COLUMBUS: Ohio Republicans used a divide-and-conquer strategy to create new congressional and legislative districts that keep Democrats in their place — far behind Republicans.
They enacted the plans in 2011, an eternity ago in politics.
Just recently, the Republicans, who run everything at the Statehouse except the basement restaurant, may have overreached with new voting restrictions.
The restrictions — Republicans call them “reforms” — appear to have united the Democrats like only a presidential campaign occasionally does.
For African-Americans, a key part of the Democratic coalition, any voting restriction raises a bright red flag. Many blacks, especially those with roots in the South, remember when African-Americans couldn’t vote, period.
That red flag explains the difference between the GOP’s divide-and-conquer redistricting success and trouble on voting restrictions.
The contrasting reactions from former Democratic U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, the first African-American to win an Ohio U.S. House seat, to the two developments illustrates the problem the GOP has created for itself.
Stokes signed off on redistricting but is helping lead the charge against voting changes.
At 89, Stokes may not be familiar to younger Ohioans. He was a dominant figure, however, in Ohio and national politics and remains a grey eminence in the Cleveland area.
Stokes is the older brother of the late Carl Stokes, who as mayor of Cleveland became the first African-American mayor of a major city.
Carl had headline-grabbing charisma but Louis was the family’s long-distance runner. Long after Carl left the mayor’s office in 1971, Louis continued to build a 15-term career in the U.S. House until retiring in 1999.
Along the way he became the first African-American member of the powerful Appropriations Committee and used that position to bring in millions of dollars to Ohio. He successfully tackled tough jobs such as chairman of the Permanent Select Intelligence Committee.
There was a time, believe it or not, when Ohio Democrats showcased major officeholders statewide and nationally. Stokes, U.S. Sens. John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum and Gov. Richard F. Celeste were among them.
When the Republicans drafted their divide-and-conquer plan for U.S. House districts, Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, checked in with three veteran Cleveland African-American leaders — Stokes, Arnold Pinkney and George Forbes — according to a column by retired Plain Dealer editorial director Brent Larkin.
Batchelder met personally with Forbes and Pinkney while a phone call was placed to Stokes, according to Larkin.
“The old men were satisfied,” wrote Larkin.
The plan shafted Democrats generally, but accommodated African-Americans in particular.
It assured that one Cleveland-area district would almost certainly be represented by a minority member. It also created a Columbus-area district winnable for a minority.
As a result, Ohio, a politically competitive state, has 12 Republican U.S. House members and four Democratic members. Two Democrats — the Cleveland area’s Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty from the Columbus area — are black.
New state legislative districts also reflect the divide-and-conquer approach. Republicans control the Ohio House, 60-39, but 12 Democrats, nearly a third, are black. Republicans rule the Senate, 23-10, with the minority including five black Democrats.
Minority districts matter to Stokes. Historically, the state legislature diluted black voting strength by spreading black voters among several districts, making it hard for a minority candidate to win.
As a lawyer for the Cleveland NAACP, Stokes challenged this and won a precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decision. The “one-man, one-vote” decision resulted in the district to which Stokes was first elected in 1968.
It’s doubtful that Batchelder touched base with Stokes on voting restrictions. Stokes didn’t approve and made that clear in a recent fundraising letter for Ed FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive and likely Democratic candidate for governor.
Fundraising letters usually are filled with ghost-written hyperbole but Stokes’ sounded like something he wrote himself. He invoked the memory of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom Stokes first met in 1965. “He was traveling around Cleveland registering voters from the back of a flatbed truck,” wrote Stokes.
“He’d say that we must vote, because Southern blacks couldn’t. … So we registered voters, and we voted ourselves — and eventually, America expanded access to the ballot box and empowered citizens with a say in their future. That’s how each generation bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”
On paper, the new voting laws passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich appear to fall short of badly denying access. They eliminate the so-called “Golden Week” of early absentee voting, a period when people could both register and vote. Still, Ohio would have more early voting days than many states.
Separately, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted eliminated early voting on Sundays, following a bipartisan recommendation of county elections officials. This would end the successful “Souls to the Polls” campaigns that black churches have used to get out the vote.
Stokes cast it all as a giant step backward.
“Ohio Republican leaders are unraveling decades of progress expanding the vote,” he wrote. “Stand with me — and Ed — and let’s fight to ensure every Ohioan has the right to vote without restriction.”
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.