City council candidates endorsed by Akron's mayor are mobilizing more than 100 Bhutanese-Americans in North Hill in an effort to sweep the May 7 primary election with mail-in ballots from first-time voters.
Balloting by mail, as well as in-person early voting at the board of elections, began April 9. Five days later, the number of requests for absentee ballots had jumped 139 percent in North Hill and Chapel Hill compared to the first week of early voting in 2015. Collectively known as Ward 2, these two North Akron neighborhoods are home to 11 percent of the city’s population and, so far, 46 percent of all requests for early ballots.
Behind the impressive early turnout are the names of 144 Bhutanese-Americans who did not vote early in 2015, according to Summit County voting records. Four years ago, many of these political refugees had been in Akron, and America, less than 10 years, not yet eligible to become U.S. citizens.
Persecuted, disenfranchised and chased from their native country of Bhutan, they've flourished in Akron, even stemming the city’s population decline.
Now they’re being recruited by local campaigns into the ranks of the Democratic Party.
The registration drive involved the campaigns to elect city council at-large candidates Jeff Fusco, Ginger Baylor and Marilyn Keith and Phil Lombardo, a first-time candidate challenging Councilman Bruce Kilby to represent Ward 2.
No fan of Kilby, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan has endorsed Fusco, Baylor, Keith and Lombardo.
Fusco said the coalition hired a Nepali interpreter. Campaign supporters and volunteers stood outside Patterson Park Community Center on the last two days of March when the Bhutanese people voted for local leaders in annual elections that turn out almost every member of the community.
“These guys were sitting outside of where people were voting,” Madhu Parajuli said. “And they were helping people register and they were campaigning. Some of my family members actually got registered.”
Parajuli, a cultural liaison for Nepali refugees and a former official at the Bhutanese Community Association, said his neighbors were asked about their citizenship. If eligible to vote, they were helped with voter registration forms and applications to request absentee ballots.
“They didn’t say much, just, ‘Hey, this is how to register,’ ” Parajuli said.
Two weeks later, these newly franchised Americans received a letter from Lombardo’s campaign. The mailer, translated so the Bhutanese could understand, said, “You will be receiving your official Democratic primary election ballot in the mail very soon.” Below was a list of mayor-endorsed candidates, arranged like an absentee ballot with ovals darkened beside their names.
Critics speak out
While the voter drive has brought new citizens into the American political process, Kilby and the Rev. Greg Harrison, who is challenging Mayor Horrigan in the Democratic primary, question the timing and tactics.
It’s not clear whether the Bhutanese-Americans were given the choice to pull a Republican ballot or were informed of opponents in the race when they interacted with campaign workers.
“I’m not sure these Nepali people have an understanding of our party politics,” Kilby said. “It looks like they are being used by my opponent to win an election.”
Horrigan’s campaign said it did not participate in the Bhutanese voter drive. His administration spearheaded a recent effort to declare Akron a “Welcoming Community” for immigrants, but stopped short of embracing the sanctuary city status adopted in other cities.
Lombardo said he treated the gathering of Bhutanese people like any other opportunity to win because “Ward 2 residents deserve better.”
“I just want to cover every base that I can,” he said. “I’m trying to reach any event in North Hill to get my message out.”
Harrison took issue with the timing of the voter registration drive.
“I think that [Bhutanese-Americans] should be included in the voting process,” he said. “But if this was a legitimate effort to be inclusive … then they should have [registered these new voters] before they had a personal interest as candidates in the upcoming election.”
“I think they’ve exploited a population that’s here [in America] because they’ve been exploited [in Southeast Asia],” said Harrison, who is black. “It’s a personal hurt that minority candidates are OK with this, given our history of being deprived fair opportunity through the election process.
“We know more so than any nondominant population how important voting is.”
At the Summit County Board of Elections, Deputy Director Paula Sauter was not surprised to see early reports on absentee ballot requests pointing to Ward 2. Kilby, whose critics call him a “master” at mustering early votes, and Lombardo have been at the main election office on Grant Street dropping off stacks of early ballot applications nearly every day, Sauter said.
Sauter’s staff processes the applications then mails out the ballots. When they arrive, only voters should handle the ballots, she stressed. Never give them to candidates, she advised.
Every vote matters
Kilby has been on and off city council for 23 years.
Remapping drew him out of his old ward. Having failed at running citywide, he survived a recount in 2015 to win Ward 2 by nine votes. He beat Councilman Jim Hurley, whose brother-in-law, Lombardo, is leaving nothing to chance this time around.
The longtime FirstEnergy Corp. accountant tracks every road in Ward 2, even the few side streets he discovered while campaigning down all 210 of them.
“I need to continue to walk the pavement and hit more houses. And we’ve got more daylight,” Lombardo said Sunday in a rushed phone conversation before canvassing Collinwood Avenue — No. 191 on his list.
Lombardo documents residents who agree to take a yard sign or apply for a ballot by mail. He takes the ballot applications by the bundle to the board of elections, returns with the yard sign and mails out voter reminders when he knows the board of elections has started to send out the ballots.
“We chase these absentees,” Kilby said. “It’s gonna be a horse race and I think the absentee ballot is going to be the deciding factor.”
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.