.' We'll never do that again."

"I am very, very sympathetic to the hard job police officers have to do out there. I want them to get drug dealers off the streets," he said. "Drive down Gilbert Avenue and tell me how many officers you see walking down the street. They're driving by in cruisers, but there's nothing like seeing them walking. That's what grandma needs to see."

While other city officials shun boycott activists like Kabaka Oba and Nathaniel Livingston Jr., Smitherman has gone out of his way to meet with them - even spending 15 minutes talking to them at an Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce meeting last week.

"You can't dehumanize people. You can't say their constituency is irrelevant," he said. "But believe me, I'm going to hold people accountable. I won't put up with people who come to City Council and cuss people out, no matter who they are."

Smitherman also called Mary Kuhl, a conservative Westwood activist who was less than welcoming of Smitherman during the campaign. He called it "relationship building."

"He seems like a pleasant individual with some fresh energy and fresh ideas," Kuhl said after getting a call from the councilman-elect. "I disagree with Christopher's reaching out to some radical goofballs who represent five people, but everyone has their own way of doing things. In two or three microseconds, he's going to be called names and vilified."

As a Charter Committee candidate who campaigned on "racial reconciliation" as his top priority, Smitherman said he knows what a tightrope the issue can be.

"I work every day to avoid falling into that cesspool of being consumed by race," he said. "There are just as many African-American pimps out there as there are white pimps."

Smitherman is as ambitious as he is blunt.

Asked what his political goal is, he didn't hesitate a moment. "I want to be president of the United States," he said. The tone in his voice added, "Doesn't everybody?"

Smitherman, 36, won't settle for being a millionaire. He wants to be a "decamillionaire" - and the fact that he knows the word for someone worth $10 million suggests he's put some thought into it.

He won't say how far he has to go to reach that goal, but said he had saved his first $100,000 by age 26, when he was a residence hall director at Bowling Green State University. His wealth comes mostly through investments - he made $60,000 last year as a financial planner, according to a financial disclosure report filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission.

"People ask, 'How wealthy do you want to be?' Well, Bill Gates is a good start," he said. "One of my dreams is to take over a publicly traded company. I want to swing for the fences."

His partner, Eric Daley, doesn't doubt it.

"If he doesn't reach those levels, it won't be because of a lack of effort," he said. "I don't know if the guy can slow down. I really don't. I've been with him on what was supposed to be a vacation, and he's always got his cell phone and pager. He's always in touch."

That never-stop ethic almost killed him during the campaign. He was sidelined with a hernia from May to July, and had emergency surgery in early June.

But few people outside his campaign's inner circle knew there was anything wrong. Campaign help came from his wife, his siblings, his parents and 94-year-old grandmother. So close is the Smitherman clan that they were named "Family of the Year" at the Black Family Reunion this year.

Vital statistics

Christopher Smitherman
Neighborhood: North Avondale
Age: 36
Occupation: Financial planner
Party: Charter Committee
Family: Wife, Pamela; sons Christopher II, Malcolm, Isaac and Caleb
Athletic activity: Running
Political hero: Tyrone K. Yates
Top issue: Racial reconciliation
Career ambition: President of the United States



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