By Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writer
The first debate between Fanon Rucker and Joe Deters had barely begun last week when someone asked a question about race.
The two candidates for Hamilton County prosecutor were ready for it.
Rucker, the first African-American to run for the job, told the crowd that the prosecutor has "an obligation to treat everyone the same." Deters, a former prosecutor, said anyone who holds the job must be "color blind."
Both men downplayed the importance of race in their answers, but the quick question at the debate was a reminder that it's an issue neither can ignore.
In the past three years, Cincinnati has endured riots, boycotts, racial profiling lawsuits and complaints from civil rights leaders that the county's justice system is unfair to African-Americans.
"For the first time in a long time the prosecutor's race is being talked about," said the Rev. Damon Lynch, a Cincinnati civil rights activist who backs Rucker. "It's on the radar screen of the voting public."
For years, it wasn't. The county's Republican Party has dominated the office for so long that Democrats sometimes didn't bother to field a candidate.
That changed this year when Republican incumbent Prosecutor Mike Allen dropped out in the wake of a sex scandal involving a female employee. The move left no one on the ballot and opened the door for Rucker, a Cincinnati lawyer, and Deters, Ohio's treasurer, to run as write-in candidates.
Both campaigns have focused on the candidates' experience and their differences on issues, such as the death penalty and the prosecution of juvenile offenders.
But as it did at the debate, race is a subject that always seems to find its way into the conversation.
One reason is the candidates themselves. Rucker is not just the first African-American to run for the office, but he is taking on a white candidate who is one of the most visible symbols of Republican power in Hamilton County.
It's a match-up that excites black voters, most of whom are Democrats like Rucker.
"The African-American community is really turned on," said Tim Burke, chairman of the county's Democratic Party.
But the candidates' skin color isn't the only reason race matters. The way black and white voters view the justice system is a factor as well.
An Enquirer poll in 2001 found that 69 percent of African-Americans in Greater Cincinnati do not believe law enforcement treats minorities "fairly and with respect," while 68 percent of whites said minorities are treated with respect.
"That's been the case over time," said Nathaniel Jones, a retired federal judge who's been active in civil rights issues. "It's a culture that causes African-Americans to distrust the prosecutor."
While they acknowledge the prosecutor is often the focus of arguments over race and justice, Allen, Deters and others who have worked in the office have repeatedly said that criticism is unfair.
Deters said he was even-handed when he ran the office for nearly seven years in the 1990s, and that he would be again if elected.
"If you're a good prosecutor," he said, "it shouldn't matter what color the offender or the victim is."
Jones, Lynch and others say the racial divide over law enforcement is rooted in fundamental differences of opinion on social issues, prison reform, the death penalty and politics.
Those differences, they say, often are exacerbated in Hamilton County because the party most African-Americans identify with - the Democrats - has struggled in countywide elections for judgeships and the prosecutor's office.
Republican leaders point out that the GOP has in recent years supported several qualified African-Americans, three of whom now serve as judges on the Common Pleas court.
"The party has aggressively recruited African-American candidates," said Mike Barrett, chairman of the county GOP.
Of the 122 lawyers in the prosecutor's office, four are African-American. Deters said the numbers were better during his seven years on the job, but the office has never had more than 10 African-American prosecutors at one time.
Despite aggressive recruitment, Deters said, the pool of job candidates is small because fewer than 5 percent of all lawyers in Greater Cincinnati are black.
"That's just the reality," Deters said. "I do think it's important that we have African-Americans in those positions."
Ross Wright, a Cincinnati lawyer and former assistant prosecutor, said he and other African-Americans were treated well under Deters. Wright said he knows some believe the office is biased against African-Americans, but he said he never saw evidence of it.
Sometimes, he said, he encountered that attitude among relatives and friends when he told them about his job as a prosecutor.
"They'd say, 'Oh, you put people in jail,' Wright said. "Instead of looking at it like we need to find those criminals and get them off the street, it's that you're working for 'the man' ".
Although the candidates can't help but talk about racially charged legal issues, both say their philosophical differences are more important than their race.
Mia Levy, an African-American lawyer who volunteers for Rucker's campaign, said she was drawn to the candidate's stand on the issues, not his skin color.
"Fanon is the perfect candidate for what he believes in, not because he's black," she said at a recent meet-the-candidates night in Mount Washington.
But Rucker said there's no doubt his race has helped generate interest among African-Americans.
"Everyone is excited," he said. "It has been an overwhelming feeling."
Even with the support, Rucker knows he has a tough week ahead. But win or lose, his supporters and even some of his political foes say his candidacy is good for the county.
"I think the mere fact he's mounted a campaign and is airing issues that haven't been aired, I think that's healthy," Jones said. "It can bring about a significant change in the culture."
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