Cover Story: Mr. Yates Goes to Columbus

The ideologue returns to politics a more practical man

 
Jymi Bolden


Tyrone Yates says he wasn't aware of race as a child in Mt. Orab.



Tyrone Yates wasn't born in a suit. But he was fond of them at an early age. In fourth grade, when most kids will tear suits off their bodies, Yates would sometimes slip on his black, double-breasted Easter suit with pearl-white buttons. Then he'd try to slip out the door before his parents noticed and head to school at Frederick Douglass Elementary in Walnut Hills.

The Cincinnati City Council veteran can't remember why he did this. There might have been a special occasion. But he's sure of one thing.

"It was pretty sharp," Yates says. "I just always liked it. Everybody thought I looked like a little grown-up at 5 (years old)."

Tyrone Yates wasn't born in a suit. But he was fond of them at an early age. In fourth grade, when most kids will tear suits off their bodies, Yates would sometimes slip on his black, double-breasted Easter suit with pearl-white buttons. Then he'd try to slip out the door before his parents noticed and head to school at Frederick Douglass Elementary in Walnut Hills.

The Cincinnati City Council veteran can't remember why he did this. There might have been a special occasion. But he's sure of one thing.

"It was pretty sharp," Yates says. "I just always liked it. ... Everybody thought I looked like a little grown-up at 5 (years old)."

Yates, forced from council by term limits, has plenty of reasons to wear formal clothes these days. He's been a public defender in the juvenile court division for two years. He also took a board position with the Citizens Committee on Youth in late 2001.

Now, after a three-year break, he's getting back into politics. His sights are set on the 33rd District of Ohio, a heavily Democratic district with about 110,000 people in Cincinnati neighborhoods such as Walnut Hills and Evanston, plus the cities and villages of Deer Park, Norwood and St. Bernard. The district is essentially the same as the former 30th District, held by State Rep. Sam Britton before redistricting that followed the 2000 U.S. Census.

This is Yates' second effort to win a seat in the Ohio Legislature. In 1994 he lost to Republican Janet Howard in the 9th Ohio Senate District.

In the May 7 Democratic primary election for the 33rd District, Yates received 51 percent of the votes in a three-way race, fending off Cincinnati City Councilwoman Minette Cooper. Now he's facing former Deer Park Councilwoman Sandra Hall.

The odds seem to favor him. His name recognition is better, and some of his idealistic years on city council are aging well. Some of his stances seemed politically suicidal at the time, but today they're gaining an air of respect.

In trouble for taking stands
If you've heard of Yates, it's probably because of something he said or did during his four and one-half terms on city council from 1990 to 1999. His ideology of looking out for the little guy — and not always following political party platforms or conventional wisdom — set the course.

Yates ran but lost in the 1985 and 1987 council races. He ran for Congress in 1990 against Bill Gradison in the Second District, but lost again. But late that year the Charter Committee — the city's third political party — appointed him to replace Reggie Williams, a retired Bengals star.

The next year Yates won a council seat by spending $67,000, including about $30,000 on a billboard campaign. Most candidates focused on TV, but Yates couldn't afford it, so he approached Galvin Kemper Advertising for ideas on getting the most for his money.

Yates and Robbie Kemper, chief executive officer and creative director of the firm, came up with five or six adjectives describing Yates and used them on 44 billboards all over the city. The ads were simple, linking the candidate's name in bold letters with adjectives such as "independent" and "character," Yates says.

"It kind of caught everybody flat-footed," Kemper says.

No other candidates were using billboards that way, he says.

Yates came in ninth, 3,000 votes ahead of the next candidate. He never finished higher than seventh in his four successful races, and he never spent more than $67,000. In 1997 he spent as little as $35,000. Republican Phil Heimlich, by contrast, spent $456,000 to finish sixth that year.

"If you look at cost per vote, he's probably the most effective campaigner in the history of the city," says political consultant Jene Galvin, brother of Jerry Galvin of Galvin Kemper Advertising.

But Yates didn't play it safe as a councilman. You might remember that, in his opinion:

· City council should never have tried to keep the Ku Klux Klan from putting a cross on Fountain Square, because it was clearly constitutionally protected free speech. The courts later proved him right.

· The city shouldn't have paid for the funeral of slain Cincinnati Police Officer Daniel Pope, because other city benefits were more than enough to cover the costs.

· The city should hand expand its free condom distribution program.

Yates was often alone in his stances, at the short end of a debate or an 8-1 vote. Despite all this, it's difficult to find people who will say critical things about him. That has a lot to do with the fact that he listened to what his opponents said and never took personal jabs at them.

"He has his own way about thinking about things," says Tim Burke, co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "He gets himself in trouble by speaking his mind. ... And it's also when he demonstrates his greatest courage."

Jonathan Schiff, a fellow public defender working with juveniles, says Yates is deliberate in his approach to issues.

"He's the kind of person who very methodically approaches a problem and kind of chews on it the rest of his life," Schiff says. "He's very scholarly at the way he approaches problems."

Even political opponents have good things to say about Yates, as does Heimlich, a Republican councilman from 1993 to 2001, a candidate this year for the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners — and the chair of Hall's campaign against Yates.

"He never stooped to personal insults," Heimlich says. "He always gave everybody a chance to express his points of view — and he deserves credit for that."

Thomas C. White Jr., a fellow public defender, is another Republican who speaks well of Yates. He says Yates is one of the few politicians he knows who follows through on his promises and can be counted on to do what's right.

"I think he is one of the last of the statesmen," White says.

White says he never votes for Democrats.

"But I'd vote for Ty," he says. "I have confidence he's going to act in the best interest of the community and our people."

People who know Yates say he never gets very angry. But there are things that make him mad, such as people who use their positions to pick on those who are weaker.

"The thing that angers me is people who do things that are obviously unfair to people," he says. "People who don't tell the truth piss me off."

When asked for an example, Yates picks an easy target.

"I would have hated the Nazis," he says.

When asked for a local example, he's shy at first. Is he — a candidate for state office — afraid to name names?

"I'm not afraid," Yates says. "I'm like George Bush (Sr.) — prudent."

He might be outspoken, but he's aware of the delicate nature of political relationships.

Moments later he offers the stadium sales tax and the campaign for strengthening the position of mayor as situations in which the proponents, which included a heavy corporate hand, weren't completely honest. Yates still believes the "strong mayor" has too much power, but quickly footnotes the statement by saying he likes Mayor Charlie Luken.

Looking back, Yates has regrets, but not many. However, you get the feeling today he's a little more aware that a good public official does more than take a principled stand and let the chips fall.

"I think in some issues I tended to be ahead of public opinion," Yates says. "I could have spent more time preparing the public for issues."

Some ideas immediately conflict with peoples' values, such as free condoms. So you have to get them to put aside their knee-jerk reactions and listen to what you're saying, according to Yates.

"I think that, from time to time, being right isn't enough," he says.

Midnight run to the farm
Yates, a product of Walnut Hills, Mt. Orab and the University of Cincinnati, says he had a mind of his own long before he joined council.

"I wasn't a child who followed directions very well at all," he says. "I basically refused to do just about any chore I was asked to."

This created family tension, which he thought would probably lead to him becoming more belligerent. So in the middle of seventh grade, he sent himself to the 100-acre farm owned by his great-aunt and great-uncle, Virginia and Paul Wyly, in Mt. Orab, about 50 miles east of Cincinnati. He'd already spent the previous three summers visiting the farm.

Sometimes at night Yates drives his 1985 Nissan 200SX back to Mt. Orab just to take a look at the farm. He calls the trips "midnight runs," and he does them a couple of times a year. It's a way for him to reconnect with the years he spent there learning self-discipline.

One mild September evening, Yates takes Columbia Parkway to Ohio Route 32, then heads east for about 40 minutes, past the sprawl of Eastgate and through Clermont County.

"I've driven this 1,000 times," he says.

Well into farm country, he turns left onto Della Palma Road and enters a more nostalgic mood. He drives by farms split into small housing plots down a street that loses its center line a mile or two later. The roads are winding and the streetlights are infrequent.

Yates flips through his memories and points out the places they relate to. He rode the bus to school 11 miles a day along this road. He played youth baseball with the Green-Sterling Gremlins on that field.

The pavement narrows further as he turns left. There's the tree marking the beginning of the farm, Yates says. There's the creek where he used to pretend-fish. This is the grass he had to mow twice a week, and there is the field he had to plow in very straight lines.

"It had to be absolutely perfect," he says. If not, his great-uncle retrained him. Great-uncle Wyly wanted to have the best-looking farm around.

His great-uncle was also fond of asking to look at Yates' hand and saying, "I've got a pitchfork that will fit your hand," then sending him off to clean manure from the barn.

It's about 10 p.m. and the stars are out over his great-aunt's wide field of soybeans and corn. Driving by the farmhouse, Yates points to the outdoor light by the garage, the kitchen light and the likelihood that his great-aunt is watching TV. But he doesn't stop. His great-uncle died in 1999 of cancer.

His great-aunt is probably home, but the two haven't talked much since she sold the farm to the man who manages it. She didn't give Yates any warning.

"We're what you might call estranged," Yates says.

His great-aunt and great-uncle bought the farm in 1963 after owning a couple of smaller plots in the preceding several years.

Yates thought he would return to the farm one day.

"I would have hoped to have taken over the farm because of the relationship I had to it," he says.

Doubling back, the nostalgia trip progresses. He recalls Mt. Orab High School — now called Western Brown High School — where he was one of two or three black students in a student body of 400 and where he took on leadership positions, including president of his freshman class, despite his outsider background. Race generally took a back seat.

"I remember a few things said on the playground," Yates says. "I don't have a searing memory."

But he does remember something an Ohio Highway Patrol driving-test administrator said. Yates was nervous and forgot to lock his car door. The instructor noticed, pointed it out and said Yates should have locked it.

"I'm telling you this because you never know when a black person's going to jump in," the instructor said — except he used a cruder term than "black person."

Yates never told his great-aunt or great-uncle about the incident, because he didn't think it was worth the turmoil it would have caused. His great-uncle would have reported it.

Others during that era weren't so forgiving. Race riots spread around the country in 1967. But they were far away from the farm, and Yates watched them on TV.

"I had very little awareness of the concept of race really until I went to college," he says.

His great-aunt and great-uncle were race-conscious, but farm families relied on each other so much it seemed race took a back seat.

"My notion was that it wasn't very important," Yates says.

That changed at UC in the mid-1970s when he took an African-American history class that focused on the 20th century. UC is also where Yates met one of his best friends, Michael Coleman, now the mayor of Columbus. The two met at a party early in college in 1973. They clicked instantly.

"We would read books about JFK and watch movies like The Making of the President," Coleman says.

They often talked about the issues of the day and how the world could be better if certain things happened.

"We still do it to this very day," Coleman says.

The pair ran for president and vice president of the student body on a Yates/ Coleman ticket. Yates won, but Coleman didn't.

"It broke my heart," Yates says.

Both went on to law school, Yates at the University of Toledo and Coleman at the University of Dayton. But they still drop everything to help each other and they remain philosophically close.

"We both have the belief — deep, deep belief — that the best and most important thing we could do in our lives is public service," Coleman says.

Coleman is also still an idealist, but his idealism has taken the form of a vision for the future of Columbus.

"Being mayor, you have to have results," he says. "You must have results."

Yates graduated from law school in 1981 and went to work for the Ohio Attorney General's Office. Two years later he became an assistant attorney general. He left in 1987.

In the past two years, his work almost exclusively revolved around young people. Yates sees a lot of different cases in juvenile court, from robberies to vandalism to curfew violations. He believes this is the time when young people can be turned around.

"I see myself as a kind of instant teacher," he says.

One of 16 public defenders in the juvenile section, Yates has often asked judges to require children to get library cards and to assign them book reports, including Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. He suggested a 13-year-old girl read Nancy Drew mysteries.

Yates believes more could be done in prevention with the $16,000 a year it costs to hold a kid in a juvenile jail.

"You could have sent these children to some of the finest colleges in the country," he says. "We spend a lot of money on children here."

The same goes for the $30,000 a year it costs to keep adults in prison.

So how does he know which kids need to read and which need punishment?

"As a public defender, you can tell," Yates says.

Some kids have a history of emotional turmoil and abuse, while others come from more stable backgrounds but still break the law.

"Then it's time to take a stronger position," he says.

Not afraid to apologize
History guides Yates like few other forces in his life. When he's facing difficult decisions, he'll think about what other people did in similar tough situations. He's fascinated with one historical moment in particular.

He is working on a book about John F. Kennedy and James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student at the University of Mississippi.

Kennedy was a politician, but he held the moral high ground when he was the center of attention, according to Yates.

"And I admire the hell out of that," he says.

In 1962 Kennedy ordered 22,000 federal troops to the University of Mississippi to make sure Meredith would get in. It was a radical move for the President.

"There wasn't anything in his background of civil rights that suggested that action," Yates says. "He was a moderate who had southern friends and southern support."

Yates intended to buy only three or four books for the Kennedy/Meredith project and use the library for the rest.

"But I wanted to buy more and more of the books," he says.

He often checks the Kennedy section at the Ohio Book Store on Main Street for new books. He's bought more than 100 for the project. They have taken over a corner of the floor in his small apartment in the Edgecliff, an East Walnut Hills high-rise, which also serves as campaign headquarters.

The building is a formal-feeling place with a doorman and well-decorated lobby. But Yates is living like a college student in what might be the smallest apartment in the building.

In the middle of one September afternoon, with his regular morning shift at the public defender's office finished, Yates checks e-mail on his laptop computer. It's a small, C-shaped apartment, with three overflowing bookcases with two shelves each near the front door, a mound of books on the parquet wood floor and five filing cabinets. He has two desks, one with a desktop computer and one with a laptop.

A bed with a futon mattress sits in one corner. A CD is playing — The World's Greatest Sacred Hymns — and a breeze gently jostles the closed blinds, bringing a peaceful feel to the space. It's a place where you could get some thinking done.

The soaring vocals of a choir suddenly drown out the tapping of keys and the breeze.

"Isn't that beautiful?" Yates asks.

On the wall is a Chariots of Fire poster and a large picture of a contemplative JFK. There are also boxes of campaign material, newspapers and much more on the two desktops, the filing cabinets and the floor.

Yates moved here several months before his four-year marriage to Veronica Chapman ended in November 1999.

"I think I paid far too much attention to my political role and not enough to my marriage," Yates says, adding that he still gets along with his former wife, who supports his campaigns.

Chapman wanted to be more involved in making decisions about his political career, according to Yates. He didn't want her to take on that responsibility.

"I didn't want my wife to be a political wife," he says.

Yates would like to take back a couple of his council votes. He regrets siding with four other council members to fire City Manager Gerald Newfarmer in 1993. He also regrets not voting to make council veteran Bobbie Sterne chair of the Finance Committee around the same time. Sterne served on council as a Charterite for 25 years between 1971 and 1998.

"It was a bad decision," Yates says, adding he later apologized to Sterne.

He also spoke to Newfarmer, who has contributed $150 to Yates' campaign.

His decision to leave the Charter Committee in 1993 to join the Democrats was much more about souring relationships than political opportunities, he says.

City council in the mid-1990s was very hard on the city manager and lacked a clear, forward-thinking vision for the city, according to Sterne.

"It was a difficult time," she says. "And a lot of it was difficult for Tyrone for the same reason."

Yates couldn't be counted on automatically for a "black" vote, such as opposing the Klan cross on Fountain Square, Sterne says.

What would JFK do?
At an August fund-raising event at the Dubliner, an Irish bar and grill in Pleasant Ridge, Yates is having a great time. He's circulating around the small banquet room in the back and half-seriously announcing guests as they arrive.

Half of the local Democratic Party seems to be there, including Luken, Burke, State Sen. Mark Mallory and city councilmen John Cranley and David Pepper.

Near the end of the event, Yates again turns to Kennedy to sum up his goals as a state representative. Kennedy had a deep distaste for lobbyists, Yates says. Kennedy often asked people if their phone bills, utility bills or other expenses were any cheaper.

Every interest has a lobbyist in Washington except the citizens, Kennedy once said.

"I intend to be your lobbyist in Washington, D.C.," Kennedy said.

Right now there are 50 lobbyists for every elected official in Columbus, according to Yates. People representing real estate interests, the energy industry, organized labor and teachers have already contacted him.

Yates, like Kennedy, intends to be the citizens' lobbyist.

"That's what my role has got to be," he says.

John Gilligan, the honorary co-chair of Yates' campaign, remembers the creation of the Ohio Lottery in the early 1970s, when Gilligan was governor. Legislators promoted it as a way to fund schools. But when Ohio recently joined a multi-state lottery, legislators quietly passed an amendment routing half of the money to the state's general fund.

Legislators have lost faith in voters, according to Gilligan.

"They don't think you can tell the truth and get elected," he says.

Yates, if elected, will test that theory.

Yates is a refined politician, careful when talking to the press. But even after his years on the farm, on city council and practicing law, there's still a bit of that young, disobedient Tyrone Yates left.

His apartment is cluttered from wall to wall, and he went six months without cleaning his bathroom. He finally called a cleaning service to take care of it. ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.